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Adam Brandizzi
Adam Brandizzi

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A smooth way to pay your technical debt

Some time ago the man, the myth, the legend Fabrício Buzeto asked this interesting question:

Out of curiosity. Does your team keep a list of technical debt? Does it make you feel joy?

It brought me some memories back. I was for a few years responsible for the Liferay Calendar and Kaleo Designer portlets. These were complex single-page apps, built in a fast pace when the concept of SPAs was still evolving. So, many choices called for a review.

So I started writing JIRA tickets for technical debt. When one of those health issues made a bug fix or feature harder to implement, I’d convert that technical debt ticket into a sub-task of the demand. As I like to say, I was “billing the debt from the feature.”

I commented that and he asked me a crucial question:

Why not treat them like any other card in the backlog then?

Why, indeed? Well, at first, we tried! I would present the debt issues in our prioritization meetings. Having the problems written helped a lot to caught the managers’ attention, by the way.

Technical debt is a hard sell, though. People are understandably wary about buying into something whose value they could not see. Nonetheless, changes took increasingly more time to deliver and regression bugs kept popping up. We needed to fix these health problems.

That’s why I started to work on debt as part of value-adding tasks. Working on the debt to make a demand easier was a great evidence that extra work was worth it. It was not just some random idea we worked on to postpone duties: it delivered value.

That is the first reason for handling technical debt as sub-tasks of value issues: By binding the debt to a value-adding task, it is easier to justify the extra effort to stakeholders.

At first, this debt-billing was only a communication device. But there was a cool side effect: the most glaring issues kept being solved first. That makes sense: since we worked on them when they caused problems, the the ones causing more problems were solved first. Since prioritization is always a challenge (and prioritizing technical debt is even harder) it was a huge help.

We still had a huge pile of technical debt tasks, but many of the pending tasks were not relevant. Some, already solved. Others were elegant ideas back then, but didn’t make sense anymore. In hindsight, a good part of the “debt” were personal preferences, or assumptions that weren’t true anymore after some product evolution.

This is the second reason for debt-billing: Working on health issues as part of demand is an effective way to prioritize which technical debt to work on.

See how great it is! Had we worked on technical debt by themselves — for example, in a task force —, we might apply changes that could actually make future evolution harder. Debt-billing let us confirm which requests were fit for our goals. And it has a subtler, more important consequence.

We developers are are an opinionated lot, and this is good. We usually try to make these opinions into a goal. But it is hard to know if a goal is right. Once we use these ideas as helpers for something more clearly relevant, that goal turns into a tool. Tools are much easier to evaluate!

This is a third reason for debt-billing: when technical debt is linked to value delivery, the creative force from the team works together with the organization’s objectives.

Our experience is that this strategy was quite effective. Everybody knew their suggestions would be evaluated: health tasks wouldn’t be a chore to prioritize anymore, but a toolset that our colleagues would look for to help with their challenges. The debt backlog was not a wishing well anymore.

The apps got better, too. When I started working on the Calendar, for example, it was presented as an example of an application that didn’t work. The first bug after the initial release was that it couldn’t save events! When I left that team, the Calendar had no bug of priority 3 or higher (the levels we have to fix). And we delivered quite a good amount of features, even including some that weren’t present in some leader competitors. Not bad for a product that, a few years before, was described as an example of non-working feature!

It felt right to bill the technical debt from the demands, but I never thought deeply about why it felt right. So, thank you for asking that, Fabrício! It was a joy to think about it.

EDIT: I just recalled Ron Jeffries wrote a great post about his approach to refactoring, which the one here is similar to. Totally worth reading!

(Originally published as "Billing the technical debt" on Suspension of Disbelief.)

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