The tech debt tipping point

As businesses scale, they may carry significant tech debt for extended periods. In some businesses, there’s limited impact, and technical debt remains manageable. But in other businesses, dealing with tech debt interferes with innovation, negatively affects the customer experience and slows growth.

What accounts for the difference is how close the business is to the tech debt tipping point.

What is the tech debt tipping point?

We define the tech debt tipping point as the point where technical debt interferes with the operation of the business and can no longer be ignored. What makes it difficult to pinpoint is the sneaky way in which technical debt builds up slowly over time.

Often, a triggering event becomes the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. A sustainable amount of tech debt spirals into disproportionate effort for little reward. Suddenly, technical debt becomes a top priority.

CEOs, CTOs and management teams must keep technical debt top-of-mind in strategic planning conversations — especially those involving changes to team size, the departure of a key team member, the launch of a significant product enhancement or any disruption to a historically stable area of the business.

Any of these situations can potentially push the business over the tech debt tipping point.

The disconnect in tech debt discussions

It’s not uncommon for management teams to enjoy a false sense of security about their team’s ability to manage tech debt. To avoid the element of surprise, it’s important to ask critical questions about technical debt before it becomes a problem.

When our practitioners perform tech due diligence on a target company, we explore beyond the surface-level calm to check assumptions. Here are some of the areas we explore to look for signs of a brewing tech debt storm:

What we hearWhat we want to know
The business performs regular software releases

How will the team’s size and release schedule need to change to support required growth plans?

How difficult will it be to find the right additional resources to grow the team?
The platform has been stable and working for an extended period

What planned improvements or integrations are already on the roadmap? How are these prioritized and resourced?

At what point will additional changes to the tech stack and platform be required to support intended growth?
The business won’t be making any changes to the system

What’s the plan to address critical updates and keep the tech operational for remaining users?

What’s the obsolescence plan?

How will sunsetting the solution impact revenue?
The system will be turned off in the short- to medium-term

What’s the migration plan to move current customers to a new solution?

How will you support any legacy customers who elect to remain until obsolescence?

Tech debt warning signs

Engineering teams often present an optimistic view of tech debt, which may cause the leadership team, board or potential investor to underestimate the severity of the problem.

In order to adequately plan for a tech debt surge, the management team should pay attention to warning signs that may indicate tech debt as an underlying cause. Here’s what to watch for:

An individual developer can no longer make a simple change quickly. This may indicate problems in client configurations or code that become amplified at scale.

New products and features are delayed. When the team is spending more time than expected addressing technical debt, they have little time or energy left for innovation.

Release timelines are continually extended. This often indicates the team has encountered unanticipated challenges.

There’s increased concern around a potential cyberattack or data breach. These worries may be related to known deficiencies in the code, identified risks with open-source code, or unpatched security vulnerabilities.

Increased ticket volumes or customer defections. If you haven’t adequately dealt with tech debt, your customers will let you know.

Avoiding the tech debt tipping point

For those who haven’t lived it, it’s hard to describe just how frustrating technology delivery becomes for the team when technical debt takes hold. Because of the challenges, the people cost can be high. And once employees start leaving, the problem becomes even worse.

Technical debt can’t just be the CTO’s worry. It should be a concern for the entire leadership team. There are some practical steps to take to mitigate your risk:

Understand the state of your technical debt: Quantify and categorize existing tech debt to support decision-making.

Align on a strategy: As a leadership team, consider the risk the business is willing to take. Then craft a strategy that aligns technical debt to the risk appetite.

Optimize production: Prioritize the production line as well as the product to ensure the team can make changes quickly and safely. New features may need to temporarily take a backseat in favor of refining Agile practices, automating testing, optimizing CI/CD pipelines and making process improvements.

Focus on quality: Most software lifecycles include a functional testing phase — but what about the non-functional requirements? Tech debt can benefit from a robust peer review process and effective static analysis tooling.

Include technical debt paydown in your roadmap: Alongside new features and enhancements, the roadmap must consider technical debt paydown and architectural improvements.

Technical debt is serious — it can stop the growth of the business or derail the investment strategy. It may take significant investment to reverse it, and it will likely carry a large opportunity cost. But tech debt cannot be ignored.

Now’s the time to take steps to avoid the tech debt tipping point. Reach out to our experts for help developing a plan.

READ MORE: Our practitioner community provides more insight on the warning signs of an impending tech debt disaster in this Crosslake Conversation: