Navigating the Challenges of Technical Debt in Engineering Projects

Jose Ciccio

Senior Engineering Manager at Ladder Health


In the vast majority of engineering projects (to not say probably in all of them), technical debt is a common challenge that needs to be addressed effectively for long-term success. Technical debt refers to the accumulated cost of shortcuts, compromises, and suboptimal solutions made during the development process. Don't get me wrong, every project has tech debt to some degree, but chances are, that if the team is working at a really fast pace, with hard deadlines or is understaffed, it will cut corners and tech debt will get bigger and bigger. The main problems are that it can hinder productivity, increase maintenance costs, and limit the scalability of a project. In this article, we will explore strategies for identifying, prioritizing, and addressing technical debt in engineering projects.

Intentify Tech Debt

Identifying technical debt is the first step towards managing it effectively. It requires a keen eye for potential issues and a proactive approach to addressing them. There are several ways that this may appear in a project. As engineers, we usually want to make things bulletproof and perfect. While this is usually good, it also could end up being negative because it can lead to making the code more complex than it should and accounting for scenarios that may never happen. From my point of view, there are some common causes to incur tech debt that I want to expand on a little bit, so it will be easier to understand why this ends up happening and therefore will help to lead to informed decisions where at the very least the team can document some of their decisions, the rationale behind them, and then be able to track possible solutions. Remember: if you cannot measure things, you will not be able to improve. Here is a list of reasons why I commonly think that tech debt happens and some possible solutions for this:

1. Time Pressures

Time pressures are a common source of technical debt, pushing development teams to make shortcuts and compromises in order to meet tight deadlines. This often results in suboptimal code and architectural decisions that need to be revisited later.

Solution: Continuous Communication and Prioritization

To address this challenge, it is essential to prioritize a balance between speed and code quality. Implementing agile methodologies, such as Scrum or Kanban, allows for iterative development cycles, ensuring that the project progresses steadily while maintaining a focus on code integrity. Regular communication with upper management is also crucial to align on priorities and realistic time constraints. This ensures that business goals are met without significantly compromising code quality.

2. Overly Complex Technical Design

Complex technical designs can lead to increased maintenance costs and hinder the onboarding of new team members. This complexity often arises from trying to anticipate and solve every potential issue, which can be unnecessary and counterproductive.

Solution: Embrace Simplicity

To combat this, embrace simplicity and adhere to the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle. Regular code reviews and design discussions within the team can help identify and refactor overly complex components, fostering a culture of simplicity and maintainability. Simplifying the design not only makes the codebase easier to understand and modify but also reduces the likelihood of introducing bugs. I do think that something that defines a senior is the ability to make complex things to look simple, be able to design stuff that everyone can understand is an important perk that the seniors must have.

3. Poor Alignment to Standards

This one an the next one are usually related. Failing to adhere to coding standards can result in a fragmented and inconsistent codebase, making maintenance and collaboration challenging. This misalignment can be due to a lack of established standards or inconsistent application across the team.

Solution: Establish and Enforce Standards

Establish and enforce coding standards within the development team. Utilize automated tools for code analysis and continuous integration to ensure that the codebase aligns with industry best practices and follows a consistent style. Regularly update and communicate these standards to keep everyone aligned.

4. Lack of Skill

A team lacking the necessary skills to tackle specific challenges may inadvertently introduce technical debt. This can be due to insufficient training, experience, or a lack of access to the right resources. Usually everyone is trying to work as fast as they can and it may be impossible for a senior to check on all the PR's that everyone else is working on and also may end ub being a huge bottleneck.

Solution: Continuous Learning and Professional Development

Encourage continuous learning and professional development within the team. Identify skill gaps early on and provide training opportunities. Foster a culture that values knowledge sharing and collaboration to harness the collective expertise of the team. Pair programming and code reviews can also help in skill development and knowledge transfer.

5. Suboptimal Code

Suboptimal code, characterized by inefficiencies and redundancies, can accumulate over time and impede the overall performance of the software. This often results from rushed coding, lack of experience, or insufficient attention to detail. When you start seeing a pattern of copy-pasted components into your application, several places where everything looks exactly the same with minor changes, that's where you can start asking yourself if this code duplication is needed or if people are just working fast and duplicating everything to get stuff done. It gets even worse when people start copying from different standards within your own project so things get even messier

Solution: Regular Code Reviews and Static Analysis

Conduct regular code reviews, emphasizing the importance of clean, efficient code. Invest in static code analysis tools to automatically identify and rectify suboptimal code patterns during the development process. Encourage best practices and provide feedback to improve coding standards continuously. If you're interested I already have an article on how to improve code reviews :)

6. Delayed Refactoring

Delaying refactoring efforts can amplify technical debt as code becomes increasingly difficult to modify and maintain. As new features are added, the existing suboptimal code can cause more issues, making the system fragile.

Solution: Prioritize Refactoring

Prioritize refactoring as an integral part of the development process. Allocate time for refactoring tasks in each sprint or development cycle, ensuring that the codebase remains resilient and adaptable to evolving requirements. Regularly schedule refactoring sessions to address accumulated technical debt.

7. Insufficient Testing

Inadequate testing can result in the release of software with hidden defects, leading to increased maintenance efforts. This often happens due to a lack of time, resources, or prioritization for testing.

Solution: Robust Testing Strategy

Implement a robust testing strategy that includes unit tests, integration tests, and end-to-end tests. Embrace test-driven development (TDD) practices, where tests are written before the code, to ensure comprehensive test coverage and early detection of issues. Automated testing tools can help maintain high test coverage without adding significant manual effort.

Prioritizing Technical Debt

Once technical debt is identified, it is crucial to prioritize it based on its impact and urgency. Not all technical debt is created equal, and some issues may have a more significant impact on the project than others. Management action items should be prioritized based on their importance. Focus on the ones that have the highest impact on the project. This involves evaluating the cost of fixing the debt versus the cost of leaving it unresolved.

Addressing Technical Debt

Addressing technical debt requires a systematic approach that balances short-term fixes with long-term solutions. It is essential to strike a balance between delivering new features and improving the existing codebase. As engineers, we need to find a way to address technical debt without compromising our ability to deliver new features. It's a delicate balance. Regularly scheduled "tech debt sprints" or allocating a percentage of each sprint to addressing technical debt can be effective strategies. It is important to make sure that all stakeholders are on the same page when doing this and that they understand the importance of effectively tackling tech debt. The Role of Planning and Documentation Effective planning and documentation play a crucial role in managing technical debt. By having a clear roadmap and documenting decisions, it becomes easier to track and address technical debt over time. Planning is key. It is needed to ensure that there is a roadmap in place and document our decisions to avoid accumulating unnecessary technical debt. This documentation helps in understanding the context and rationale behind certain decisions, making it easier to revisit and refactor the code when needed.

Collaboration and Communication

Collaboration and communication are vital in managing technical debt effectively. It is essential to involve all stakeholders, including developers, project managers, and product owners, in the decision-making process. Everyone needs to work as a team to address technical debt. It's not just the responsibility of developers; everyone should be involved. Regular meetings and transparent communication help ensure that everyone is on the same page and working towards the same goals.


Technical debt is an inevitable part of engineering projects, but with the right strategies and approaches, it can be effectively managed. By identifying, prioritizing, and addressing technical debt, teams can ensure the long-term success of their projects. Managing technical debt is like maintaining a house. It requires regular attention and maintenance to prevent it from becoming a burden in the future. So let's embrace the challenge of technical debt and navigate it with diligence and foresight.


Some nice references I would like to share in case that you want to continue learning on these topics: Fowler, M. - "Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code." Addison-Wesley. McConnell, S. - "Code Complete: A Practical Handbook of Software Construction." Microsoft Press.

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Jose Ciccio

Senior Engineering Manager at Ladder Health

CommunicationDecision MakingEngineering ManagementProgrammingSoftware Development

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