Amid the whirlwind of technological changes and improvements, organizations are struggling with undocumented practices that hinder their ability to use technology strategically and implement effective cybersecurity controls. The accumulation of technical debt from “cowboy IT” practices, such as failing to use iteration to pay back technical debt or failing to create effective incident response policies, creates significant obstacles for 74 percent of organizations according to a recent CompTIA survey. These alarming findings should be a wake-up call.

Organizations incur technical debt when crucial best practices are skipped during the creation of an IT solution. Such debt, especially when not addressed properly, poses a challenge for organizations, negatively affecting their ability to innovate and adapt in a landscape that is rapidly changing. 

3 Steps to Reduce Technical Debt and Improve Your Cybersecurity

  1. Engage IT teams as strategic partners not just as “technical assets.” 
  2. Enhance your customer experience.
  3. Improve your cybersecurity processes and incident response handling.

The consequences of neglecting technical debt and allowing cowboy IT practices to persist can be severe. The accumulation of technical debt, particularly from unmonitored and unpatched software, significantly elevates a system’s susceptibility to ransomware attacks, as well as supply chain attacks. Unchecked cowboy IT practices pose potential threats, including regulatory fines, penalties for privacy non-compliance, ransomware attacks and data loss. 

Together, they create a toxic environment, adversely impacting both technological efficiencies and overall business operations. Issues that inevitably arise range from employee burnout, poor customer experience (CX), and chronic cybersecurity issues such as ransomware and breaches in security and privacy.


How Cowboy IT Contributes to Technical Debt 

Cowboy IT is a term used to describe unsafe IT practices that lead to technical debt and other cybersecurity issues. 

One such practice involves failing to use iteration to pay back technical debt. For example, it may be necessary to use an older instance of an operating system or a cloud application to complete a project. If you don’t go back and iteratively update that application, you can end up with code that is susceptible to a zero-day attack or some other such issue. 

Another example is the use of older mindsets when it comes to cybersecurity. Many IT professionals still rely on the old perimeter-based models. These models tend to lull organizational leaders into a false sense of security, thinking that if people are “inside the firewall” they are safe. Zero trust perspectives and methodologies recognize that risk exists everywhere — inside and outside of the firewall.

Failing to create an effective set of incident response policies and best practices is another example of cowboy IT practices. When an organization effectively is making up procedures as they go along during an incident, they are engaging in cowboy IT.

Shadow IT, another element of “cowboy IT,” is characterized by unsanctioned and unregulated technology development practices, where departments implement solutions independent of an organization’s IT team. This leads to an accumulation of technical debt and a toxic IT environment. This ad hoc and uncontrolled approach to the deployment of technology has plagued 78 percent of organizations, leading to a myriad of problems.


What Causes Cowboy IT and Technical Debt?

Resource and time constraints and underestimating the complexity inherent in technology solutions are key catalysts for incurring technical debt. In the pursuit of rapid deployment and adaptation to market demands, organizations often embark on projects without fully comprehending the steps and time required. 

Developers and IT workers are forced to take shortcuts and oversight is lax. Code and solution quality, system architecture and overall IT infrastructure are compromised, resulting in an accumulation of technical debt that almost certainly will come due.

The introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) further complicates the situation. Instead of solving problems, it’s creating them. CompTIA found that 63 percent of IT professionals believe that any use of AI exacerbates the accumulation of technical debt and instances of cowboy IT. 

Organizations need to first address these underlying issues before applying AI. While AI promises advancements in efficiency and innovation under the right circumstances, its integration into existing systems can introduce unforeseen complexities and challenges.

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How to Prevent Cowboy IT Practices 

The good news is companies realize they need to adopt and improve technological best practices. A substantial 68 percent of organizations prioritize enhancing their approaches to reduce technical debt and mitigate the impact of cowboy IT practices. This acknowledgment reflects a collective commitment to create a more resilient and efficient technology ecosystem.

As organizations require more tech than ever to accomplish their goals, it’s vital to engage with IT teams as strategic partners not just as technical assets.

Survey respondents identified several key priorities to accomplish this. They see the importance of establishing a better connection between business and tech implementation, recognizing the necessity of aligning technology solutions with overarching business goals. Such strategic alignment fosters a more collaborative work environment. It also ensures that technology investments contribute meaningfully to organizational objectives. 

Enhancing CX is another priority. A seamless and user-friendly experience helps engender customer satisfaction and contributes to the overall success and reputation of the technology product, service or solution provider.

Improving cybersecurity processes is a critical step to addressing the challenges posed by technical debt and cowboy IT. By bolstering defenses and systematically applying appropriate security controls, organizations can safeguard sensitive data and alleviate the risk of cyber incidents. 

With the increasing scrutiny and legal frameworks governing technology use, organizations must be extra vigilant in ensuring compliance with external regulations, legal requirements and industry standards.


How to Tackle Technical Debt

Addressing technical debt is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It demands a holistic approach that permeates every echelon of the organizational hierarchy – from the executive suite to the grassroots level. 

Management needs to conduct active oversight of the organization’s development team to ensure the team’s activities are aligned with best practices and minimize accrual of further technical debt. IT resources must be allocated strategically, in a manner that aligns with broader business objectives. 

The best advice is to stay ahead of the curve, preventing technical debt from evolving into a hindrance, or worse. Organizations should adopt a forward-thinking approach that anticipates and mitigates potential technical debt, while actively staying informed about emerging technologies and industry best practices.

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Challenges Facing the IT Industry

Cowboy IT is a serious root cause for the tech-related challenges organizations face worldwide. These issues are intrinsically connected to broader considerations, such as cultivating a healthy work environment, addressing diversity concerns, fostering proactive communication and achieving optimal process maturity. 

We live in a dynamic environment where professionals navigate through the intricate interplay of rapid technological advancements and organizational dynamics. It’s important to adopt a strategic and introspective approach, one that prioritizes the identification of root causes, such as a lack of best practices, inadequate training and skills development and a lack of proactive cybersecurity measures. 

While compromises may be inevitable in the fast-paced world of IT, it behooves organizations to prevent the accumulation of technical debt resulting from overlooked vital steps. Addressing root causes and cultivating a proactive mindset will pave the way for sustainable solutions that not only mitigate risks but also foster innovation and resilience in the face of evolving challenges.

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