In a previous article from our Drowning in Technical Debt series, we defined technical debt and discussed how it can creep into your organization and make you less competitive. Now, we’re digging even deeper into the hidden costs that make technical debt so serious and how, left unchecked, it can grind your organization to a halt.
True Cost of Technical Debt #1: Trapped Value
Great business leaders look beyond the most commonly acknowledged costs of technical debt–lower velocity, higher defect rates, and more–to the many ways that value can become trapped because it. For spotting value trapped in the system which results from high technical debt, listen for these kinds of statements bubbling up among development and IT teams:
- “We can’t do that yet, because that area of the system breaks whenever we touch it.”
- “Our testers spend 90% of their time performing regression tests.”
- “The business doesn’t understand that the system we’re building on top of has tons of landmines that slow us down.”
The trapped value these sentiments signal can manifest as decreased flow through your system. Things may take twice as long as planned, with your team having to update multiple code bases, address hardware redundancies, and add more and more vendors and integration points to an already complex system. Or, your team can get bogged down by manual processes or supporting work arounds from the Frankenstein system that has been created and the firefighting required to support it. Overall, your organization’s total cost of ownership for the system can start to spike thanks to these indirect costs, threatening the ROI of your product or service.
True Cost of Technical Debt #2: Tanking Team Morale
In the long run, technical debt and trapped value will also lead to lower team morale. People will hate working with your code base and possibly even your product. When bright and talented people spend loads of time fixing bugs and defects that they were forced to create to meet unrealistic deadlines, they’ll never get a chance to exercise their creative side and solve customer problems.
You might be thinking, “I don’t love every aspect of my job, either.” But in this digital age, we need to think of a development team as one of an organization’s most expensive assets. Attrition–related to high-debt systems that handcuff your technical talent–is going to be more costly than addressing your technical debt, overall. Plus, as author Daniel Pink’s research attests, people who have autonomy, mastery, and purpose will accomplish far more than simple order takers.
So how does an organization avoid these unexpected but all-too-real costs of technical debt? In our next post in this series, we’ll look at understanding your technical debt credit score. All organizations will incur some amount of technical debt, but avoiding the potentially devastating situations above is all about quantifying how much you’re accruing and making a plan for paying it down.