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Tech Debt

February 15, 2024 - by Devico Team

7 Ways Product Managers Can Help Manage Technical Debt

Ignoring technical debt is akin to piloting a plane with outdated charts and faulty instruments. While the destination may initially seem attainable, unforeseen turbulence due to hidden inefficiencies can jeopardize the entire journey. But wait, what is technical debt?

Think back to the 2000s. Ward Cunningham, one of the contributors to Agile Manifesto, coined the term “technical debt” through comparison with financial debt. Much like the latest, technical debt (also known as code debt) involves trade-offs — shortcuts or quick solutions that expedite development but accrue interest over time. The consequences of code debt can be severe, impacting not only the speed of development but also the quality of the final product.

Now, let’s skip to almost modern time — to 2017. That year, the Equifax data breach occurred and shook the tech world. The credit reporting giant faced severe consequences due to vulnerabilities that had been put away for better times. The breach exposed the personal information of 147M of people. That case pops up every time we think about neglecting code debt.

This article shows dealing with technical debt in a product context since tech debt affects the product's overall quality, development speed, and, consequently, its success in the market.

How to Prevent Technical Debt as a Product Manager

We can’t help but admit that addressing existing technical debt is crucial. However, what separates an effective product manager from a mediocre one is the ability to anticipate and prevent. Let’s run through key strategies to minimize debt accumulation from the outset.

Plan Proactively & Encourage Responsibility

  • Foster a Culture of Code Ownership: You should create a safe environment and a friendly atmosphere so that developers won’t be afraid of taking ownership of the code they write. A sense of responsibility always leads to double-checking, thoughtful and sustainable coding practices. With such an approach, you reduce the likelihood of technical debt popping up.

  • Prioritize Code Reviews: But no matter how great the responsibility is, you should leverage thorough code review practice. Peer reviews not only catch potential issues early but also serve as educational opportunities for developers for better coding practices.

  • Invest in Continuous Learning: To avoid product debt, support ongoing learning initiatives for your development team. Staying ahead of the learning curve and the latest technologies helps make informed decisions that align with long-term product goals.

  • Align product vision with technical reality: Ensure that roadmaps and release schedules account for technical maintenance and refactoring realities. Remember, unrealistic deadlines incentivize shortcuts and make technical debt management challenging.

  • Quality over quantity — under any circumstances: Ensuring well-structured, maintainable code should be over rapid feature delivery. Build a team that values thorough testing, code reviews, and fidelity to best practices.

  • Prioritize refactoring as a feature: Regularly allocate time and resources to manage technical debt, treating it as an investment in long-term product health. Refactoring tasks should be packed into sprints and release cycles.

Nip it in the Bud

  • Conduct Regular Risk Assessments: Assess risks regularly to identify potential areas of technical debt. Proactive position always pays off. Such a measure allows product managers to handle issues before they escalate and impact the overall product quality.

  • Define and Enforce Coding Standards: Product managers should set up clear coding standards and enforce them consistently. Standardization strikes two birds with one stone: it improves code readability and minimizes the chances of technical debt.

Speak, Be Open, and Improve

Foster open communication and collaboration: Choose a single transparent communication channel between product managers and developers to facilitate early identification and discussion of potential debt-inducing decisions. Teams, Slack, the other one — the market offers various solutions.

Educate stakeholders on the cost of debt: Product managers should continuously explain how to prioritize tech debt and how the company will benefit from it. Set out its impact on product quality, development velocity, and long-term costs — secure buy-in for proactive debt management practices.

How to Manage Technical Debt as a Product Manager

Timely managing technical debt, if not a vital part of a successful product, is very important. Skillful product managers integrate specific strategies into their approach, which significantly impacts the overall health of SDLC. Below, we left seven strategies for skillful PMs on how to manage tech debt.

#1 "Tech Talks" or Knowledge-Sharing Sessions

Communication is paramount. In this case, we always recall the anecdote about conversation among blind, deaf, and dumb. They simply can’t get on the same page. Don't be like them and establish two-way communication.

Facilitate regular knowledge-sharing sessions within your development team. These sessions create a platform for developers to share insights, discuss challenges, and propose solutions related to technical debt. Consider using tools like Jira or Trello to track and categorize technical debt items within the development workflow, making it a visible and ongoing conversation.

#2 Advocate For Maintenance Within a Company

Maintenance of managing code debt is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. Advocate for the importance of ongoing maintenance and allocate resources wisely. During each conversation with higher management and stakeholders, try to get across that dedicating time and effort to addressing technical debt is an investment in the long-term success and sustainability of the product.

Share success stories or case studies where proactive technical debt management led to improved product stability and reduced overall development costs.

#3 Develop a KPI Tied to Basic Product Expectations

Many product companies zero in on the OKR approach. But no one has forbidden Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Create KPIs that directly align with fundamental product expectations. For example, if user experience is a critical aspect of your product, establish KPIs related to system responsiveness or page load times. Tie such KPIs to core product functionalities, and you’ll ensure that code debt management directly impacts the user experience and, hence, overall product success.

Learn 8 metrics for measuring your technical debt

#4 The Whole Shebang Tracking

In our case, integration is key. The development team should include technical debt tracking in one bunch with other development tasks. There are many tools for such a move: GitHub, Bitbucket, AWS CodeCommit, etc. They provide functionalities for creating and tracking issues related to technical debt within the same environment where code changes are managed. This way, you end up with a visible and streamlined development workflow.

#5 Provide Devs With More Freedom

Empower your development team to proactively plan for potential technical debt scenarios. Like anticipating challenges during the planning phase and incorporating strategies to address or mitigate technical debt. Because every product development scenario has many ramifications, and you must be flexible. Situation planning helps to set realistic expectations and allows for better resource allocation.

#6 Plan Reasonable Workloads for Sprints

SCRUM is good with adequate effort allocation. Remember, all in good times. Avoid overburdening development sprints with an excessive number of features or tight deadlines. Plan reasonable workloads, and developers will have the bandwidth to address technical debt alongside regular feature development. This approach fosters a balance between innovation and sustainability.

#7 Implement Automated Code Quality Checks

Integrate automated tools for code quality checks into your development pipeline. These tools can analyze codebase health, identify potential technical debt items, and provide actionable insights in real time. By automating code quality checks, you empower developers to catch and address issues early in the development process, reducing the likelihood of technical debt accumulation.

To Sum It Up

Technical debt is similar to financial debt. It is a powerful tool when wielded responsibly, but unchecked, it can become an anchor that makes your product potential go down the drain. Skillful product managers stand out by their ability to anticipate and prevent tech debt issues.

Align product vision with technical reality, champion quality over quantity, and foster a culture of continuous improvement. This is the only way to lay the groundwork for a sustainable future for your product. Open communication, collaboration, and measurement are your allies in this journey.

Remember, the mindset where managing technical debt is not a cost but an investment will always be more powerful than weak acceptance of inherited bugs. Tackle code debt proactively using 7 actionable strategies we've discussed, and you’ll unlock increased development velocity, enhanced product quality, and, ultimately, superior business outcomes.

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