The technical debt tipping point 

Key takeaways:

  • Reaching a technical debt tipping point can be catastrophic for businesses
  • Pinning down the severity of technical debt can be tricky, but there are symptoms to look out for
  • Leaders should have a good understanding of the state of their business’s technical debt
  • There are actions that businesses can take to avoid the tipping point

Technical debt can be difficult to pin down. Its meaning has corrupted somewhat over the years which has diluted the original purpose. However, the common thread among all flavours is that some aspects of the technology estate are in a state which will damage the business’s ability to change.

Change being the very thing required to pay down technical debt means that it can be a very challenging hole to climb out of and it is among the most serious issues to be highlighted in technical due diligence assessments.

While technical debt can be a serious issue, it is also something that every business has. Given that every business is on a sliding scale, defining the severity of the risk presented by technical debt can be difficult.

Arguments made by those downplaying technical debt issues
  • The business is able to perform regular software releases
  • The platform has been stable for an extended period
  • The business does not intend to make changes to the system
  • This system is going to be turned off in the medium term

All of these are reasonable and they should make us think hard about how worried should we be about the technical debt, and even harder about the investment required to pay it down. That’s not to say there are no counterpoints here:

The business is able to perform regular software releases

  • While this may be possible with a small, expert development team, what will happen when the team size and pace of change increase?

The platform has been stable and working for an extended period

  • Just because something works reliably now does not mean it’s going to support the change which is required to support the business in the future.

The business does not intend to make changes to the system

  • A system which is not changing is going to become ineffective for its user base eventually. The cost of change at that later time is likely to be higher than it is now, potentially even requiring a full rewrite.

The system is going to be turned off in the short/medium term

  • How certain is this? Will there be a long tail of customers or users who rely on the system and will it be difficult to move them off it?
What is the technical debt tipping point and how can you identify it?

The reality is that many businesses carry significant technical debt for extended periods with limited impact. One way to think about the risk in those businesses is considering how close they are to a technical debt tipping point.

When businesses reach this point, they can no longer get away with their technical debt and it makes its presence more keenly felt. Often, this point is nearer than it appears to be. CEOs and CTOs should be thinking hard about that tipping point even if it feels like technical debt is under control.

Technical debt builds up slowly over time but the transition to impact is often felt in a much shorter period. Triggers can be changes in the team revealing key person dependencies; increases in team size; significant product enhancements; or any smaller changes in long stable areas.

Once technical debt takes hold, the spiral into excessive time and disproportionate effort for change can be rapid. Once there, everything becomes difficult.

Clues indicating that you might be nearing the cliff edge:

  • A simple change can’t be made quickly by a single individual
  • Estimating is making smart people look like they don’t know what they are doing
  • Releases are introducing live issues
  • Release dates are extended to mitigate risks with the release
  • Releases are getting larger to make up for the delays
  • More processes are appearing between code complete and the live deployment

It’s hard to describe to those who have not experienced it, how frustrating and soul-destroying technology delivery becomes when technical debt has taken hold. Not only will it require significant investment and come with a large opportunity cost – it’s the people cost which will be most significant. Once people start leaving, the problem will become worse still.

How can you avoid the tipping point?

So, how can this Armageddon be avoided?

Understand the state of your technical debt

First and foremost is awareness. You don’t always have to pay down all the technical debt but it’s important to measure and categorise what is there, to support decision-making.

Have a strategy

Have a strategy for the technical debt, consider the risk the business is willing to carry and put an approach in place which is going to keep the technical debt aligned with the risk appetite. This risk assessment will require input from leadership.

Ensure that changes can be made quickly and safely

It’s important to prioritise the production line as well as the product. It’s crucial to spend adequate time ensuring that changes can be made quickly and safely. Implementing sound agile practices and making continuous improvement a part of the culture provide a good starting point. Outcomes will include automated testing, CI/CD pipelines and process improvements. This doesn’t come for free and will take time away from new features.

Focus on quality

Most software lifecycles include a functional testing phase but what about the non-functional requirements? Make sure that the right quality gates are in place for these too. Most relevant to technical debt is a robust peer review process and effective static analysis tooling.

Include technical debt paydown in your roadmap

Make sure the roadmap considers time spent on technical debt paydown and architectural improvements in the right proportions with new features and enhancements.

Technical debt is serious, it can literally stop change in the business. It’s something you should be thinking about whether you are a CTO or a CEO, and there are some practical measures that can be taken to mitigate risk.

The key thing is to understand the state of your business’s technical debt and to take the necessary steps to avoid the tipping point. Acting after the event will be more costly and more damaging to the organisation.

If you are concerned about technical debt in your organisation, Intechnica’s Technology Health Check can help you identify and categorise it, while providing practical recommendations for technical debt paydown. Find out more by getting in touch with our team of experts.

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