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Tackling Technical Debt Redux: a Deeper Dive

The Role of Leadership in Managing Technical Debt

This post is Part 4 of our Technical Debt series; get the rest of the picture by starting with Part 1.

Whether your teams work on modern or legacy systems, unmanaged technical debt can cost organizations in the long run. These costs may present as security vulnerabilities, loss of customer trust, or a complete stop on new work while teams frantically scramble to fix a bug. Effective leadership plays an essential role in actively creating a culture that encourages managing technical debt and allocates time for addressing it.

Recognizing technical debt

In Part 2, we discussed the various types of technical debt and the reasons why technical debt can accumulate. Leaders who understand the addition of technical debt to their projects can proactively reduce the accumulation of new technical debt.

Leaders must first acknowledge the presence and implications of technical debt within their projects. This concept involves understanding that shortcuts in coding, rushed features, or outdated technologies can lead to higher costs down the line. Leadership that is educated about these issues is better equipped to make informed decisions.

Head off new technical debt

Suppose technical debt is incurred primarily due to repeatedly tight deadlines to meet immediate business needs. In that case, leaders should evaluate recent requests to determine if requests are categorized and effort correctly scoped—unrealistic deadlines pressure dev teams to churn out temporary solutions that must be revisited and fixed later. Slowing down non-critical requests can save teams time later and reduce developer burnout.

Technical debt can come from scope creep, where additional requirements emerge during the project. Leaders can create and reinforce a culture where scope creep is unacceptable. Instead, focusing on high-value changes after achieving the minimum viable product (MVP) and testing demonstrates the requirements for a successful product-market fit.

Code reviews can help prevent technical debt from poorly written code, helping team members adhere to coding standards and minimize potential defects when meeting rushed deadlines. Leaders should encourage a mindset where quality code is seen as an integral part of the development process, not just an afterthought.

Finally, technical debt can result from rapid changes in the technology your team uses. Set aside “Learning Days” each month or quarter for developers to focus on learning best practices and tools to help them be more productive and creative. This practice ensures the team can more effectively address the challenges posed by technical debt.

When new technical debt is avoidable, document the decisions and business rationale for taking on new technical debt. This documentation will be invaluable when teams revisit the code and architecture in the future, especially if new developers join the team.

Address existing technical debt

It’s normal for every team to accumulate technical debt, but that debt must be “repaid” eventually.

Leaders should allocate a percentage of time from each sprint to address outstanding technical debt. For example, 20% of a sprint might be spent on technical debt. This direction needs to come from leadership’s support because developers who work on technical debt are not working on new functionality during that time. An advantage of this approach is that low-hanging fruit is fixed quickly and more frequently before it becomes a larger problem.

For larger, more complex technical debt projects, set aside a full sprint (or multiple sprints) per quarter for teams to focus on them. The advantage of setting aside a full sprint is collaboration between team members and developers, who do not switch contexts as often, so they stay in the flow.

Monitor and evaluate

Finally, leadership should implement systems to monitor the levels of technical debt and evaluate the effectiveness of strategies employed to manage it. This process could involve regular audits, code quality assessments, and retrospectives that help the team learn and improve from past experiences.

Listen to the experts

Your team knows where the bodies are buried, so to speak. Nurture an open culture where your team feels safe speaking up about technical debt and unrealistic expectations and feels empowered to share better solutions for meeting business and customer requirements.

Conclusion

Leadership in managing technical debt is more than recognizing its existence; it involves a committed, strategic approach to resource allocation, priority setting, and culture building. Leaders who excel in these areas can significantly enhance their team’s ability to maintain high-quality software, ensuring that technical debt does not hinder business growth or operational efficiency.

ReleaseTEAM can help address tech debt with tools that enhance collaboration, planning, and tracking for your organization.

Our consultants are experts in the tools they support. With Team Mentoring, you or key members of your team work side-by-side with our consultant and learn tips and best practices as they optimize your unique environment.

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