Tackling Technical Debt - A CTO's Guide for Startups

Magnus Udbjørg




"Technical debt can significantly hinder a startup's progress and agility."

Key takeaways include

  1. "The term 'technical debt' improves communication and collaboration between technical and non-technical stakeholders, emphasising the need for a long-term approach to software development."
  2. "Understanding the implications of technical debt, such as slower product development and reduced agility, is essential for startups to maintain their competitive edge."
  3. "Strategies for managing technical debt include prioritising debt reduction, creating a technical debt register, establishing coding standards, investing in continuous learning, and balancing short-term and long-term goals."
  4. "Identifying and prioritising technical debt for maximum value involves assessing code metrics, code churn, bug density, and team feedback to determine which areas of the codebase to address."
  5. "Defining value in technical debt considers business value and engineering performance factors such as resilience and maintainability."

By proactively addressing technical debt and balancing business value, resilience, and engineering performance, startups can maintain their agility and continue to iterate and adapt to ever-evolving market conditions.

Totoro working with Technical Debt


Technical debt is a common challenge that startups face as they strive to innovate and scale in a competitive market. Unfortunately, this invisible burden can hinder a company's progress and stifle its ability to adapt and grow. In this blog post, we will explore the concept of technical debt, its implications for startups, and practical strategies to manage and mitigate it, all from a CTO's perspective. By understanding and addressing technical debt, startups can maintain a strong focus on product development and stay agile in the face of ever-evolving market conditions.

The Importance of the Term "Technical Debt"

The term "technical debt" is widely used to communicate the potential effects of not addressing particular issues in a codebase. But is it just another way to say "refactoring," or does it serve a deeper purpose? In this section, we will discuss the significance of the term "technical debt" and its value in bridging the gap between technical and non-technical stakeholders.

Technical Debt vs Refactoring

While technical debt and refactoring may seem synonymous from a developer's perspective, but the concept of technical debt serves a broader purpose. Refactoring refers to improving the codebase's structure, making it more efficient, maintainable, and easier to understand. Technical debt, on the other hand, encompasses the consequences of not addressing issues in the codebase and the ongoing cost of maintaining a suboptimal system.

Why the Term "Technical Debt" Matters

  1. Improved Communication: Using the term "technical debt" helps convey the idea that there's an ongoing cost associated with not addressing specific issues in the codebase. In addition, this analogy resonates with business stakeholders, who are more likely to appreciate the importance of allocating resources to address technical debt when framed in financial management.
  2. Bridging the Gap: The concept of technical debt allows for better understanding and collaboration between technical and non-technical team members. Using language, everyone can understand, prioritise, and allocate resources more efficiently for ongoing code maintenance and improvements.
  3. Long-term Perspective: The term "technical debt" emphasises the need for a long-term approach to software development, encouraging teams to consider the future impact of their decisions on the codebase's maintainability and performance.

"While the terms 'technical debt' and 'refactoring' may appear closely related, the concept of technical debt is essential in promoting effective communication and collaboration between technical and non-technical stakeholders."

Understanding Technical Debt

Technical debt is the accumulated cost of shortcuts, workarounds, and temporary solutions in a software development project. It's inevitable in the development process as teams prioritise quick delivery over long-term maintainability. Technical debt can manifest in various forms, such as code complexity, outdated technologies, or inadequate documentation. While some may be acceptable, they can impact a startup's agility and growth.

Implications of Technical Debt for Startups

  1. Slower Product Development: High technical debt levels can slow product development, as teams spend more time addressing issues caused by earlier shortcuts rather than focusing on new features or improvements.
  2. Reduced Agility: As technical debt accumulates, it becomes more challenging to change the codebase, limiting a startup's ability to pivot or adapt to market demands quickly.
  3. Lower Quality: Technical debt can lead to a decline in software quality, resulting in an increased likelihood of bugs, security vulnerabilities, and other issues that can negatively affect the end-user experience.
  4. Increased Costs: The longer technical debt still needs to be addressed, the more expensive it becomes, consuming valuable resources that could be better invested in growth initiatives.
  5. Compromised Resilience and Stability: Technical debt can undermine the stability and resilience of a software system, making it more susceptible to failures, crashes, or performance issues. This can lead to customer dissatisfaction and a loss of trust in the product, ultimately jeopardising the startup's reputation and potential for growth.

Strategies to Manage and Mitigate Technical Debt

  1. Prioritise Debt Reduction: Start by acknowledging the existence of technical debt and incorporate regular time to address it within your development cycles. Plan the work into your backlog and prioritise it. It is vital to agree on the value so it does not get down-prioritised due to the next fancy feature or the shiny platform engineering setup.
  2. Create a Technical Debt Register: Maintain a list of known technical debt items, prioritising them based on their potential impact on the business. This will help your team focus on addressing the most critical issues first. Use whatever tool you have, like Jira or Asana, and tag it up so everybody can monitor "progress".
  3. Establish Coding Standards: Implement and enforce coding standards within your development team to minimise introducing new technical debt. In addition, encourage practices such as code reviews, automated testing, and continuous integration to maintain code quality.
  4. Invest in Continuous Learning: Encourage your team to stay up-to-date with the latest technologies, tools, and methodologies. By visiting the current, developers can make informed decisions that minimise the accumulation of technical debt.
  5. Balance Short-term and Long-term Goals: As a CTO, balancing short-term product delivery and long-term maintainability is essential. Communicate the importance of both to your team and ensure that technical debt is considered when making development decisions.

"Technical debt is a reality that all startups must face. By understanding its implications and adopting effective strategies to manage and mitigate it, your startup can maintain its agility and continue to iterate and adapt in the face of ever-evolving market conditions."

Identifying and Prioritizing Technical Debt for Maximum Value

Knowing which debts to address and where to focus your efforts is crucial to effectively manage and mitigating technical debt. This section will discuss how to view your codebase as a "crime scene" or heatmap to identify areas with the most value. We will also define "value" in the context of technical debt, considering both business value and engineering factors such as resilience and performance.

Identifying Technical Debt Hotspots

To identify areas of your codebase that are most impacted by technical debt, consider the following approaches

  1. Code Metrics: Use tools that measure code complexity, such as cyclomatic complexity, coupling, and cohesion, to help identify problem areas in your codebase that may require refactoring or re-design.
  2. Code Churn: Analyze your codebase's version control history to identify frequently changed or updated areas. High churn may indicate that these parts of the code could be easier to understand or maintain, signalling potential technical debt.
  3. Bug Density: Review bug reports and identify sections of the code with a higher frequency of issues. This can help you pinpoint areas of your code that may be affected by technical debt and require attention.
  4. Team Feedback: Encourage your development team to share their experiences and observations about problematic areas in the codebase. Their insights can help identify technical debt hotspots and prioritise fixes.

Defining Value in Technical Debt

When determining the value of addressing technical debt, consider both business value and engineering performance:

  1. Business Value: Focus on areas of the codebase that directly impact critical business functionality, customer experience, or revenue generation. Prioritise technical debt that, if left unresolved, could negatively affect your company's bottom line or reputation.
  2. Resilience: Address technical debt in areas of the codebase that are crucial for system stability and reliability. Prioritising resilience-related debt can help prevent downtime, data loss, or other issues that could disrupt your business operations.
  3. Engineering Performance: Improve the efficiency and maintainability of your codebase by addressing technical debt that hinders your team's productivity or increases the cost of development and maintenance.

Prioritising Technical Debt for Maximum Value

After identifying technical debt hotspots and defining value, prioritise your efforts based on the following factors:

  1. Impact: Focus on areas of the codebase that have the most significant impact on your business value, resilience, and engineering performance.
  2. Effort: Consider the work required to address each technical debt item and weigh it against the potential value gained

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Magnus Udbjørg


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