ask eboyle: paying off tech debt -OR- my PM is scary

I’m an engineer, and I am told to work on “paying off tech debt”,  but I think if I do that it’s going to make my product manager mad. @eboyle what do I do?

Dear Engineer,

My advice is to get a new PM. Nah, just kidding. (A little. Mostly. Kind of.)

Questions like these are hard, because they’re not directly within your control. I do believe—quite strongly—that no product manager worth their salt will ever flat-out reject talking about the work you need to do to clean up tech debt. A good product manager will ask questions, and work with you (or your engineering manager) to determine how to layer tech debt work into ongoing product work.

Weighing the options

Here are some questions I would ask as a PM:

  1. What’s the scope of tech debt you plan to address?

  2. How urgent is this debt? If we don’t do something, will we have problems in 2 weeks? 2 months? A year?

  3. Does this tech debt directly impact any of the product areas we have plans to touch?

  4. How does this stack against other tech debt within our domain?

  5. How might this impact our existing goals? Will we not be able to address [problem y] if we pay down [tech debt x]?

  6. Can we divide this work up into smaller chunks?

Now, note that I don’t ask any of these questions because I don’t think paying down tech debt in important. But rather, I think it’s just as important as product feature work, and prioritizing feature work goes through a similar gauntlet of questions. The main difference is that you, the engineer, know way more about this problem set than me, the PM. So be a little patient and get me up to speed.

At this point, it really becomes a joint decision between the engineering and product managers. Both are responsible for weighing the trade-offs and coming to a reasonable compromise.

Build tech debt pay-down into your team processes

Every product or product area is unique when it comes to how much time needs to be spent working on features, updating designs ( design debt is real, y’all), or paying down tech debt. A healthy product tripod (engineering manager + product manager + lead designer) should decide on the default weight of tech debt for their ownership area. 

For example, if your product is fairly healthy and has a steady (but not overly aggressive) feature release cycle, a good rule of thumb is to dedicate 20% of engineering resources to paying down tech debt. This might mean that you always have one or two engineers working on tech debt in a rotation, or it might mean everyone is responsible for spending two days a sprint paying down tech debt.

A product area that isn’t seeing a lot of new product development, on the other hand, may have a higher rate of tech debt management. A feature in startup growth mode? Probably not going to be working on much tech debt.

Ok but I have a leaning tower of Pisa-code

Are things… leaning? Does it feel like you’re playing a very technical game of Jenga? Are you worried that working on the next feature will start crumbling the whole damned thing? Cool, 20% is probably not going to work for you. This is a perfect time for the tripod to reassess priorities and put the majority of focus on paying down the debt before it becomes a 4-alarm fire.

Please don’t let it become a 4-alarm fire. Don’t let your PM let it become a 4-alarm fire. But also be careful of how many times you play that card. If you treat everything as urgent, there’s a good chance you’ll start losing credibility with the PM. If it can honestly wait a year, say that. If it could really use an overhaul but really only this one piece needs to be done soon, say that. If it’s going to hell in a hand basket, for heaven’s sake say that too.

What even is tech debt?

Spoiler: almost everything in this post are questions I ask when I’m interviewing engineering manager candidates. I worry less about the answers, and more about how much thought has gone into tech debt as a concept, how much experience has gone into processes, and whether those views are nuanced. Let’s be honest, this is all just a pile of nuance.

So, here’s my take on what counts as tech debt. But again… nuance. Hand wavey. Also some things may fit into more than one of these categories.

  • Backend performance issues (think: long-running queries, database design issues, capacity issues)

  • Frontend performance issues (think: insanely large images, network chattiness, non-incremental loading)

  • Spaghetti code (we didn’t know where this was going to go when we first built it, but now we do and this is only going to get worse)

  • “Building feature xyz will take us 10 years and a million bribes in the form of cookies if we don’t redo this” things

  • “I-don’t-understand-but-trust-that-you-do” things

  • “Starting to address this now will prepare us for that thing we wanna do next year” things

  • Bugs. Yes. It’s true. Bugs happen. WE WILL SMASH THEM. But this is not, in the classic sense, tech debt.

You, too, can own a backlog

In my (in)famous guide to writing stories, I decree the following:

Thou shalt have all stories, chores, and bugs related to a product initiative in a single backlog

Exception: Tech debt or tech-only projects may have a separate technical backlog

This is probably a great time to talk about that exception. I strongly advocate for having a backlog dedicated to non-user-facing-bug tech debt. There’s already enough ordered chaos in the main backlog—there’s really no need to complicated matters further by adding in tech debt stories that I (or your product manager) may or may not understand—and I say this as a fairly technical PM.

There are several key advantages to having a separate tech debt backlog, other than saving my eyeballs from confusing stories:

  • The engineers can manage this backlog independent from product and design

  • Having a single list of tech debt allows the engineering manager and engineering team to prioritize tech debt amongst other tech debt

  • Whether everyone spends a percentage of the sprint working on tech debt, or whether there’s a rotating spot on the team, everyone has a single prioritized place to know what to work on next

  • Having actual stories can help keep engineers on task / prevent y’all from going down a rabbit hole of code optimization that I know you all fantasize about. I know you. Do not doubt me.

  • Having actual stories means engineers can pull them into a sprint, so that there’s no magical work happening that’s not being tracked against your velocity

But Erin, I thought tech debt should not be a thing that’s estimated!

Did I say that? I actually don’t think I said that, although… maybe I should’ve.

Honestly, whether to point or not to point tech debt, that is the question for your whole scrum team. Many teams decide to not point tech debt. Some teams decide to point-only-as-an-effort-box tech debt stories. It kind of doesn’t matter to me. As long as you pick one method and stick with it, it all can work.

No matter the method and whether there are points on tech debt stories, dragging them into your sprint will help your PM understand what you’re working on and where your time is going.

NOT BECAUSE THEY WANT TO MICRO-MANAGE YOU.

Seriously we have enough to do. We have no interest in micro-managing you. But we often have to set expectations and communicate progress to stakeholders and partners within the company. The more we can do that without having to bug you about what you’re doing, the happier we both are.

It’s ok to make your PM a little mad. Sometimes.

A product-engineering team is a lot like a system of checks and balances. It can feel like PMs are the executive, legislative, and judicial branches all in one, but it’s not actually true. Healthy teams should have disagreements. That doesn’t mean you don’t treat each other with respect… you absolutely treat each other as humans. And you also should push each other. Our strength as a team comes from being able to challenge one another because we all have different backgrounds, strengths, and perspectives.

when it comes to Product managers being mad… it’s all relative.

tl;dr

So, that’s what I’d do. Make sure that you, as a team, talk about how to handle ongoing tech debt pay-down vs one-off or project-level pay-down. Be prepared to answer your PM’s questions about what you’re proposing. Prioritize tech debt within a backlog. And, you know… irritate your PM once in awhile. Tell them I gave you permission.

Until next time,
eboyle


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