The Real Cost of Tech Debt

“Technical debt” is engineering jargon for the work left behind when you cut corners.

You cancel the automatic updates on your laptop because you don’t have time to download and restart. Going back and installing those updates is now tech debt.

You need a CI/CD pipeline for one of your apps. You’re in the middle of five other features and you don’t have time to write automation that creates one. You click around in Azure DevOps and set everything up manually. Recreating your pipeline with automation is now tech debt.

Engineering is full of these compromises. The debt they create is manageable if you don’t accumulate too much of it and if you pay it back fast enough. It’s hard to know how much is too much and how fast is fast enough. Bills come due suddenly and with bigger finance charges than you realized.

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The updates you didn’t install turn out to be critical security patches. You get breached. There’s an investigation. Logs show you skipped the update that would have prevented the breach.

When you’re not looking, other engineers copy your temporary pipeline to deploy the primary apps of the company. You try to replace those pipelines with automation and discover it’ll require multiple outages that each impact revenue.

Even when it doesn’t create disasters, tech debt can be expensive. I’ve worked on several projects where 80% of my time was spent paying back tech debt. Most of everything I was paid was diverted from features into debt. The delays in feature development also delayed product launches which led to lost revenue.

Tech debt feels like this:

Cutting corners increases the cost of development by 10% to 20%, but you deliver 10% to 20% faster.

Wrong

Tech debt is actually like this:

Cutting corners is ten times more expensive than doing it right, and sometimes it causes business disasters.

Reality

Even if you need to ship quickly and cheaply, quality is usually the right approach. You can cut a few corners, but you’re gambling every time. When the dice don’t land in your favor, you can suffer outages and breaches and high costs and all kinds of other problems.

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