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A Neverending Story

“Nothing is lost. Everything is transformed.”
― Michael Ende, The Neverending Story

I explained in this post that I don’t view technical debt as something that is bad per se. Rather, I believe that “good technical debt” — at times — should be employed for strategic reasons. As an example, when developing a feature, you might take shortcuts in order to unblock stalling teammates who need your changes in order to carry on with their own work.

Let me reiterate: to qualify as good technical debt, it must be

1. taken on consciously
2. managed
3. repaid timely

How can this be achieved in practice?

Once you’ve made a deliberate decision and considered the pros and cons, you implement your makeshift solution. But before you mark your task as done, you create another task which has the goal of removing the technical debt you just introduced. But where should you put this task?

Don’t hide it in the product backlog as it a) contains usually many issues already b) is more concerned with externally observable features and c) is actually owned by the product owner. If you did, most likely technical debt issues would be delayed (or rather ignored) in favor of “real” stories, which would grossly violate good technical debt requirement #3: “repaid timely”. Instead, put it under a story of the current sprint titled “Repay technical debt”.

An immediate advantage of this approach is that it makes your shortcuts visible to the whole team. Further, everybody, including you, can pick up this task and just start working on it. However, in typical cases, such clean-up tasks won’t be done in the current sprint. So what happens with the “repay” story and all attached tasks at the end of a sprint?

You move it to the next sprint, of course! Consider it a story that never ends, which nicely mirrors a well-known software engineering truth: the fight against software entropy goes on forever. Since the story doesn’t go away, it’s a great reminder for the whole team that repaying technical debt (or constant improving of internal software quality) is of super-high importance.

Having this story in place allows you to manage technical debt, as stipulated by good technical debt requirement #2. There are too many technical debt tasks in this story? Maybe it’s time for a “technical debt sprint” where everyone focuses on getting the list shorter instead of adding new functionality. Are there no technical debt tasks at all? Maybe the team isn’t really tracking their technical debt. Another possibility is that the team doesn’t use “good technical debt” as a strategic tool and instead make other people wait for their gold-plated implementation.

In my view, a neverending “payback technical debt” story is a great tool. It’s a quality backlog maintained by developers which puts dirt right in front of everybody’s noses. I believe that this drastically mitigates the risk of creating a maintenance nightmare while still allowing for occasional shortcuts.