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Bottleneck #01: Tech Debt


In its early days, a startup searches for a good product-market fit. When
it finds one it looks to grow rapidly, a phase known as a scaleup. At this
time it’s growing rapidly along many dimensions: revenues, customer,
headcount. At Thoughtworks, we’ve worked with many such scaleups, and our
work has focused on how to help them overcome various bottlenecks that
impede this growth.

As we’ve done this work, we’ve noticed common
bottlenecks, and learned approaches to deal with them. This article is the
first in a series that examines these bottlenecks. In each article we’ll look
at how startups get into the bottleneck, usually through doing the right
things that are needed early in a startup’s life, but are no longer right as
growth changes the context for ways of working. We’ll highlight key signs
that the startup is approaching or stuck in the bottleneck. We’ll then talk
about how to break through the bottleneck, describing the changes we’ve seen
that allow scaleups to reach their proper potential.

We start this series by looking at technical debt: how the tools and
practices that facilitate rapid experimentation of the product/market fit
need to change once growth kicks in.

How did you get into the bottleneck?

The most common scaling bottleneck we encounter is technical debt —
startups regularly state that tech debt is their main impediment to
growth. The term “tech debt” tends to be used as a catch-all term,
generally indicating that the technical platform and stack needs
improvement. They’ve seen feature development slow down, quality issues, or
engineering frustration. The startup team attributes it to technical debt
incurred due to a lack of technical investment during their growth phase.
An analysis is required to figure out the type and scale of the tech debt.
It could be that the code quality is bad, an older language or framework
is used, or the deployment and operation of the product isn’t fully
automated. The solution strategy might be slight changes to the teams’
process or starting an initiative to rebuild parts of the application.

It’s important to say that prudent technical debt is healthy and desired,
especially in the initial phases of a startup’s journey. Startups should
trade technical aspects such as quality or robustness for product delivery
speed. This will get the startup to its first goal – a viable business
model, a proven product and customers that love the product. But as the
company looks to scale up, we have to address the shortcuts taken, or it
will very quickly affect the business.

Let’s examine a couple of examples we’ve encountered.

Company A – A startup has built an MVP that has shown enough
evidence (user traffic, user sentiment, revenue) for investors and secured
the next round of funding. Like most MVPs, it was built to generate user
feedback rather than high-quality technical architecture. After the
funding, instead of rebuilding that pilot, they build upon it, keeping the
traction by focusing on features. This may not be an immediate problem
since the startup has a small senior team that knows the sharp edges and
can put in bandaid solutions to keep the company afloat.

The issues start to arise when the team continues to focus on feature
development and the debt isn’t getting paid down. Over time, the
low-quality MVP becomes core components, with no clear path to improve or
replace them. There is friction to learn, work, and support the code. It
becomes increasingly difficult to expand the team or the feature set
effectively. The engineering leaders are also very nervous about the
attrition of the original engineers and losing the knowledge they have.

Eventually, the lack of technical investment comes to a head. The team
becomes paralyzed, measured in lower velocity and team frustration. The
startup has to rebuild significantly, meaning feature development has to
slow down, allowing competitors to catch up.

Company B – The company was founded by ex-engineers and they
wanted to do everything “right.” It was built to scale out of the box.
They used the latest libraries and programming languages. It has a finely
grained architecture, allowing each part of the application to be
implemented with different technologies, each optimized to scale
perfectly. As a result, it will easily be able to handle hyper growth when
the company gets there.

The issue with this example is that it took a long time to create,
feature development was slow, and many engineers spent time working on the
platform rather than the product. It was also hard to experiment — the
finely grained architecture meant ideas that didn’t fit into an existing
service architecture were challenging to do. The company didn’t realize
the value of the highly scalable architecture because it was not able to
find a product-market fit to reach that scale of customer base.

These are two extreme examples, based on an amalgamation of various
clients with whom the startup teams at Thoughtworks have worked. Company A
got itself into a technical debt bottleneck that paralyzed the company.
Company B over-engineered a solution that slowed down development and
crippled its ability to pivot quickly as it learnt more.

The theme with both is an inability to find the right balance of technical
investment vs. product delivery. Ideally we want to leverage the use of prudent technical debt to power
rapid feature development and experimentation. When the ideas are found to
be valuable, we should pay down that technical debt. While this is very easily
stated, it can be a challenge to put into practice.

To explore how to create the right balance, we are going to examine the
different types of technical debt:

Typical types of debt:

Technical debt is an ambiguous term, often regarded as purely
code-related. For this discussion, we’re going to use technical debt to mean
any technical shortcut, where we’re trading long-term investment into a
technical platform for short-term feature development.

Code quality
Code that is brittle, hard to test, hard to understand, or poorly
documented will make all development and maintenance tasks slower and will
degrade the “enjoyment” of writing code while demotivating engineers.
Another example is a domain model and associated data model that doesn’t
fit the current business model, resulting in workarounds.

Testing
A lack of unit, integration, or E2E tests, or the wrong distribution
(see test pyramid). The developer can’t quickly get confidence that
their code will not break existing functionality and dependencies. This leads
to developers batching changes and a reduction of deployment frequency.
Larger increments are harder to test and will often result in more bugs.
Coupling
Between modules (often happens in a monolith), teams potentially
block each other, thus reducing the deployment frequency and
increasing lead time for changes. One solution is to pull out services
into microservices, which comes with it’s own
complexity
— there can be more straightforward ways of setting
clear boundaries within the monolith.

Unused or low value features
Not typically thought of as technical debt, but one of the symptoms of
tech debt is code that is hard to work with. More features creates
more conditions, more edge cases that developers have to design
around. This erodes the delivery speed. A startup is experimenting. We
should always make sure to go back and re-evaluate if the experiment
(the feature) is working, and if not, delete it. Emotionally, it can be very
difficult for teams to make a judgment call, but it becomes much easier
when you have objective data quantifying the feature value.

Out of date libraries or frameworks
The team will be unable to take advantage of new improvements and
remain vulnerable to security problems. It will result in a skills
problem, slowing down the onboarding of new hires and frustrating
current developers who are forced to work with older versions. Additionally, those
legacy frameworks tend to limit further upgrades and innovation.

Tooling
Sub-optimum third-party products or tools that require a lot of
maintenance. The landscape is ever-changing, and more efficient
tooling may have entered the market. Developers also naturally want to
work with the most efficient tools. The balance between buying vs.
building is complex and needs reassessment with the remaining debt in
consideration.

Reliability and performance engineering problems
This can affect the customer experience and the ability to scale. We
have to be careful, as we have seen wasted effort in premature
optimization when scaling for a hypothetical future situation. It’s better to
have a product proven to be valuable with users than an unproven product
that can scale. We’ll describe this in more detail in the piece on
“Scaling Bottleneck: Built without reliability and observability in mind”.

Manual processes
Part of the product delivery workflow isn’t automated. This could
be steps in the developer workflow or things related to managing the
production system. A warning: this can also go the other way when you
spend a lot of time automating something that is not used enough to be
worth the investment.

Automated deployments
Early stage startups can get away with a simple setup, but this should
be addressed very soon — small incremental deployments power experimental
software delivery. Use the four key metrics as your guide post. You should
have the ability to deploy at will, usually at least once a day.

Knowledge sharing
Lack of useful information is a form of technical debt. It makes
it difficult for new employees and dependent teams to get up to speed.
As standard practice, development teams should produce concisely
written technical documentation, API Specifications, and architectural
decision records. It should also be discoverable via a developer
portal or search engine. An anti-pattern is no moderation and
deprecation process to ensure quality.

Is that really technical debt or functionality?

Startups often tell us about being swamped with technical debt, but
under examination they’re really referring to the limited functionality
of the technical platform, which needs its own proper treatment with
planning, requirement gathering, and dedicated resources.

For example, Thoughtworks’ startup teams often work with clients on
automating customer onboarding. They might have a single-tenant solution
with little automation. This starts off well enough — the developers can
manually set up the accounts and track the differences between installs.
But, as you add more clients, it becomes too time-consuming for the
developers. So the startup might hire dedicated operations staff to set
up the customer accounts. As the user base and functionality grows, it
becomes increasingly difficult to manage the different installs —
customer onboarding time increases, and quality problems increase. At
this point automating the deployment and configuration or moving to a
multi-tenant setup will directly impact KPIs — this is
functionality.

Other forms of technical debt are harder to spot and harder to point
to a direct impact, such as code that is difficult to work with or short
repeated manual processes. The best way to identify them is with
feedback from the teams that experience them day-to-day. A team’s
continuous improvement process can handle it and shouldn’t require a
dedicated initiative to fix it.

How do you get out of the bottleneck?

The approach that teams are taking to technical debt should come from
its technical strategy, set by its leaders. It should be intentional,
clear, and re-evaluated over time. Unfortunately, we often see teams
working off historical directions, creating future problems without
realizing it. For a company in this circumstance, a few opportunities
commonly trigger when to re-evaluate their current strategy:

  • New funding means more features and more resources — this will compound
    current problems. Addressing current technical debt should be part of the
    funding plan.
  • New product direction can invalidate previous assumptions and put
    stress on new parts of the systems.
  • A good governance process involves reevaluating the state of the
    technology on a regular cadence.
  • New opinions can help avoid “boiling frog” problems. Outside help, team
    rotations and new employees will bring a fresh perspective.

The slippery slope

How did you end up with a lot of technical debt? It can be very hard to
pinpoint. Typically it isn’t due to just one event or decision, but
rather a series of decisions and trade-offs made under pressure.

Ironically, in retrospect, if one considers each decision at the point
in time at which it was made, based on what was known at the
time, it is unlikely to be considered a mistake. However, one
concession leads to another and so on, until you have a serious problem
with quality. There is commonly a tipping point at which resolving the
tech debt takes more time than developing incremental value.

It’s hard to recover and the situation tends to snowball. It is
natural for developers to use the current state as an indicator of what
is acceptable. In these conditions, developing the new features will
result in even more debt. This is the slippery slope, a vicious cycle
that unfortunately leads to a cliff as the effort to implement the next
feature increases non-linearly.

Set a quality bar

Many organizations find it beneficial to have a set of standards and
practices to which the company is committed that guide technical
evolution. Keep in mind that some technical practices are quite
difficult to achieve, for example continuous delivery; deploying
regularly without affecting users is technically challenging. Teams
often have initial problems, and in response leadership may deprioritize
the practice. Instead we recommend the opposite, do it more often and
your teams will master the practices and form strong habits. When the
tough time comes, rather than dropping the practice, use the feedback to
guide future investment in team capability.

Blast Radius

We accept that taking shortcuts is a necessary part of scaling the
business. How do we limit the blast radius, knowing that these shortcuts
will need to be resolved, or even totally rebuilt? Clearly, we need a
strategy that limits the impact to the business. One way is to decouple
teams and systems, which allows a team to introduce tech debt that is
isolated and won’t necessarily snowball as described above.

High quality literature about decoupling is plentiful, so we won’t
attempt to explain here. We recommend focusing attention on
microservices and domain driven design techniques. However, be careful
doing too much too early, decoupling adds latency and complexity to your
systems, and choosing poor domain boundaries between teams can add
communication friction. We will be writing about anti-patterns related
to overcomplicated distributed architectures in future articles.

Product and Engineering Collaboration

If trade off conversations aren’t balanced between business strategy,
product and engineering, technical quality most commonly degrades first,
and as a result product quality eventually suffers as well. When you
look for the root cause of this bottleneck, it nearly always comes down
to the balance within the company between business, product and
engineering goals. Lack of collaboration typically leads to short
sighted decisions made in a vacuum. This can go both ways, cutting
corners in critical areas or gold plating something that isn’t valuable
are equally likely.

product eng collaboration

  • The business strategy at any point in time should be clear and transparent.
  • We empower team leaders to make decisions which benefit the business.
  • Product and Engineering should have an equal footing, trust in each other, and
    be willing to make trade off decisions based on long and short term impact to the business.
  • Decisions are made with data – e.g. the current state of the technical platform,
    estimates, analysis of expected value and KPI improvement, user research, A/B test results.
  • Decisions are revisited when data is refined or new learnings are discovered.

A tech strategy to limit technical debt impact

When thinking of strategies for a startup, and how it scales, we like
to use a four-phase model to understand the different stages of a
startup’s development.

Phase 1

Experimenting

Prototypes – semi-functional software to demonstrate product,
moving to functional with increasing interest

Phase 2

Getting Traction

Ecosystem decisions – cloud vendor, language choices, service
integration style

Replace prototype software for core systems

Setup initial foundations – experimentation, CI/CD, API,
observability, analytics

Establish the broad domains, set initial soft boundaries (in
code)

Phase 3

(Hyper) Growth

Create decoupled product teams managing their own services

Establish SLAs and quality bar, linked to signals around customer
experience of product

Establish platform teams focused on the effectiveness of product
teams

Phase 4

Optimizing

Reassess SLA and quality bar focused on long term productivity
and maintenance

Audit state of technical platform, sponsor initiatives in product
teams and create temporary tiger teams to fix biggest technical debt

Rebuild or buy capabilities for improved efficiency

Train teams on good technical quality practices

How do you address the tech debt

It starts with transparent information sharing how the
business is doing, the current product direction, metrics on the current
scaling capacity, what customers are saying about the product and what
customer support and ops are seeing. This information will allow
technologists to make informed decisions. Sharing the data of the
current challenge helps technologists to know why problems are being
addressed and measure their success.

There should be clear end-to-end ownership of all products and
their related systems. As teams grow and take responsibility for their
respective areas, there is often no clear ownership for an end-to-end
journey, which leaves technical gaps that often become filled with
technical debt. As teams grow and take on new duties, it becomes
increasingly difficult to find an owner for older code. Furthermore,
without ownership, teams are less incentivized to fix problems.

We have to empower teams to fix problems — resolving technical debt should
be part of the natural flow of product development. Engineers and product
managers need to negotiate the healthy balance between tech debt vs.
functionality with the right pragmatic mentality. It’s part of a product
team’s job to maintain and sustain technically healthy products, not something
done as an after-thought. There should be an agreed process to tackle and
monitor technical debt continually. This requires hard trade-offs among
engineering and product leaders to keep a stable balance.

Designing your team topology the right
way can also be a factor. For example, suppose we continually see
technical debt created in certain areas. In that case, it might indicate
that the team design is wrong, and there might be a platform or business
capability that needs strong ownership and attention.

Some metrics are powerful — for example, scanning for common
mistakes or measuring build and deployment times. The engineering
organization should provide self-service tooling into which teams
can quickly integrate their systems. Metrics should be used as guides
for the team to make decisions about tech-debt rather than for managers
to monitor or incentivize. Experienced developers provide value by
interpreting the available data and grounding their intution in fact-based
qualitative information.

While we believe in autonomous teams, too much autonomy can be a problem
and can result in a chaotic technical landscape. There should be lightweight checks and balances such
as automated checks or architectural peer review, which can help enforce
policies and aid developers.

How your organization chooses to address its tech debt depends on your
context. One common theme we have seen across many organizations is the desire
to “just do something,” often resulting in a band-aid which soon creates its
own set of frictions. Instead, we’ve found that taking an iterative approach
and letting the metrics combined with current development activity guide the investment in resolving tech debt results in
better outcomes.



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