Writing by Peter Hilton

Manage product technical debt

How product managers can help engineering teams 2024-06-11 #maintenance #management

jeshoots

As a product manager, you don’t need to understand the details of technical debt, or the refactoring and systems maintenance work that reduces it. But you do have opportunities to help manage that work.

  1. Understand technical debt trade-offs
  2. Prevent unnecessary technical debt
  3. Focus on reducing technical debt
  4. Help developers prioritise a technical debt backlog
  5. Help technical leaders create a strategic technical roadmap

You can apply a different key product management technique to each of these, and help your team tackle technical debt.

Trade-offs

Introducing technical debt to validate a product idea can allow a team to get funding for development that wouldn’t otherwise happen. This can make it difficult for the team to develop that product, but not as much as cancelling product development would.

The aftermath of introducing technical debt may feel worse, though, as the team struggles to perform as well as they, or the rest of the organisation, expects. Deliberate technical debt has high stakes, and product managers should help teams navigate that.

Key technique: stakeholder management to clarify the risks and consequences of technical debt, and set expectations for future required work.

Prevention

Accumulated technical debt has a similar effect to software quality issues: unpredictable (and slower) future development. However, teams casually accumulate technical debt through many small decisions, whose cost they can’t see until it adds up.

Product managers expect consequences from only focusing on growth goals. Much like product problems that lead to customer churn, prevention guided by health metrics such as churn rate costs less than making major corrections later.

Key technique: introduce health metrics that protect the team from achieving other goals at any cost, such as bug fix lead time.

Focus

When you need to reduce technical debt, however it accumulated, development teams risk chipping away at it, making little progress on the most serious issues. You need more specific goals than ‘work on technical debt’, and to work on one at a time.

Product managers learn how to avoid distraction from good ideas that don’t support their current goals. As with all product development, addressing major opportunities requires clarity and focus, and deferring less important work.

Key technique: focus on a single objective, to the exclusion of other work, to reach specific results without distractions.

Backlog prioritisation

Teams don’t usually rank technical debt tasks by priority. Developers who estimate effort but don’t discuss outcomes will focus on the task at hand, instead of considering its impact compared to other options.

As a product manager, you can replace the vague term technical debt by naming the desired outcome. More specific opportunities and goals than work on technical debt enable backlog prioritisation.

Key technique: opportunity-based prioritisation, to prioritise the problem to solve, instead of prioritising solutions.

Strategic roadmap

Development teams also struggle to tackle the big rocks of technical debt, and risk spending all of their time on fine grains of work. Spending the occasional spare hour, afternoon or Friday working on technical debt won’t help with projects that require a larger commitment.

It takes a long-term vision to know where you need to get to, a few years from now. Working backwards from there helps you identify the major steps along the path.

Key technique: translate a vision into a 1-3 year strategic roadmap that identifies high-level high impact options.

Share on TwitterShare on LinkedIn