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Paul Greenwell | Propel Ventures Co-FounderJun 24, 2024 4:27:43 PM4 min read

The Uncomfortable Truth About Technical Debt

Over my 30-year career, I’ve encountered the issue of technical debt in every organisation I’ve worked with. Teams frequently complain about their inability to address technical debt, often blaming business stakeholders. However, a significant part of the issue lies with technical leaders who struggle to articulate the impact of technical debt and the benefits of addressing it.

What is Technical Debt?

Intentional Technical Debt is akin to taking a strategic financial loan. Development teams might knowingly incur it to speed up the release of a product, planning to address the debt later. This can be a smart move when time-to-market is critical, as it allows for early revenue and customer feedback. However, like financial debt, it requires a clear plan for repayment to prevent it from becoming a long-term burden.

Unintentional Technical Debt resembles unexpected financial debt resulting from unforeseen expenses. It often stems from poor design, rapidly changing requirements, or insufficient knowledge. This type of debt is usually more problematic because it catches teams off guard and can be more challenging to manage and repay.

How Technical Debt Comes About

Technical debt typically accumulates due to a variety of reasons. Rushed development is a common cause, where speed is prioritised over quality to meet tight deadlines. This often leads to shortcuts that need to be addressed later. Changing requirements can also contribute to technical debt. As project needs evolve, quick changes are made to keep up, often at the expense of code quality.

Poor code quality, often due to a lack of adherence to coding standards and best practices, is another significant factor. Inadequate testing leads to fragile codebases that are prone to bugs and difficult to maintain. Additionally, a lack of comprehensive documentation can hinder future development efforts, making it harder for teams to understand and work with the code.

When Is Technical Debt Positive?

As mentioned above, technical debt isn’t inherently bad. Like leveraging financial debt for investment, intentional technical debt can be beneficial. It enables faster market entry, early revenue, and quicker customer feedback, which can be crucial for a product’s success. It can even save you from over investing if the feature you are building does not have product market fit and you need to change direction. The key though is to have a clear plan for addressing this debt. By recognising the debt upfront and planning for its repayment, teams can balance short-term gains with long-term stability.

The Downside of Technical Debt

As is more often the case, unchecked technical debt can be crippling, and much like high-interest financial debt, it can slow down development, introduce bugs, and inflate costs. Over time, the codebase becomes increasingly difficult to work with, leading to developer frustration and higher turnover. In the worst cases, it can lead to project failure as the cost and effort required to address the accumulated debt become overwhelming.

Strategies for Addressing Technical Debt

Addressing technical debt requires a strategic approach. Regularly prioritising refactoring and code improvement is essential. This involves setting aside dedicated time to clean up and enhance the codebase. Implementing automated testing helps ensure ongoing code quality and catch issues early. 

A strategic approach to addressing technical debt requires the buyin and alignment of business stakeholders.

Bridging the Communication Gap with Business Stakeholders

Technical leaders often blame business stakeholders for hindering their efforts to address technical debt. However, the real issue frequently lies in the inability of technical leaders to effectively communicate the impact and cost of not acting. Here’s how to bridge that gap:

Quantify the Impact: Use clear metrics to show how technical debt affects performance, costs, and timelines. Numbers speak louder than vague concerns.

Align with Business Goals: Explain how reducing technical debt leads to faster, more reliable product delivery. Link technical debt reduction to business outcomes like improved market competitiveness and revenue growth.

Highlight Risks: Clearly outline the risks of ignoring technical debt, such as potential project failures, increased costs, and delayed time-to-market. Paint a vivid picture of the consequences to make the urgency palpable.

Propose a Clear Plan: Present a well-structured, actionable plan for addressing technical debt. This should include specific timelines, required resources, and expected benefits. Make it easy for stakeholders to understand the steps and their positive impact on the business.

Use Analogies: Draw parallels with financial debt. Explain how, like financial debt, technical debt can be a strategic tool but becomes problematic if not managed properly. Emphasise the importance of a repayment plan to prevent long-term crippling effects.

Foster Ongoing Dialogue: Regularly update stakeholders on progress and changes in technical debt. Keep the conversation continuous to maintain alignment and support.

By improving how you communicate the realities and implications of technical debt, you can secure the necessary buy-in from business stakeholders to address it effectively. This approach not only highlights the immediate benefits but also ensures the long-term health and success of your software projects.

Technical debt is an inevitable aspect of software development, but it doesn’t have to be detrimental. By understanding its nature, strategically managing it, and effectively communicating with stakeholders, technical leaders can leverage technical debt to their advantage while mitigating risks. Balancing short-term gains with long-term stability is key to ensuring sustainable success.


Paul Greenwell | Propel Ventures Co-Founder

Accomplished product & technology leader with 20+ years’ experience delivering innovative solutions in industries including accounting, safety & defence.