Technical debt is a term that often pops up in conversations among developers and team leaders alike. It’s seen as a major challenge, but defining it can be a bit tricky.

Are you a developer, or have you ever been one? If so, you’re likely familiar with the concept of technical debt. Yet, when asked to define it, the answers can be diverse, even among those who share similar backgrounds and experiences.

The elusiveness of a universal definition for technical debt poses a problem when trying to explain its importance to stakeholders outside the development team. If developers can’t agree on what it is, how can they expect others to understand and prioritize addressing it?

Moreover, as the study of technical debt expands, the negative effects associated with it become more evident, such as slower execution, decreased quality, low morale, and diminished self-esteem among developers. Without a clear definition, it becomes difficult to identify and implement effective strategies to prevent these outcomes.

Involving the Team

One of the best approaches to understanding technical debt is to ask your team. It doesn’t matter if a universally accepted definition of technical debt includes specific aspects like security issues; if your team perceives them as part of technical debt, then that’s how they should be treated. Doing so will help prevent the negative consequences mentioned earlier.

It might seem like a no-brainer, but have you ever asked your team about their perception of technical debt before discussing how satisfied they are with the current level of debt? You might be surprised by the insights you gain from such conversations.

Dissecting Technical Debt

When it comes to software development, we can look at either the practical aspect (real-world experiences) or the theoretical aspect (established concepts). In this case, let’s focus on the practical side.

Here’s a working definition of technical debt: the negative outcome of deliberate or accidental subpar decisions made during software development.

This definition involves several key elements:

  • Increased Engineering Drag
  • Unclear Priorities
  • Issue Lifecycles
  • Perception of Micromanagement

Increased Engineering Drag

Technical debt can be thought of as increased engineering drag, similar to the aerodynamic drag experienced by vehicles. As engineering drag increases, the velocity of output decreases, affecting the team’s overall performance. The negative impact of this increased drag is a key factor in defining technical debt. If there’s no noticeable slowdown or decrease in quality, it’s difficult to argue that addressing the debt is an immediate priority.

Unclear Priorities

Unclear priorities can lead to technical debt by reducing team productivity due to shifting goals and objectives. Whether intentional or unintentional, suboptimal decisions made during the development process can contribute to technical debt. These decisions may be influenced by external pressures, such as tight deadlines or changing business requirements, or internal factors, such as design choices that no longer serve the project’s needs.

Issue Lifecycles

Understanding issue lifecycles is crucial in managing technical debt. As known issues remain unaddressed, they tend to transition from small impactful improvements to large, brittle tech debt projects. Being proactive in tracking and prioritizing these issues ensures they’re resolved before becoming overwhelming, which in turn helps maintain the team’s velocity and overall performance.

Monitoring issue lifecycles also enables teams to identify trends or patterns contributing to technical debt. By addressing these root causes, engineering managers can not only mitigate the risks associated with technical debt but also drive long-term improvements in the team’s efficiency and productivity.

Perception of Micromanagement

Technical debt can lead to a perception of micromanagement when teams lack the support needed to address it or feel that new projects must be completed ASAP, even if it results in suboptimal outcomes. This perceived lack of autonomy can negatively impact developers’ morale and productivity, which in turn affects the overall performance of the team.

Research Insights on Technical Debt

As the software development community increasingly recognizes the impact of technical debt, research has emerged to shed light on its various aspects. Studies have focused not only on the monetary costs of technical debt but also on the human factors involved. This growing body of knowledge can inform engineering managers on how best to address and manage technical debt within their teams.

Traditionally, technical debt has been described using financial metaphors, emphasizing its monetary cost. However, it’s essential to recognize that technical debt also affects developers’ morale, productivity, and even turnover. As engineering managers, understanding both the financial and human implications of technical debt is critical when making informed decisions and advocating for resources to address it.

Next Steps for Tackling Technical Debt

To reduce technical debt in your team, consider the following recommendations:

  • Initiate a conversation with your team to understand their perspective on technical debt and establish a shared definition.
  • Encourage the use of more descriptive labels for issues labeled as technical debt, such as security, reliability, or scalability, to better identify and prioritize tasks.
  • When possible, quantify the impact of technical debt in financial terms to communicate its significance to stakeholders.
  • Equip your team with the skills to advocate for addressing technical debt projects effectively, emphasizing both the financial and human costs.
  • Recognize that technical debt will inevitably arise from certain business decisions and be prepared to identify and manage these risks proactively.

By applying these strategies and maintaining open communication with your team, you can create an environment that acknowledges the importance of addressing technical debt. This approach will not only improve your team’s efficiency and productivity but also contribute to a healthier work