Software Development

Bottleneck #01: Tech Debt

In its early days, a startup searches for product-market match. When
it finds one it seems to develop quickly, a part referred to as a scaleup. At this
time it is rising quickly alongside many dimensions: revenues, buyer,
headcount. At Thoughtworks, we have labored with many such scaleups, and our
work has centered on methods to assist them overcome varied bottlenecks that
impede this progress.

As we have carried out this work, we have seen frequent
bottlenecks, and discovered approaches to take care of them. This text is the
first in a sequence that examines these bottlenecks. In every article we’ll look
at how startups get into the bottleneck, normally by means of doing the proper
issues which can be wanted early in a startup’s life, however are now not proper as
progress modifications the context for tactics of working. We’ll spotlight key indicators
that the startup is approaching or caught within the bottleneck. We’ll then discuss
about methods to break by means of the bottleneck, describing the modifications we have seen
that permit scaleups to succeed in their correct potential.

We begin this sequence by technical debt: how the instruments and
practices that facilitate fast experimentation of the product/market match
want to vary as soon as progress kicks in.

How did you get into the bottleneck?

The most typical scaling bottleneck we encounter is technical debt —
startups usually state that tech debt is their foremost obstacle to
progress. The time period “tech debt” tends for use as a catch-all time period,
usually indicating that the technical platform and stack wants
enchancment. They’ve seen function growth decelerate, high quality points, or
engineering frustration. The startup staff attributes it to technical debt
incurred as a result of a scarcity of technical funding throughout their progress part.
An evaluation is required to determine the kind and scale of the tech debt.
It could possibly be that the code high quality is unhealthy, an older language or framework
is used, or the deployment and operation of the product isn’t absolutely
automated. The answer technique is perhaps slight modifications to the groups’
course of or beginning an initiative to rebuild elements of the appliance.

It’s necessary to say that prudent technical debt is wholesome and desired,
particularly within the preliminary phases of a startup’s journey. Startups ought to
commerce technical points equivalent to high quality or robustness for product supply
pace. It will get the startup to its first objective – a viable enterprise
mannequin, a confirmed product and prospects that love the product. However because the
firm seems to scale up, we’ve to handle the shortcuts taken, or it
will in a short time have an effect on the enterprise.

Let’s study a few examples we’ve encountered.

Firm A – A startup has constructed an MVP that has proven sufficient
proof (person site visitors, person sentiment, income) for buyers and secured
the following spherical of funding. Like most MVPs, it was constructed to generate person
suggestions somewhat than high-quality technical structure. After the
funding, as an alternative of rebuilding that pilot, they construct upon it, protecting the
traction by specializing in options. This is probably not a right away drawback
for the reason that startup has a small senior staff that is aware of the sharp edges and
can put in bandaid options to maintain the corporate afloat.

The problems begin to come up when the staff continues to give attention to function
growth and the debt isn’t getting paid down. Over time, the
low-quality MVP turns into core parts, with no clear path to enhance or
change them. There may be friction to be taught, work, and assist the code. It
turns into more and more tough to increase the staff or the function set
successfully. The engineering leaders are additionally very nervous concerning the
attrition of the unique engineers and dropping the data they’ve.

Finally, the shortage of technical funding involves a head. The staff
turns into paralyzed, measured in decrease velocity and staff frustration. The
startup has to rebuild considerably, which means function growth has to
decelerate, permitting rivals to catch up.

Firm B – The corporate was based by ex-engineers and so they
needed to do every thing “proper.” It was constructed to scale out of the field.
They used the newest libraries and programming languages. It has a finely
grained structure, permitting every a part of the appliance to be
applied with completely different applied sciences, every optimized to scale
completely. In consequence, it can simply have the ability to deal with hyper progress when
the corporate will get there.

The problem with this instance is that it took a very long time to create,
function growth was sluggish, and plenty of engineers hung out engaged on the
platform somewhat than the product. It was additionally exhausting to experiment — the
finely grained structure meant concepts that didn’t match into an present
service structure had been difficult to do. The corporate didn’t understand
the worth of the extremely scalable structure as a result of it was not capable of
discover a product-market match to succeed in that scale of buyer base.

These are two excessive examples, primarily based on an amalgamation of varied
purchasers with whom the startup groups at Thoughtworks have labored. Firm A
received itself right into a technical debt bottleneck that paralyzed the corporate.
Firm B over-engineered an answer that slowed down growth and
crippled its capacity to pivot shortly because it learnt extra.

The theme with each is an incapability to seek out the proper steadiness of technical
funding vs. product supply. Ideally we need to leverage the usage of prudent technical debt to energy
fast function growth and experimentation. When the concepts are discovered to
be useful, we must always pay down that technical debt. Whereas that is very simply
said, it may be a problem to place into follow.

To discover methods to create the proper steadiness, we’re going to study the
several types of technical debt:

Typical varieties of debt:

Technical debt is an ambiguous time period, typically thought to be purely
code-related. For this dialogue, we’re going to make use of technical debt to imply
any technical shortcut, the place we’re buying and selling long-term funding right into a
technical platform for short-term function growth.

Code high quality
Code that’s brittle, exhausting to check, exhausting to grasp, or poorly
documented will make all growth and upkeep duties slower and can
degrade the “enjoyment” of writing code whereas demotivating engineers.
One other instance is a website mannequin and related knowledge mannequin that doesn’t
match the present enterprise mannequin, leading to workarounds.

A scarcity of unit, integration, or E2E assessments, or the improper distribution
(see check pyramid). The developer can’t shortly get confidence that
their code won’t break present performance and dependencies. This leads
to builders batching modifications and a discount of deployment frequency.
Bigger increments are tougher to check and can typically lead to extra bugs.
Between modules (typically occurs in a monolith), groups doubtlessly
block one another, thus lowering the deployment frequency and
growing lead time for modifications. One answer is to tug out providers
into microservices, which comes with it’s personal
— there might be extra easy methods of setting
clear boundaries throughout the monolith.

Unused or low worth options
Not usually regarded as technical debt, however one of many signs of
tech debt is code that’s exhausting to work with. Extra options creates
extra situations, extra edge instances that builders need to design
round. This erodes the supply pace. A startup is experimenting. We
ought to all the time ensure that to return and re-evaluate if the experiment
(the function) is working, and if not, delete it. Emotionally, it may be very
tough for groups to make a judgment name, but it surely turns into a lot simpler
when you’ve goal knowledge quantifying the function worth.

Outdated libraries or frameworks
The staff can be unable to reap the benefits of new enhancements and
stay weak to safety issues. It would lead to a abilities
drawback, slowing down the onboarding of recent hires and irritating
present builders who’re compelled to work with older variations. Moreover, these
legacy frameworks are inclined to restrict additional upgrades and innovation.

Sub-optimum third-party merchandise or instruments that require numerous
upkeep. The panorama is ever-changing, and extra environment friendly
tooling might have entered the market. Builders additionally naturally need to
work with probably the most environment friendly instruments. The steadiness between shopping for vs.
constructing is advanced and wishes reassessment with the remaining debt in

Reliability and efficiency engineering issues
This may have an effect on the client expertise and the power to scale. We
need to watch out, as we’ve seen wasted effort in untimely
optimization when scaling for a hypothetical future scenario. It’s higher to
have a product confirmed to be useful with customers than an unproven product
that may scale. We’ll describe this in additional element within the piece on
“Scaling Bottleneck: Constructed with out reliability and observability in thoughts”.

Guide processes
A part of the product supply workflow isn’t automated. This might
be steps within the developer workflow or issues associated to managing the
manufacturing system. A warning: this could additionally go the opposite approach whenever you
spend numerous time automating one thing that’s not used sufficient to be
well worth the funding.

Automated deployments
Early stage startups can get away with a easy setup, however this could
be addressed very quickly — small incremental deployments energy experimental
software program supply. Use the 4 key metrics as your information publish. It’s best to
have the power to deploy at will, normally not less than as soon as a day.

Data sharing
Lack of helpful info is a type of technical debt. It makes
it tough for brand new staff and dependent groups to stand up to hurry.
As commonplace follow, growth groups ought to produce concisely
written technical documentation, API Specs, and architectural
choice information. It also needs to be discoverable through a developer
portal or search engine. An anti-pattern is not any moderation and
deprecation course of to make sure high quality.

Is that basically technical debt or performance?

Startups typically inform us about being swamped with technical debt, however
underneath examination they’re actually referring to the restricted performance
of the technical platform, which wants its personal correct therapy with
planning, requirement gathering, and devoted assets.

For instance, Thoughtworks’ startup groups typically work with purchasers on
automating buyer onboarding. They may have a single-tenant answer
with little automation. This begins off effectively sufficient — the builders can
manually arrange the accounts and observe the variations between installs.
However, as you add extra purchasers, it turns into too time-consuming for the
builders. So the startup would possibly rent devoted operations workers to set
up the client accounts. Because the person base and performance grows, it
turns into more and more tough to handle the completely different installs —
buyer onboarding time will increase, and high quality issues improve. At
this level automating the deployment and configuration or transferring to a
multi-tenant setup will instantly affect KPIs — that is

Different types of technical debt are tougher to identify and tougher to level
to a direct affect, equivalent to code that’s tough to work with or brief
repeated guide processes. One of the simplest ways to determine them is with
suggestions from the groups that have them day-to-day. A staff’s
steady enchancment course of can deal with it and shouldn’t require a
devoted initiative to repair it.

How do you get out of the bottleneck?

The method that groups are taking to technical debt ought to come from
its technical technique, set by its leaders. It must be intentional,
clear, and re-evaluated over time. Sadly, we regularly see groups
working off historic instructions, creating future issues with out
realizing it. For a corporation on this circumstance, a number of alternatives
generally set off when to re-evaluate their present technique:

  • New funding means extra options and extra assets — this may compound
    present issues. Addressing present technical debt must be a part of the
    funding plan.
  • New product route can invalidate earlier assumptions and put
    stress on new elements of the methods.
  • A very good governance course of entails reevaluating the state of the
    know-how on an everyday cadence.
  • New opinions may help keep away from “boiling frog” issues. Exterior assist, staff
    rotations and new staff will deliver a recent perspective.

The slippery slope

How did you find yourself with numerous technical debt? It may be very exhausting to
pinpoint. Usually it isn’t as a result of only one occasion or choice, however
somewhat a sequence of selections and trade-offs made underneath stress.

Mockingly, on reflection, if one considers every choice on the level
in time at which it was made, primarily based on what was recognized on the
time, it’s unlikely to be thought of a mistake. Nonetheless, one
concession results in one other and so forth, till you’ve a significant issue
with high quality. There may be generally a tipping level at which resolving the
tech debt takes extra time than creating incremental worth.

It’s exhausting to get well and the scenario tends to snowball. It’s
pure for builders to make use of the present state as an indicator of what
is suitable. In these situations, creating the brand new options will
lead to much more debt. That is the slippery slope, a vicious cycle
that sadly results in a cliff as the trouble to implement the following
function will increase non-linearly.

Set a top quality bar

Many organizations discover it useful to have a set of requirements and
practices to which the corporate is dedicated that information technical
evolution. Remember the fact that some technical practices are fairly
tough to realize, for instance steady supply; deploying
usually with out affecting customers is technically difficult. Groups
typically have preliminary issues, and in response management might deprioritize
the follow. As an alternative we suggest the other, do it extra typically and
your groups will grasp the practices and type robust habits. When the
powerful time comes, somewhat than dropping the follow, use the suggestions to
information future funding in staff functionality.

Blast Radius

We settle for that taking shortcuts is a essential a part of scaling the
enterprise. How will we restrict the blast radius, figuring out that these shortcuts
will should be resolved, and even completely rebuilt? Clearly, we want a
technique that limits the affect to the enterprise. A technique is to decouple
groups and methods, which permits a staff to introduce tech debt that’s
remoted and gained’t essentially snowball as described above.

Top quality literature about decoupling is plentiful, so we gained’t
try to elucidate right here. We suggest focusing consideration on
microservices and area pushed design strategies. Nonetheless, watch out
doing an excessive amount of too early, decoupling provides latency and complexity to your
methods, and selecting poor area boundaries between groups can add
communication friction. We can be writing about anti-patterns associated
to overcomplicated distributed architectures in future articles.

Product and Engineering Collaboration

If commerce off conversations aren’t balanced between enterprise technique,
product and engineering, technical high quality mostly degrades first,
and consequently product high quality finally suffers as effectively. Whenever you
search for the basis reason for this bottleneck, it practically all the time comes down
to the steadiness throughout the firm between enterprise, product and
engineering objectives. Lack of collaboration usually results in brief
sighted choices made in a vacuum. This may go each methods, slicing
corners in vital areas or gold plating one thing that isn’t useful
are equally seemingly.

  • The enterprise technique at any time limit must be clear and clear.
  • We empower staff leaders to make choices which profit the enterprise.
  • Product and Engineering ought to have an equal footing, belief in one another, and
    be keen to make commerce off choices primarily based on lengthy and brief time period affect to the enterprise.
  • Choices are made with knowledge – e.g. the present state of the technical platform,
    estimates, evaluation of anticipated worth and KPI enchancment, person analysis, A/B check outcomes.
  • Choices are revisited when knowledge is refined or new learnings are found.

A tech technique to restrict technical debt affect

When considering of methods for a startup, and the way it scales, we like
to make use of a four-phase mannequin to grasp the completely different levels of a
startup’s growth.

Part 1


Prototypes – semi-functional software program to show product,
transferring to useful with growing curiosity

Part 2

Getting Traction

Ecosystem choices – cloud vendor, language selections, service
integration type

Exchange prototype software program for core methods

Setup preliminary foundations – experimentation, CI/CD, API,
observability, analytics

Set up the broad domains, set preliminary comfortable boundaries (in

Part 3

(Hyper) Development

Create decoupled product groups managing their very own providers

Set up SLAs and high quality bar, linked to indicators round buyer
expertise of product

Set up platform groups centered on the effectiveness of product

Part 4


Reassess SLA and high quality bar centered on long run productiveness
and upkeep

Audit state of technical platform, sponsor initiatives in product
groups and create short-term tiger groups to repair largest technical debt

Rebuild or purchase capabilities for improved effectivity

Practice groups on good technical high quality practices

How do you tackle the tech debt

It begins with clear info sharing how the
enterprise is doing, the present product route, metrics on the present
scaling capability, what prospects are saying concerning the product and what
buyer assist and ops are seeing. This info will permit
technologists to make knowledgeable choices. Sharing the info of the
present problem helps technologists to know why issues are being
addressed and measure their success.

There must be clear end-to-end possession of all merchandise and
their associated methods. As groups develop and take duty for his or her
respective areas, there may be typically no clear possession for an end-to-end
journey, which leaves technical gaps that usually change into crammed with
technical debt. As groups develop and tackle new duties, it turns into
more and more tough to seek out an proprietor for older code. Moreover,
with out possession, groups are much less incentivized to repair issues.

We’ve got to empower groups to repair issues — resolving technical debt ought to
be a part of the pure move of product growth. Engineers and product
managers want to barter the wholesome steadiness between tech debt vs.
performance with the proper pragmatic mentality. It’s a part of a product
staff’s job to take care of and maintain technically wholesome merchandise, not one thing
carried out as an after-thought. There must be an agreed course of to sort out and
monitor technical debt frequently. This requires exhausting trade-offs amongst
engineering and product leaders to maintain a steady steadiness.

Designing your staff topology the proper
approach can be an element. For instance, suppose we frequently see
technical debt created in sure areas. In that case, it would point out
that the staff design is improper, and there is perhaps a platform or enterprise
functionality that wants robust possession and a spotlight.

Some metrics are highly effective — for instance, scanning for frequent
errors or measuring construct and deployment instances. The engineering
group ought to present self-service tooling into which groups
can shortly combine their methods. Metrics must be used as guides
for the staff to make choices about tech-debt somewhat than for managers
to observe or incentivize. Skilled builders present worth by
deciphering the accessible knowledge and grounding their intution in fact-based
qualitative info.

Whereas we imagine in autonomous groups, an excessive amount of autonomy is usually a drawback
and can lead to a chaotic technical panorama. There must be light-weight checks and balances such
as automated checks or architectural peer evaluate, which may help implement
insurance policies and support builders.

How your group chooses to handle its tech debt depends upon your
context. One frequent theme we’ve seen throughout many organizations is the need
to “simply do one thing,” typically leading to a band-aid which quickly creates its
personal set of frictions. As an alternative, we’ve discovered that taking an iterative method
and letting the metrics mixed with present growth exercise information the funding in resolving tech debt ends in
higher outcomes.

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