Esri, the global leader in geographic information system (GIS) software, builds the most powerful mapping and spatial analytics technology available.


The Utility Network Pays off Your Technical Debt – Part 1

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Bill Meehan's picture
Director, Utility Solutions Esri

William (Bill) Meehan is the Director of Utility Solutions for Esri. He is responsible for business development and marketing Esri’s geospatial technology to global electric and gas utilities.A...

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Pay off your debt. Lower your mortgage. Eliminate your car payment. Even reduce your college loan. Wait. What? No, it can’t do any of that. But it can pay off your technical debt.

The father of the Wiki, Ward Cunningham coined the term technical debt. This metaphor refers to the built-in inefficiencies of software. That could have happened by developers rushing software into production to their inability to solve the intended problem. Or it could have happened by them building software with vague requirements. Or by excessive customization of off the shelf software – forcing the software to do what it was never designed to do.

In deference to Cunningham, I’m going to extend the metaphor. I’d like to include the inefficiencies in the work itself. Like time wasted on work arounds. Money spent to compensate for bad data. Poorer reliability due to a lack of analysis. Cunningham uses the term burden. Since whenever you have dept, you must pay interest. So rather than use burden, I’d like to coin the term technical interest. It is the price or penalty in wasted effort or inefficiency associated with technical debt. It is not limited to money either. It could be low customer satisfaction, a reputation hit or even poor employee morale.

When my wife and I bought our first house, we stretched the budget. Every month for years, we dipped into credit card debt, just to meet our expenses. Over time interest payments represented one of our largest monthly expenses.

We did the only thing we could to get out of debt. We changed the process. We both got second jobs.

Sometimes, you bite the bullet and change the process.

ArcGIS Utility Network Changes the Process

One of the most common questions I get about ArcGIS Utility Network is, “what is the return on investment of migrating to the utility network?”

Here are a few more questions. Will the implementation positively impact my key performance indicators? Will it reduce overtime, operations and maintenance and capital spending? Will my utility have fewer gas, electric and telecom outages. Will employees do their job faster? Will our company have fewer accidents? The answer to these questions is yes. How? By reducing imbedded inefficiencies – lowering your technical debt.

Does it take some effort? Of course. It means utilities will have to add data that is missing, such as the z component to their network assets. It means rethinking entrenched workflows. It may even mean changing the way utilities think about GIS.

ArcGIS Utility Network provides the tools and the functions to change the processes – for the better.

The Nature of Utility Technical Debt

When I worked for the power company, one of the job classes was underground inspector. Here is what the inspector did. A designer would specify a new underground cable to be installed through duct banks and manholes. The inspector would visit each manhole to check to see if the conduits the designer specified were empty. Wait. You mean the company didn’t trust its records?


They had a manhole data base and a GIS. Yet they were not integrated, the updating process was messy, and the accuracy was suspect. And they didn’t have a GIS that modeled structure networks.

It was safer to drive into the field. Open every manhole. Climb in. Spend an hour in a dark, creepy space using cardboard manhole cards trying to decipher exactly which conduit the designer intended. Then document what the inspector found. On paper.

The thinking was that if the designer was wrong and the conduit was not empty, they would have to scrap the entire design. And start over. Deadlines would be missed. Rather than change the process and fix the fundamental problem of bad data and modeling, the practice continued.

They would not eliminate the technical debt.

Structure Networks Pays Down the Technical Debt

Utilities have a hard time accurately representing their dense urban underground structures in their GIS. Some have resorted to using CAD to depict the interiors of manholes, substations and vaults. The result is very little integration and flawed workflows. Often underground cables in the GIS are not shown close to their actual location. This limits the use of the wonderful capability of augmented reality.

To pay off technical debt, change the process. Migrate to the ArcGIS Utility Network. Model the structure network - manholes, duct banks, vaults, cable trays, tunnels and cable racks.

Certainly, this will require work. Is it worth it? Yes. Once done, it will transform how a utility struggles with complex underground systems. It will speed up trouble diagnosis, repair and asset management. The alternative is to continue to pay the technical interest – wasted time, burdensome field trips and extended outages. The payoff in productivity, materials costs and customer service will be substantial.

What Else?

The structure network is just one of many improvements built into ArcGIS Utility Network that pays down technical debt (and lowers technical interest payments) Others include:

  • Extensive attribute rules – ensures data is accurate and consistent
  • Services architecture – enables network functions to exist on any device
  • Precision modeling of devices – realistic modelling in both 2D and 3D
  • Treating subnetworks as entities – simplifies network management
  • Enhanced security – adheres to the highest cyber standards
  • Lots more

ArcGIS Utility Network may not be able to pay off your student loan. But it can sure save you money and reduce your interest payment on your technical debt.

Stay tuned for my next blog on additional ways ArcGIS Utility Network pays down technical debt. Check out the first of three webinars on the Utility Network coming starting this July. To register please visit our utility network landing page.

Esri, the global leader in geographic information system (GIS) software, builds the most powerful mapping and spatial analytics technology available.
Bill Meehan's picture
Thank Bill for the Post!
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Paul Korzeniowski's picture
Paul Korzeniowski on Jul 13, 2020

Certainly, this will require work.

You hit one of the big barriers: inertia. Utilities have plenty on their plate and more every day. The notion of taking on development work that may lead to long term benefits can seem daunting, but once completed feels rewarding. 

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