Technical Debt: Part I

Technical debt is kind of like iced coffee: it can be the greatest benefit or worst nightmare under the sun, and the side we fall on seems to depend more on the composition of folks around the coffee machine than it does the actual debt you’re considering accumulating. I guess rather than iced coffee, technical debt can be better compared to a good whisky. “It’s an acquired taste. You just have to get used to it, then you’ll love it.” That may be true, but why would I subject myself to the pungent and sickening odors in the first place? Why should I want to acquire it?

Full Disclosure: I’m a big scotch guy.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to acquire a taste for it. My dad bought me my first bottle of Johnny Walker Black when I was moving into my own place for the first time (dormitories at a dry campus in a dry town notwithstanding), and it was an instant hit with both me and my roommate Ben. That bottle kicked off an academic year of whisky tasting adventures and education, which paved the way for years of countless more experiences, learning, enjoying, and a feeling of satisfaction with the journey.

In the years since, I’ve come to understand that some people just don’t care for it. And that’s okay. I mean, they’re objectively wrong, but I understand their position. Some friends immediately took to it like I did, some did end up acquiring the taste and have grown to appreciate it the same way I have. Some spit it out and cussed at me for making them try such a horrid thing. But at the end of the day, anybody that gave it a fair shot – even if they hated it – were appreciative of the experience, and were able to grasp what scotch meant to those of us that truly did see inherent value in it, even if they couldn’t.

Before this becomes a dissertation on my spirit of choice, let’s circle back to technical debt. It’s important to understand the utility it provides, that even though we may have a predisposition against it, it does, in fact, exist for a reason. Technical debt has gotten a terrible reputation over the last decade or two. With Silicon Valley VC culture pushing “move fast and break things” to the limit, we’ve taken development of the next big thing and placed it on a mantle. Somewhere below – maybe in the ashen remains of “good business practice” and “but… doesn’t someone need to buy this?” – we might find a sticky note that vaguely references a business plan for profitability.

Because of what we lost in the flames while we focused on the mantle of R&D, we’ve begun seeing more and more articles about how the Silicon Valley jig is up. ROI, for companies like Theranos (shut down fraud in 2018, shortly after hitting a $30B valuation), WeWork (having a valuation of $47B, despite having not reached profitability in its nearly ten year history), Tesla (I’ll accept your outrage, but belief in a company doesn’t exempt it from this list), isn’t an immediate focus. The concept behind these organizations and thousands more was to create, not to sell. “We’ll reach profitability once we get there,” to wherever that nebulous there might be.

And through watching these companies falter, focusing on creating rather than business-ing, we’ve become wary of technical debt. The large companies that first evangelized creative-first are big enough to invest and withstand the losses that came with it. Facebook’s “Move Fast and Break Things” was fine for them – because they could afford it when things broke and needed repairing. The startups following those teachings, however, often find themselves in a quagmire of failures, wondering why, when they moved so fast and created so hard, they failed. The result is a shifting focus exclusively to quality and altogether rejecting ignoring iterative speed. The issue we’re facing now is we’re losing focus in efficiency. Tradeoffs are a real thing, and technical debt inherently describes a tradeoff between quality and speed, the intersection of which is efficiency.

First-mover advantage, the marketing term for being first to market, is a massive benefit for any organization. Exclusive vendor agreements, brand name recognition (Kleenex versus Tissues; but candidly I have no idea if that’s a first to market situation or not), and switching costs are all benefits that first to market firms enjoy. In many of these races, the accumulation of technical debt can absolutely be justified simply by being first.

Conversely, industry specifics aside, it can cost up to 75% less to replicate and manufacture a competing product compared to creating that same product from scratch. With such low barriers to entry, your first-mover advantage won’t last long. You need to be able to capitalize on it the moment you get there.

That’s where managed technical debt comes into play. Just like successful use of a credit card, buying now and paying later requires a plan. Blind hope that you’ll have the funds to cover your charges when the bill comes isn’t going to keep MasterCard happy, and blind hope that you’ll have resources to recover technical debt isn’t going to keep your engineering team happy either. Don’t be afraid to acquire the taste, to try out technical debt, to dip your toes in and see if you can reap some benefits of it. Just be sure to manage it.

But what does debt management look like? At its core, it means maintaining open lines of communication with your engineers. If they’re fighting technical debt, they won’t hesitate to share that with anyone from the Engineering Manager to the Product Manager and the CEO. I have yet to meet an engineer unwilling to tell a startup CEO what he needed to succeed, and I’ve met too many Managers and CEOs unwilling to listen.

Alternatively, they may be happy with where things are as they focus on key functionality, exciting features, and necessary integrations. Don’t be afraid to let your teams create, rather than clean. I’m a pretty good cook, but while the Beef Wellington may look beautiful coming out of the oven, the kitchen itself is guaranteed to look like a Category 4 Hurricane came through minutes before. If I focus on trying to keep it clean, something is certain to get burned, and my quality decreases exponentially. Just let me focus on my task, man!

Early on, the Beef Wellington – the product – is critical. Keep an eye on how messy your kitchen is, but don’t risk your product to keep it pristine. Communicate with your guys, manage your debt, ensure you’re cleaning a bit here and there. Dedicate a few hours a week to cleaning it up or, if you can afford it, considering bringing in a dedicated janitor, someone to review code and clean it up each day.

It’s possible to keep up and to catch up, just don’t keep falling further and further behind.