How to Explain Technical Debt to Your CMO/Marketing VP

TLDR: Technical debt arises from rushed responses to problems created by poor planning. Think long-term about your projects, and you won’t have to choose between speed and execution. 


Technical debt is a term borrowed from software development to describe the implied costs of making “quick fixes” to your tech stack or IT infrastructure. Technical debt accumulates when people building your software take suboptimal shortcuts to complete projects over more effective approaches that take longer. Doing so entrenches flaws into your tech that become more troublesome to fix as time goes on and lead to larger rework costs later down the line.

In this Tough Talks Made Easy, you’ll learn to discuss the causes and consequences of technical debt with your CMO, and suggest cultural changes to prevent it from building.

Why technical debt builds, and why it matters

Two scenarios typically cause technical debt to build. During projects like platform migrations and implementations, your CMO and VPs typically just focus on contract negotiations. Their efforts to get the best deal and terms can, inadvertently, eat into the time needed for the technical work. When projects start too late, the people building face pressure to make up for lost time and choose “quick fixes” to hit deadlines and achieve results.

While CMOs aim to make the most cost-effective decisions, they often account just for the purchase cost of a new application or platform. Your CMO might, for instance, opt for a MAP license cheaper than its competitors without considering the extra admin, consultation, and custom development necessary to make it work. 

Add in the cost of training personnel and additional support, however, and you could well face a higher total cost of ownership—especially if you don’t plan from the beginning to bring these resources on board, or if the project is already running behind schedule. 

In either case, short-sighted thinking compresses timelines, bloats costs and scope, and increases a project’s vulnerability to mistakes and substandard workarounds. These decisions compromise a project’s execution and encourage technical debt, making subsequent improvements more difficult to make.

Preventing technical debt

Influencing upwards is an impactful approach against technical debt. Depending on the dynamics of your organization, a direct line to your CMO or Marketing VP might be hard to come by. In that case, look to your Operations Manager or Marketing Director as allies with the access and technical expertise to impart the urgency of starting on time. 

While it’s impossible to identify every gap a solution has until it’s in-house, you can confidently speak to the consequences of a late start. Whether you’re talking directly to your CMO/Marketing VP or getting your Manager/Director on board, here’s how to sell your boss on the respect the project deserves: “If negotiations drag out and leave us behind schedule, it will impact our ability to deliver this project on time, on budget, and to the level of competency you want. X will happen if we don’t start as planned, and it’ll take Y additional costs to fix.”

Implementations and migrations are demanding initiatives, and the planning phase is crucial to map out all your anticipated costs and labor needs. Your CMO/Marketing VP can’t expect key contributors to carry their full workload and give their all to an implementation or migration—people who’re stretched take shortcuts, and that just leads to technical debt proliferating. 

Freeing up key team members to commit and provide the necessary focus to the project gives them space to contribute to the best of their ability, without incurring rework costs. Sales and Marketing leadership could, for instance, reduce the quarterly targets of the Sales reps involved, or lessen the day-to-day campaign execution responsibilities of contributors from Marketing.

The creation of a change management team is a particularly progressive solution to technical debt. Technical debt arises from rushed responses to problems created by short-sighted planning, so advocate for a dedicated team of people to support the project from conception, mapping out the ramifications of any change on costs, timelines, resource requirements, and post-implementation training. This increases the project’s resilience to disruption and lessens the risk of technical debt. 


Long-term thinking

If projects are delayed at the early stages, you’ve ultimately got a choice between paying upfront or later on. Do you use the most effective methods to build a new implementation or migration, accepting you’ll be up and running later than planned? Or do you take shortcuts to make your initial launch date, at risk of introducing flaws into the project that carry large rework costs and compromise how effectively it works? Between the two, it’s not an even trade; the cost of technical debt often outweighs the agility of completing a project as fast as possible. 

To avoid this situation, reinforce to leadership the importance of making a plan and sticking to it Scope out your timelines, labor needs, and total cost of ownership upfront—when things need to progress to meet your deadline, the people you’ll need to be involved in the project, and its real financial cost. Advocate for a change management team to reinforce the consequences of starting late or making changes, and to find solutions in a proactive, planned manner. Take the demands of your project seriously, and you shouldn’t have to choose between speed and execution.

Get in touch for any guidance you need.