Understanding drivers of technical debt by factors that cause reductions to innovation within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs : a mixed-methods exploratory sequential study.


The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has large amounts of technical debt that has persisted for years. This technical debt was the source of outages, security vulnerabilities, and service stability and scrutiny from the media, congress, and the Veteran community. The goal of this study was to better understand technical debt through the eyes of the technical teams who maintain the systems of the VA. This study followed an exploratory sequential design. The first portion of the study identified a framework that collected common core beliefs about why technical debt persists in the industry. The study then analyses areas of technical debt that exist in organizations that cause technical debt to persist. Using these two elements of core beliefs and technical debt, this study evaluated technical teams’ feedback at the VA via focus team interviews to identify their beliefs on technical debt. The qualitative finding was technical debt persists because it is hidden, and because of internal cultural practices. These two issues were the technical teams’ most commonly held core beliefs. During the interviews, several of the teams identified evidence of their claims. The second portion of the study evaluated the claims from the participants against institutional data sources to determine if the participants’ perceptions of technical debt aligned with institutional data sources. The final portion integrated the qualitative feedback from the participants with the analysis of institutional data sources culminating in mixed-methods findings. The mixed-method finding was technical debt persists because it is hidden through internal cultural practices, in this case, a culture that has created large amounts of process and documentation debt. Institutional data sources corroborated the statements made by technical teams on their core beliefs and observations on technical debt. The study documented three implications and recommendations; the first was a recommendation on how to reduce the lack of documentation contributing to technical debt. The second was an interim step to lessen the impacts of process debt. The third recommendation included providing easier access to existing funds through better explanation and a clear process around the various colors of money.