Have you considered your organization’s technical debt?

Tldr; deal with your dirty laundry.

Have you ever skipped doing your laundry and watched as that pile of dirty clothes kept growing, just waiting for you to get around to it? You’re busy, you’re tired and you keep saying you’ll get to it tomorrow. Then suddenly, you realize that it’s been three weeks and now you’re running around frantically, late for work because you have no clean socks!

Those little things that you put off, which can grow from a minor inconvenience into a full-blown emergency when they’re ignored long enough. How many times have you had an alarm go off, or a customer issue arise from something you already knew about and meant to fix, but “haven’t had the time”? How many times have you been working on something and thought, “wow, this would be so much easier if I just had the time to …”?

That is technical debt.

But back to you. In your craze to leave for work you manage to find two old mismatched socks. One of them has a hole in it. You don’t have time for this! You throw them on and run out the door, on your way to solve real problems. Throughout the day, that hole grows and your foot starts to hurt. This is really not your day. In your panicked state this morning you actually managed to add more pain to your already stressed system, plus you still have to do your laundry when you get home! If only you’d taken the time a few days ago…

In the tech world where one seemingly small hole – one tiny vulnerability – can bring down your whole system, managing technical debt is critical. Fixing issues before they become emergent situations is necessary in order to succeed. If you’re always running at full speed to solve the latest issue in production, you’ll never get ahead of your competition and only fall further behind. It’s very easy to get into a pattern of leaving the little things for another day. Build optimizations, that random unit test that’s missing, that playbook you meant to write up after the last incident – technical debt is a real problem too! By spending just a little time each day to tidy up a few things, you can make your system more stable and provide a better experience for both your customers and your fellow developers.

Picture your code as that mountain of dirty laundry. Each day that passes, you add just a little more to it. The more debt you add on, the more daunting your task seems. It becomes a thing of legend. You joke about how you haven’t dealt with it, but really you’re growing increasingly anxious and wary about actually tackling it, and what you’ll find when you do. Maybe if you put it off just a little bit longer a hero will swoop in and clean up for you! (A woman can dream, right?) The more debt you add, the longer it will take to conquer it, and the harder it will be and the higher the risk is of introducing a new issue. This added stress and complexity doesn’t sound too appealing, so why do we do it? It’s usually caused by things like having too much work in progress, conflicting priorities and (surprise!) neglected work.

Managing technical debt requires only one important thing – a cultural change. As much as possible we need to stop creating technical debt, otherwise we will never be able to get it under control. To do that, we need to shift our mindset. We need to step back and take the time to see and make visible all of the technical debt we’re drowning in. Then we can start to chip away at it. My team took a page out of “The Unicorn Project” (Kim, 2019) and started by running “debt days” when we caught our breath between projects. Each person chooses a pain point, something they are interested in fixing, and we start there. We dedicate two days to removing debt and come out on the other side having completed tickets that were on the backlog for over a year. We also added new metrics and dashboards for better incident response, and improved developer tools. Now, with each new code change, we’re on the lookout. Does this change introduce any debt? Do we have the ability to fix that now? We encourage each other to fix issues as we find them whether it’s with the way our builds work, our communication processes or a bug in the code.

We need to give ourselves the time to breathe, in both our personal lives or our work day. Taking a pause between tasks not only allows us to mentally prepare for the next one, but it gives us time to learn and reflect. It’s in these pauses that we can see if we’ve created technical debt in any form and potentially go about fixing it right away. The improvement of daily work ultimately enables developers to focus on what’s really important, delivering value. It enables them to move faster and find more joy in their work.

So how do you stay on top of your never-ending laundry? Your family chooses to makes a cultural change and decides to dedicate time to it. You declare Saturday as laundry day!

Make the time to deal with technical debt –your developers, security teams, and your customers will thank you for it.

Kim, G. (2019). The unicorn project: a novel about developers, digital disruption, and thriving in the age of data. Portland, Oregon: IT Revolution.

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