Dodging the Technical Debt Trap

· 5 min read
Dodging the Technical Debt Trap

Technical debt. The phrase makes most engineers groan. It brings up memories of messy legacy code, shortcuts that came back to bite you, and that giant rewrite that never seems to make any progress.

We’ve all been there. You’re trying to meet some impossible deadline that the product team promised, so you hack together something that works but makes you cringe. You tell yourself you’ll come back to clean it up later, but later never seems to come. Before you know it, you can’t make simple changes without breaking something else.

It may sound counterintuitive, but some technical debt is normal and healthy. Like financial debt, a responsible amount of technical debt can help you grow and move fast if you pay it back on time. The key is learning how to ride that knife’s edge between necessary speed and catastrophic bloat.

The main struggle is to find this balance. Engineers get obsessed with elegance when business stakeholders want speed and innovation. Or devs take on crushing maintenance burdens from past shortcuts while product owners keep asking why feature delivery slowed down.

What Technical Debt Is and Isn’t

So what counts as technical debt, really? Engineers throw that phrase around to describe all kinds of things. “Ugh, this code is such a mess. It’s creating so much tech debt. It’s so massive we must rewrite the whole system from scratch to pay it.”

At its core, technical debt is about work you intentionally skip now to go faster, but that needs to get done eventually. Does that awful SQL query you copied from StackOverflow count? It depends. Messy code that works just fine isn’t inherently debt. Neither is building to solve today’s specific problems rather than tomorrow’s imagined ones.

Here’s an analogy that helps. Think of the first version of software you build, like building your first house. You start with a small 1 bedroom starter home focused on meeting the needs you have right now. As your family and needs grow, you remodel or expand bit by bit.

You don’t begin by trying to build a massive future-proof mansion on day one. Even if you could, most of that house would be wasted anyway. Technical debt isn’t about whether your code meets ivory tower engineering ideals. It’s about whether it unnecessarily slows your team’s ability to improve and expand that “house” over time as business realities change.

Sometimes, you knowingly cut corners on those early implementations to test ideas faster and eventually need to evolve things properly. Other times, you build quite intentionally to meet today’s focused scenario. Doing it differently from your personal preference doesn’t automatically mean debt accrued.

Managing Technical Debt

Some technical debt is okay if you’re deliberate. But how much is too much? When should you start paying it down before things spiral out of control?

There isn’t a magic number or formula here. Every situation is unique. But in my experience, engineers almost always overhype its urgency. When you’re deep in the code, wrestling with legacy systems every day, architectural elegance feels like the most important thing in the world.

But if you step back and talk to your CEO, he’ll remind you there’s much more to running a successful business. Is the messy backend slowing down our ability to deliver the new revenue-driving features the CEO is asking for? Are users complaining about bugs that could be fixed by refactoring? No? Then, it can wait.

This is easier said than done, though. Engineers always want to tinker and improve things — it’s our nature when you build stuff for a living. The key as a technical leader is nudging that energy towards improvements that move top business goals, not just scratching your team’s itch.

That might mean smaller tweaks incrementally over time, not a gut-wrenching rewrite that tries boiling the ocean all at once every year. Set aside time for refactoring and new features rather than using one as an excuse to avoid the other.

The Dangers of Technical Debt

Okay, so maybe a little technical debt won’t kill you. But how do you know when to start paying attention before things get out of hand?

A few little shortcuts can snowball into a tangled mess pretty quickly. You hack together some temporary code to meet a deadline and move on to the next fire drill. As your system grows, complexity explodes six months later since you didn’t build solid foundations. Even minor tweaks require massive effort.

Before you know it, your team wants to throw up their hands and rebuild everything from scratch. “We just need 6 months, and it’ll be so much cleaner.” Unfortunately, these extensive rewrites or migrations to eliminate debt in one huge push rarely end well.

Even if technically they work, the business disruption of engineers distracting them from delivering real value for months or years can kill the project. Plus, new systems consistently underperform expectations despite the hype. The forgotten edge cases and exceptions come back to bite you. And all that can happen given that your team can finish the rewrite — even that often is a big stretch.

Here’s the messy reality — the “right” level of technical debt is a moving target that depends on business context and forces you can’t entirely predict. Striving for perfection out of the gates wastes effort overbuilding flexibility yet to be proven valuable. Creating too much debt destroys agility incrementally. There’s no magic formula, just savvy judgment calls in service of shipping value early and often.

Strategies for Addressing Technical Debt

So technical debt can’t and shouldn’t be eliminated entirely, but leaving it unchecked will sink you eventually. Where does that leave us?

First, when you go tackle debt, prioritize the areas causing the most pain currently. Refactor parts of the code that make even small changes difficult, not just sections some engineer doesn’t like looking at.

Instead of trying to rebuild everything at once in some grand rewrite, slowly peel off functionality piecemeal from those aging systems and modernize it incrementally.

Wait until clear common needs actually emerge organically, then refactor and generalize accordingly instead of overengineering upfront flexibility. You’ll end up with something way more practical.

Use visibility tools to quantify debt more objectively wherever feasible to help make better decisions on what, when, and how much to tackle. Make it data-driven, not emotional debates.

Perfect code isn’t the panacea it’s made out to be. Some debt will always exist — just remain calm and address it sustainably rather than expecting immediate perfection or buying into fantasy silver bullets.

Balancing Delivery Speed and Quality

The business always talks about getting the next feature out tomorrow. Meanwhile, your engineers want to rewrite everything to be future-proof before adding new code. You’re trying to keep everyone happy, ship working software, and maybe occasionally see your family or friends between work. Am I in the ballpark?

Welcome to the tightrope walk balancing speed versus quality in growing engineering teams. It’s tough. The perfectionist senior engineers and executives comparing the speed of building custom applications with no-code solutions will pull you to extremes, but the truth lies somewhere in between.

Obviously, shooting for no technical debt while moving at the speed of light isn’t possible. Even with the best teams, quick delivery requires some messy shortcuts. That’s just a reality you have to accept.

At the same time, moving recklessly without ever pausing to clean things up catches up with you eventually, too. Keep that up for years without some moderation, and one day, your castle of duct tape and bubblegum code will collapse underneath its own weight.

As the engineering manager, it’s your job to continually reassess priorities and have open debates that balance perspectives, but then decide and align everyone around what needs to happen and when. Will there still be some lingering debt? Of course. But with candid dialog and collective buy-in, your team will understand the contextual tradeoffs. No promises it’ll be easy, but it’s the only sane path I’ve found.

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