Surfing the Technical Debt Wave Without Wiping Out

· 4 min read
Surfing the Technical Debt Wave Without Wiping Out

Your team just rolled out a release of an application you’re building. It’s time to sit back, relax, and enjoy the feedback flowing in. One thing preventing you from doing that is knowing that you had to take some shortcuts in your code in your scramble to deliver the next most important feature on time. You told yourself you’d return later and refactor things properly “when you have time.”

Soon, new feature requests will start pouring in from users. Your product manager is committing to deliver even bigger features that require a lot of custom integrations. As the engineering manager, you struggle to keep up with the demands. Each new change takes longer as you work around the tricky parts of the code. You keep patching things together, but bugs still slip through from unexpected user actions. Deadlines start getting missed.

When someone from the executive team pings you about how long it takes to build things, you are seriously concerned. You realize that technical debt has caught up with your team. That night, you stare at the ceiling, wondering if you had traded speed for the health of the whole company. How much more could you scale without addressing the underlying issues? Lying awake, you wish you had a way forward that didn’t stop all feature work for a major rewrite. If only you had started paying down debt sooner instead of letting it compound.

Making Peace with Technical Debt

Writing flawless code is rarely your top priority when racing to get your features out the door. When stakeholders are breathing down your neck, the only thing you can do is take shortcuts. At least you can launch before your server explodes from all the Red Bull. The caveat is that letting technical debt pile up can also sink you quickly. This is how teams end up to rewrite entire systems. This rarely goes smoothly.

Use debt strategically in those early feature stages rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. Document those shortcuts as you code so you don’t lose track of the balance you owe. Treat each hack like a debt that will eventually need repayment. Defer pieces that aren’t mission-critical yet to focus on must-have features.

Of course, catching up later always takes longer, the more interest that debt accrues. So, chip away incrementally at priority items between other tasks whenever possible. Think of it as investing in the long-term health of your baby.

You can leverage technical debt to speed up feature validation. Used wisely, it lets you launch quickly without over-engineering something users will not use in the end. But left completely unchecked, compounding debt can eventually sink even the most performant teams scrambling to scale. Be intentional about how you leverage debt.

Knowing When It’s Time to Pay

In the ideal world, dev teams would power through features and pile up more tech debt rather than stop and tidy things up. After all, many companies end up just financing their debt. But it will bog you down eventually if left unchecked. Here are a few examples of when you ease off the gas and start paying back what you owe.

The first big warning sign is when you see the same issues everywhere. If you find myself duct-taping authorization handling differently in various app parts, it’s time to extract a central way to manage user roles. The same goes for caching, notifications, etc — patterns mean it’s a cross-cutting concern, not a one-off fix.

The second red flag is when progress slows to a crawl because the shortcuts your team took keep tripping you up. If adding new features takes more and more dev time deciphering tangled code, something’s got to give. Technical debt makes everything harder by friction over time unless you proactively pay it down. It needs maintenance.

You will know it’s rewrite time when you’ve built the same custom integration 3+ times for different clients. Having multiple examples of a billing system or OAuth flow means you now have patterns for generalizing — and preventing more debt accumulation in that area. Of course, there’s no need to over-engineer. Something might not be used at all. But several integrations show it’s a capability your product truly needs.

Don’t beat yourself up or panic. Some debt will always exist — stay intentional about when to refocus resources to pay the debt.

Keep Calm and Pay It Down

I know the feeling when you realize how deep in tech debt you are. Looking at the mountain of tech debt you’ve accumulated can be downright panic-inducing. Where even to start tackling things?!

First, take a deep breath. Rewriting everything from scratch seems tempting, but it delays getting features out the door in a big way. Plus, you risk new bugs and overlooked edge cases.

Instead, try to focus on one or two major pain points each sprint. Talk to your engineers about what parts of the code make them want to tear their hair out. Keep it targeted on fixes that will unblock productivity quicker.

And don’t let perfection be the enemy of good enough. Not every rewrite request needs gold plating to be on brand-new tech, either. Push back if suggestions seem more motivated by shiny object syndrome than user value. Align on the business priorities as a team.

Speaking of teams, don’t try to fix everything solo, either!. You can feel isolated, like you’re the only one bothered by it. But get your teammates involved in helping diagnose where quality matters most. Distribute refactor tasks based on strengths, too.

It may feel endless, but you can get tech debt under control by tackling it bit by bit. Just stay focused on priority fixes that deliver tangible progress. And share the load as a team .

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