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The 7 Deadly Sins of Technical Debt

An only-slightly unserious look into the human behaviors and instincts that lead to the build-up of ultimately harmful technical debt in our organizations.


In many ways, the tech industry reflects the human condition. We’re imperfect creatures and so the technology estates we build are equally flawed. They’re useful, but difficult to live with. They’re big, but familiar. They attract the good and the bad.

Annually, most corporate networks get more complex as new technologies are introduced to the mix. Some are necessary, but most (if we’re honest) are discretionary. They masquerade as the former but often turn out to be a technical debt of some sort. Unmanaged or redundant or not fully depreciated.

So, what are the human behaviors and instincts that lead to the build-up of all the technical debt that surrounds us? Psychologically, what is it deep within us that triggers so much of this unintended waste?

These are the seven deadly sins of technical debt. Check them out and see if you can spot similar tendencies and traits within your teams or fellow departments. Who knows, some of them may even apply to you. None of us are perfect!

1. Lust

We’re all subject to the desire for more money, wealth, and status. These are the hallmarks of ambition and, if tapped correctly, can lead to business growth and improvement. But intense longing for technologies and solutions that you don’t need is the number one reason why IT estates become bloated and unwieldy. Examine whether your investments are backed by a real, long-term business plan to depreciate assets over time. A quick look at the total cost of ownership is often all it takes to resist lustful temptations.

2. Gluttony

Overconsumption is the primary outcome of technical debt. The advent of cloud architectures and subscription models has triggered a massive overindulgence in software, storage, and compute resources. Businesses have gorged on SaaS to the point where the data and network demands have become an unnecessary cost burden and a health risk to the business. Too much technology is a real thing and it’s one reason why many CIOs are looking to rationalize the tech stack. Can you cajole your business to adhere to a “one in, one out” strategy to keep the gluttonous behavior at bay?

3. Greed

The pursuit of material possessions affects us all – personally and professionally. We like our ‘enterprise-grade’ platforms, applications, and devices. We love our on-premise, low-latency data centers. We covet our over-specified MacBooks and iPhones. We upgrade and replace without a second thought. To counter this vice, you’ll need to convey to everyone the importance and true meaning of obsolescence. If the OEM hasn’t stopped supporting it, maybe you shouldn’t too.

4. Sloth

As humans, we have our ups and our downs. Our productive periods and our complacent ones. This can manifest in disinterest or apathy towards certain topics and tasks. It can make us disinclined to exert ourselves. The pile-up of technical debt over many years is a clear signal that key projects – like upgrading the network and infrastructure – are all too often delayed and deferred. This form of slothful behavior merely puts off the inevitable and introduces more corporate risk and vulnerability. Isn’t it time that you fixed the roof while the sun is still shining?

5. Wrath

Impatience is a big reason why tech sprawl exists. Non-IT, customer-facing areas of the business will always prioritize their productivity over the business’s need to protect itself. Shadow IT is simply a consequence of the IT function not supporting or communicating with the business well enough. You’re simply dealing with rogue behavior because of too many controls and too little education. If you want to prevent the spin-up of unauthorized apps and the use of personal accounts or credentials for work business, don’t strike out in revenge. Identify the biggest internal frustrations (on both sides) and work with a line of business leaders to set boundaries that both parties can comfortably work within.

6. Envy

Insatiable desires like greed and lust are often fleeting moments of weakness and the same holds true for envy. We look at fellow departments and wonder why they’re able to grow budgets and team resources every year. It happens outside of IT and occurs within it too. The Security team invests in a new platform for endpoint detection and the IT Ops or Risk team wants the same. Except that they engage in a game of one-upmanship by choosing a different, but similar, tool of choice. One that they can call their own. This is a perfect example of technical debt created by the very people chosen to manage it down. The ease with which we can add technologies to the estate is a big reason why envy continues to thrive. Curb this by setting clear policies for streamlining the tech stack and encouraging the use of shared platforms.

7. Pride

If you could cut open a business like the cross-section of a tree trunk, you’d see the rings of its growth. You’d see its age, strength, and quality. You’d see its good years and bad years. Technology audits can achieve much the same thing, but only if you’re prepared to cut deeply enough to locate the technical debts and identify what they’re eating into. Pride is generally what stops us from doing so. Most senior IT leaders are only ‘in post’ for 3-5 years, which means that a succession of IT strategies have been devised and deployed over many decades. At some point, somebody needs to swallow the pride pill, put the hubris aside, and deal with the long-standing tech debt problems. Take pride in ending it, not avoiding it.

For more insights and viewpoints about how to tackle technical debt issues in the financial services industry, download our latest eBook here.

Erik Gaston

Erik Gaston is a CIO, VP of Global Executive Engagement at Tanium. He's spent most of his career as a CIO/CTO, leading large global organizations on Wall Street and in the tech and SaaS space.

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