This Level of Technical Debt Is Necessary for Innovation

February 8, 2016

9:00 pm

Vision. It is a word that has become synonymous with entrepreneurship. As an executive, if you have great management skills, can deliver a stellar PowerPoint, and influence a company culture, you will earn a large paycheck. But if you can do those things and are known for your vision then you become a legend.

Vision is sort of arbitrary and can be measured in many ways. The way in which I measure the vision of any company leader may surprise you; I measure vision by the amount of technical debt with which that company operates, as this is the simplest baseline to understand whether a leader cares more about today than the future.

At its simplest, technical debt is cost on future features, but what it really symbolizes is the temptation to satisfy the short-term at the cost of the long-term.

Benefits of Technical Debt

There is a certain level of technical debt that is not only acceptable but beneficial. This range changes depending on the stage of your company’s journey. Our research shows that up to 40 percent technical debt for early-stage companies and up to 20 percent for more mature organizations is actually healthy. Once you cross over those thresholds, you risk releasing buggy products that will negatively impact your relationship with customers.

If you’re operating in this range, it means you’re innovating without being reckless. Naturally, as you mature and develop your product-market fit, your technical debt should decrease as does your rate of experimentation. At that point you do fewer things but your goal is to do them well. Once you go over those pre-described ranges, your products begin to suffer to the point that users will notice. If a company begins to drift into that territory it makes me question their long-term goals.

When there is a need to put out a new product or feature, you sacrifice certain things to hit a tight deadline, which is why technical debt is often created in a rush. This is why our range is higher for startups who are trying to find their product fit.

The Problem with Technical Debt

The problem with technical debt, however, is that it makes all future products and features more difficult since you have to go in and clean away that debt. When you have a single developer who understands the trade-offs he made to get the product done, this isn’t a huge deal; however, if you have a lot of debt when you try to scale your engineering team then you are delaying the time to productivity for each of those new developers. This is wasting money and slowing your ability to scale and to grow in the long run.

How could any leader be considered visionary if he or she is allowing internal decisions to slow the growth of the company? In fact, you can begin to infer a lot about a company by their approach to technical debt. If a company is only focused on today and providing this new feature at the neglect of their long term health it must mean:

  1. They don’t care about the long-term and are ramping up for an exit;
  2. They’re losing market share to competitors and need new bells and whistles to keep up; or
  3. There is no great alignment between sales and product.

If they have a lot of technical debt but aren’t constantly innovating it means they have sloppy developers. Since most developers by their nature are hard-working, I begin to question the culture and environment of a company that cannot properly motivate and engage them.

On the other hand, a company that can create new products, ensure their flagship products are running smoothly and manage their technical debt has phenomenal leadership and exponentially increases its chances of becoming a stand alone franchise.

If you’re a company leader and reading this article in a cold sweat because you don’t know where your company’s technical debt stands, you’re not alone. It is hard to have vision without visibility, which is why I am advocating for a new age of engineering metrics. Only when our code can come out from the shadows of our Linux operating systems and into the boardroom can we make intelligent and efficient business decisions. When that happens – and it is starting to happen in enterprises around the world – then there will be no excuse. Leaders will either have the vision to lead their companies into the future or into the ground. It will be their choice.

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Brian is the CEO and Founder of Bliss, an automated technical debt management system. He writes frequently about his experience as a non-technical co-founder.