How to Keep Your Association Out of Technical Debt

One of the first lessons of responsible ‘adulting’ is staying out of credit card debt, especially if you already have student loan debt. But sometimes you end up learning this lesson the hard way. When you ignore debt, the interest keeps piling up and soon the balance seems impossible to pay.

Associations are learning hard lessons too about technical debt. Every day you ignore technical debt, the balance grows larger and more unsustainable.

What is technical debt?

The ‘technical debt’ concept comes from software development. Technical debt results when coding shortcuts are taken. The fastest solution is chosen instead of the best solution. When you lay a shaky code foundation, it’s costly to dig your way out. Sometimes, you have to throw out the code and start over.

A famous example of technical debt happened in the years leading up to 2000 aka Y2K. Many developers coded dates as MM/DD/YY. As 2000 approached, countless organizations, including the federal government, had to update their code to the format they should have used in the first place, MM/DD/YYYY. The total cost of Y2K repair work was more than $300 billion—more than $445 billion in today’s dollars.

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Causes of technical debt in associations

When you hear association professionals complain about their technology, it’s often a sign of technical debt. In associations, the problem is caused not just by software they developed, but by all the systems they implemented over the years.

Lack of technology strategy and consultation

When departments do their own thing, they often focus on their own short-term needs, not sustainable solutions for the entire organization. Without technology and project management expertise, departments can make poor decisions. They’re often unaware of the best approaches to technology selection and implementation.

Dangerous frugality

In some associations, policy says you have to choose the lowest bidder—a terrible practice. Low-cost solutions that fit meager budgets are often more costly in the long run.

Cutting corners during and after projects

Technical debt is inevitable when:

•    Software requirements are missing input from key users.
•    Systems are launched without meeting all requirements and the promised Phase 2 of the project never receives a budget.
•    Nothing is budgeted for software documentation, continual user training, and future upgrades.

Legacy and customized systems

In the association world, technical debt, especially with AMSes, is common when ancient software is too costly to update or integrate with other systems. At first, a homegrown database seems to provide everything an association needs. But, you’re dependent on the developer and limited by their expertise. If the code isn’t flexible enough to adapt to your association’s evolving needs, you’re stuck in a time warp.

Customization can throw you off the upgrade path. To download upgrades, you have to pay a developer to rewrite your code so it’s compatible with new releases.

Older versions of software or operating systems are no longer supported. The risk of cybersecurity attacks increases if you can no longer apply patches.

Customized or older systems may not allow you to integrate with other software—unless you can afford to pay developers to make it happen.

Impact of technical debt on associations

Wasting money and time. The interest you pay on technical debt is the cost in dollars and staff time to work around or repair it. You have to pay developers to make it possible for you to download upgrades and make integrations. Staff has to spend time fixing bugs and jerry-rigging processes, instead of doing strategic work.

Lack of data integrity. When you can’t integrate systems, you end up with siloed data, redundant data entry, and manual processes. Data can’t be shared and leveraged for insight. With so many data sources, which data do you trust? Which is the right version?

Poor user experience. You can’t meet member and customer expectations for online experiences. Your website, member portal, or LMS might not be mobile responsive, or you can’t use Single Sign-On (SSO) to integrate your LMS and AMS. An antiquated-feeling experience makes members wonder about the safety of their personal data.

Lagging behind the market. Your association is slow-to-market. Technology limits your ability to modernize and make improvements. The competition for your members and customers’ wallets and attention is leaving you behind.

Lousy staff morale. Staff become frustrated and embarrassed by your technology. Associations can expect to have some technical debt, after all, you most likely don’t have the resources to stay on the absolute cutting edge, but too much technical debt is dangerous.

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How to prevent technical debt

Focus on technology strategy and prioritization. An organization-wide technology strategy helps you make the best decisions about direction and resource allocation. You’ll know which selections and implementations to prioritize. Efforts are coordinated and not squandered separately.

Understand the requirements process. Learn how to identify, prioritize, and document system requirements. Either provide a budget to help staff acquire these skills or hire outside help.

Anticipate the future. Understand the strategic direction of your organization and professional development programs. Get familiar with trends in professional development and online learning. How does your technology need to change to help your association fulfill its mission and keep up with market expectations?

Pick a forward-thinking partner. Discuss your ideas for the future with potential vendors so you can find out who can meet your existing requirements and help you move into the future.

Choose SaaS. Avoid customization by selecting SaaS technology. When all clients use the same codebase, they all benefit from frequent updates and new features and functionality.

Look at vendor roadmaps. Examine their history of updates. Find out how they decide what to include in updates. How much do they rely on client feedback?

Learn from vendors. Think of technology vendors as partners who can educate you. Find out how their software is developed. Ask about the pros and cons of different approaches. Don’t think this topic is beyond you. If you’re reading this, you have a growth mindset. You can figure out enough about software development to make good decisions. When in doubt, ask your IT staff for help.

Ask about the vendor’s philosophy on customer success. How will your relationship and communication patterns change after implementation? How will they help you get the most value out of the system? How will they learn about your evolving needs?

Stay in the know. Cultivate a network of association peers so together you can learn what’s possible with technology, understand what the market expects, and see what’s on the horizon.

Expand your knowledge. Don’t make assumptions based on limited knowledge. Talk to a wide range of vendors and consultants at conferences, trade shows, user conferences, industry demos, and other events. Ask vendors to educate you so when you’re ready to think about selection, you know what’s what.

It’s easy to slide into debt and not realize how deep you’re in it until it’s too late. Think through the implications of the technology decisions you’re making. You’re better off taking the difficult, sustainable and strategic route than going for easy wins.

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