Technical debt is a nightmare for product managers. It can slow down teams and inhibit response time for delivering quality products to market. Yet, there are times when technical debt can be beneficial; but turning it from a headache to a positive is a balancing act.
Nimble project managers and developers should strive to develop an equilibrium that balances creating, reducing and accepting technical debt. The good news is: That’s attainable.
The Shape of Technical Debt
It’s essential for PMs to understand how technical debt can arise so they can identify its characteristics and manage the amount to carry or avoid to the team’s advantage.
Laying too much brick and mortar will take software features too long to develop. It risks their rollout arriving well past due dates. But fixating on speed threatens to underdeliver on functionality. Circumstances like these will diminish the ability to deliver powerful results over time.
Similarly, ignoring the power of third-party solutions to slot in and satisfy customer needs and speed-to-market is outdated thinking. For example, software like embedded analytics can arrive off-the-shelf to complete an architecture task quickly and affordably while freeing up the team to address other challenges. Remaining agile with all options available to the team is critical.
Overall, the project manager’s goal should be to identify the indicators of technical debt and hone their skills to address each type.
When a team is tasked with delivering new features or functionality, building upon the existing structure to support the new capability is not unusual. Lack of foresight or diligent planning about what’s necessary to enable this function can be a critical oversight that leads to a void in need resolution, i.e., incurring debt requiring payment.
Speed versus Quality
Delivering at the speed of modern business often means facing time constraints that can impact the quality of work. Faced with such limitations, teams may take shortcuts. Ultimately, those shortcuts can lead to an increase in technical debt.
Quantity versus Speed
On the opposite end of the spectrum, eagerly attacking a project that requires significant lead time can result in overbuilding. This leads to a different form of technical debt. Longer projects can be affected by technological change—an evolution that makes some previously completed structures outdated. Debt takes the form of teams forced to return upstream to make necessary changes when they should instead remain downstream.
Unlike the oversight or overbuilding described above, if the team fails to consider future needs and focuses only on current tasks alone, it risks creating debt that arises by starting from scratch. If teams don’t anticipate the next feature or prepare for future functionality while in development, they will likely pay for this near-sightedness down the road.
To Build or Buy
Developers want to build. It’s what they do. But it’s not always in the organization’s best interests. When a team faces complicated requirements, is extended beyond its capabilities or is simply well outside its repertoire, debt can be avoided by looking toward existing platforms that fulfill its needs. In such instances, a third-party solution saves significant time and money. For example, an embedded analytics tool built with the latest technologies and deployed turnkey frees the development team to remain focused on its expertise and apply its talents there. Think: Does the team need to invent a new wheel, or does one already exist? While choosing the former risks taking on debt, selecting the latter holds the promise of reducing it.
Still, technical debt can be a benefit.
Consider this example: You want to roll out a platform that delivers to the customer and market, but it’s a ground-breaking product. You don’t yet know everything you want or need to know about how end users will engage with it and what they’ll ask it to do. In situations like these, it’s reasonable to get the functional framework of the software into the hands of the market so that you can absorb reams of feedback, return to the platform and then build out or fine-tune its features and functionality. Actions like these are wise. PMs haven’t mortgaged the farm for a bag of magic beans—they’ve taken on a reasonable amount of debt to fertilize team knowledge into a product that will ultimately deliver the most value.
Recognizing technical debt and its approach, avoiding or accepting it accordingly and then managing it with deliberate efforts to pay it down within acceptable limits is where PMs want to be. If you invest in paying it down or seek and accept third-party solutions to avoid it altogether, you’ll maintain team focus and velocity on the projects they excel in.