Skip to main content

Technical debt is the enemy of innovation. Address it now

software developers
(Image credit: Getty)

The pandemic caused a rapid shift toward digitization, with many companies moving fast to meet consumers virtually with new or improved digital products. In fact, a McKinsey survey conducted in July 2020 reports a seven-year acceleration in the rate at which companies are creating digital or digitally enabled offerings. 

Moving fast and breaking things might have been the key to many companies’ survival over the course of the pandemic, but the strategy hasn’t come without a cost.

That cost is known as technical debt, or the price you pay to fix things later down the line when you make compromises for the sake of speed. According to another July 2020 survey from McKinsey, 60% of CIOs reported a consistent increase in technical debt over the past three years. The debt in itself isn’t the bad part—technical debt is, in fact, a necessary part of creating software. 

But now is the time for CIOs to look back at their digitization efforts and develop technical debt strategies to address it before it accumulates to unmanageable proportions.

Related: Don't bog down software product development with too many features.

Understanding the high cost of technical debt

McKinsey also reports that CIOs spend up to 20% of their new product tech budgets on technical debt issues, but mounting technical debt doesn’t just hurt an enterprise from a pocketbook standpoint. It can also stall innovation and competitiveness.

To see how, imagine your company wants to launch a new mobile app by the end of Q3. The leadership team brings the development team a list of requested features for the app and a deadline. The development team gets started with that end date in mind.

Somewhere along the way, however, the leadership team notices that competing apps in the market are offering newer and more impressive features. They request that the development team work similar features into their app—but offer no opportunities for extending the deadline. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.) So the development team cuts some corners to do more work in the same amount of time. The product makes it to market on time, and it works well enough—for a while.

But those compromises mean that the product wasn’t designed for long-term stability, and eventually, the gaps will need to be filled in order for the product to continue operating effectively. It’s time to pay down some of that technical debt, and while developers are spending their time circling back, they’re not focused on moving forward. That’s where innovation stops and gives competitors the room to swoop in with new and better offerings.

Cutting corners can’t always be avoided in today’s fast-paced and competitive digital landscape, but what CIOs can do to ensure that they don’t stall forward momentum is develop a technical debt strategy in order to fix things earlier and stop problems from adding up until they become unmanageable. Here’s how:

1. Manage expectations by baking technical debt into development processes

woman leading an office meeting

Developers should understand that every line of new code is a liability and must be maintained and updated regularly (Image credit: Getty)

Development teams will always be creating some amount of technical debt on an ongoing basis. Once you realize that and accept it, however, you can start building it into your estimates, your way of quoting timelines and your expectation management.

Leaders and developers must understand that new features equal new technical debt. Every line of new code is a liability, something that can break and must be consistently maintained and updated regularly. When developers and leaders operate with that understanding, they’re likely to be more deliberate about creating new features and limiting spiralling technical debt—even when they’re moving fast.

Being open and deliberate about technical debt during the fast-moving development process creates a culture in which the can doesn’t get kicked down the road. Instead, retrospectives can be held after hitting sprints or milestones. During those retrospectives, teams can talk about cleaning up technical debt as they go rather than allowing it to keep growing.

2. Get stakeholders to buy into the technical debt strategy

As you develop your plan to tackle technical debt head-on, it’s likely that you’ll run into resistance from other stakeholders at your business. Tackling technical debt often feels like a redo, and many stakeholders won’t understand at first why something they already paid for is being revisited. But you need the room in the budget for fixing technical debt, and you likely need stakeholder approval for the expense.

Technology leaders can help shape stakeholder understanding by positioning technical debt management as a way to open doors to new innovations. 

Future-thinking business leaders are more focused on progress than backtracking, so you must show them that if you want to move fast, you have to fix things as you break them—or they add up and take all of your developers’ time and attention to fix later on. But by addressing outstanding technical debt now and developing a strategy to manage it as it comes in the future, you allow developers to seize and take advantage of new opportunities as they come.

3. Stay wary of overengineering

Cutting corners is not only necessary sometimes—it’s often the best solution. Simple, quick design may aggregate some technical debt down the line, but when developers go back in to rework the code, it will likely be quick and simple to fix again. But overengineered and complicated code can be much more difficult to revisit and clean up later on.

When you bake technical debt awareness into your development processes, leaders and developers will be thinking more about whether their decisions will require more cleanup in the future. The answer won’t always be clear, but remember that simplicity isn’t the enemy.

CIOs will never be able to eliminate technical debt entirely. It’s simply an essential piece of successful digital product creation and disruption. But what’s important is to recognize that early and operate with that understanding moving forward. 

Ignoring technical debt will stop the business in its tracks eventually, but if you set expectations around it, adjust your engineering culture and approach development in a way that bakes cleanup into every process, you’ll make a difference and pave the path to innovation.

Chris Cardinal is a founding principal of Synapse Studios.

Chris Cardinal
Chris Cardinal

Chris Cardinal is a founding principal of Synapse Studios, a growing app consultancy that builds custom software for startups, enterprise, government, and just about anyone else. Chris founded the company with his partner in 2003 and has since grown it into a firm of over 50 employees in downtown Tempe, Arizona. His primary focus is on business development, but he also enjoys helping architect solutions for client.