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Bottleneck #01: Tech Debt

In its early days, a startup searches for an excellent product-market match. When
it finds one it seems to be to develop quickly, a part often known 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 targeted on how you can assist them overcome varied bottlenecks that
impede this progress.

As we have carried out this work, we have seen widespread
bottlenecks, and realized approaches to cope with 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, often by means of doing the fitting
issues which can be wanted early in a startup’s life, however are not proper as
progress modifications the context for methods of working. We’ll spotlight key indicators
that the startup is approaching or caught within the bottleneck. We’ll then discuss
about how you can 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 speedy experimentation of the product/market match
want to vary as soon as progress kicks in.

How did you get into the bottleneck?

The commonest scaling bottleneck we encounter is technical debt —
startups repeatedly state that tech debt is their principal 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 on account of an absence of technical funding throughout their progress part.
An evaluation is required to determine the sort and scale of the tech debt.
It may very well be that the code high quality is dangerous, an older language or framework
is used, or the deployment and operation of the product isn’t absolutely
automated. The answer technique could be slight modifications to the groups’
course of or beginning an initiative to rebuild components of the appliance.

It’s essential 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 elements akin to high quality or robustness for product supply
velocity. This can 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 be to scale up, we’ve to deal with the shortcuts taken, or it
will in a short time have an effect on the enterprise.

Let’s look at a few examples we’ve encountered.

Firm A – A startup has constructed an MVP that has proven sufficient
proof (consumer site visitors, consumer sentiment, income) for buyers and secured
the subsequent spherical of funding. Like most MVPs, it was constructed to generate consumer
suggestions quite than high-quality technical structure. After the
funding, as an alternative of rebuilding that pilot, they construct upon it, retaining the
traction by specializing in options. This is probably not an instantaneous downside
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
substitute them. There’s friction to study, work, and help 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 in regards to the
attrition of the unique engineers and shedding the information they’ve.

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

Firm B – The corporate was based by ex-engineers and so they
wished to do all the things “proper.” It was constructed to scale out of the field.
They used the most recent libraries and programming languages. It has a finely
grained structure, permitting every a part of the appliance to be
carried out with totally different applied sciences, every optimized to scale
completely. Consequently, it’s going to 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 gradual, and lots of engineers hung out engaged on the
platform quite than the product. It was additionally onerous to experiment — the
finely grained structure meant concepts that didn’t match into an present
service structure have 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, based mostly on an amalgamation of assorted
shoppers with whom the startup groups at Thoughtworks have labored. Firm A
bought itself right into a technical debt bottleneck that paralyzed the corporate.
Firm B over-engineered an answer that slowed down growth and
crippled its means to pivot rapidly because it learnt extra.

The theme with each is an incapacity to search out the fitting steadiness of technical
funding vs. product supply. Ideally we need to leverage the usage of prudent technical debt to energy
speedy function growth and experimentation. When the concepts are discovered to
be worthwhile, we should always pay down that technical debt. Whereas that is very simply
said, it may be a problem to place into observe.

To discover how you can create the fitting steadiness, we’re going to look at the
several types of technical debt:

Typical sorts of debt:

Technical debt is an ambiguous time period, usually considered 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, onerous to check, onerous to know, 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 information mannequin that doesn’t
match the present enterprise mannequin, leading to workarounds.

A scarcity of unit, integration, or E2E checks, or the fallacious distribution
(see check pyramid). The developer can’t rapidly get confidence that
their code is not going to 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 usually lead to extra bugs.
Between modules (usually occurs in a monolith), groups probably
block one another, thus lowering the deployment frequency and
growing lead time for modifications. One resolution is to tug out providers
into microservices, which comes with it’s personal
— there may be extra easy methods of setting
clear boundaries throughout the monolith.

Unused or low worth options
Not sometimes regarded as technical debt, however one of many signs of
tech debt is code that’s onerous to work with. Extra options creates
extra situations, extra edge instances that builders should design
round. This erodes the supply velocity. A startup is experimenting. We
ought to all the time be sure 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 will have goal information quantifying the function worth.

Outdated libraries or frameworks
The staff shall be unable to reap the benefits of new enhancements and
stay weak to safety issues. It’ll lead to a expertise
downside, 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 a number of
upkeep. The panorama is ever-changing, and extra environment friendly
tooling could 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 desires reassessment with the remaining debt in

Reliability and efficiency engineering issues
This could have an effect on the client expertise and the flexibility to scale. We
should watch out, as we’ve seen wasted effort in untimely
optimization when scaling for a hypothetical future state of affairs. It’s higher to
have a product confirmed to be worthwhile 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 method while you
spend a number of time automating one thing that’s not used sufficient to be
definitely 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 submit. It is best to
have the flexibility to deploy at will, often a minimum of as soon as a day.

Data sharing
Lack of helpful data is a type of technical debt. It makes
it tough for brand new staff and dependent groups to rise up to hurry.
As normal observe, growth groups ought to produce concisely
written technical documentation, API Specs, and architectural
determination information. It must also be discoverable by way of a developer
portal or search engine. An anti-pattern isn’t any moderation and
deprecation course of to make sure high quality.

Is that actually technical debt or performance?

Startups usually inform us about being swamped with technical debt, however
below 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 usually work with shoppers on
automating buyer onboarding. They could have a single-tenant resolution
with little automation. This begins off effectively sufficient — the builders can
manually arrange the accounts and monitor the variations between installs.
However, as you add extra shoppers, it turns into too time-consuming for the
builders. So the startup would possibly rent devoted operations employees to set
up the client accounts. Because the consumer base and performance grows, it
turns into more and more tough to handle the totally different installs —
buyer onboarding time will increase, and high quality issues improve. At
this level automating the deployment and configuration or shifting to a
multi-tenant setup will straight impression KPIs — that is

Different types of technical debt are tougher to identify and tougher to level
to a direct impression, akin to code that’s tough to work with or brief
repeated handbook processes. One of the best 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 ought to 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, just a few alternatives
generally set off when to re-evaluate their present technique:

  • New funding means extra options and extra assets — this can compound
    present issues. Addressing present technical debt ought to be a part of the
    funding plan.
  • New product course can invalidate earlier assumptions and put
    stress on new components of the techniques.
  • A superb governance course of includes reevaluating the state of the
    expertise on an everyday cadence.
  • New opinions will help keep away from “boiling frog” issues. Outdoors assist, staff
    rotations and new staff will deliver a recent perspective.

The slippery slope

How did you find yourself with a number of technical debt? It may be very onerous to
pinpoint. Usually it isn’t on account of only one occasion or determination, however
quite a sequence of choices and trade-offs made below strain.

Sarcastically, looking back, if one considers every determination on the level
in time at which it was made, based mostly on what was identified on the
time, it’s unlikely to be thought of a mistake. Nonetheless, one
concession results in one other and so forth, till you will have a significant issue
with high quality. There’s generally a tipping level at which resolving the
tech debt takes extra time than growing incremental worth.

It’s onerous to recuperate and the state of affairs tends to snowball. It’s
pure for builders to make use of the present state as an indicator of what
is appropriate. In these situations, growing 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 subsequent
function will increase non-linearly.

Set a top quality bar

Many organizations discover it helpful to have a set of requirements and
practices to which the corporate is dedicated that information technical
evolution. Understand that some technical practices are fairly
tough to attain, for instance steady supply; deploying
repeatedly with out affecting customers is technically difficult. Groups
usually have preliminary issues, and in response management could deprioritize
the observe. As a substitute we advocate the other, do it extra usually and
your groups will grasp the practices and kind robust habits. When the
powerful time comes, quite than dropping the observe, use the suggestions to
information future funding in staff functionality.

Blast Radius

We settle for that taking shortcuts is a vital a part of scaling the
enterprise. How can we restrict the blast radius, understanding that these shortcuts
will have to be resolved, and even completely rebuilt? Clearly, we’d like a
technique that limits the impression to the enterprise. A method is to decouple
groups and techniques, which permits a staff to introduce tech debt that’s
remoted and received’t essentially snowball as described above.

Prime quality literature about decoupling is plentiful, so we received’t
try to elucidate right here. We advocate focusing consideration on
microservices and area pushed design methods. Nonetheless, watch out
doing an excessive amount of too early, decoupling provides latency and complexity to your
techniques, and selecting poor area boundaries between groups can add
communication friction. We shall 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 in consequence product high quality finally suffers as effectively. If you
search for the foundation reason behind this bottleneck, it practically all the time comes down
to the steadiness throughout the firm between enterprise, product and
engineering objectives. Lack of collaboration sometimes results in brief
sighted choices made in a vacuum. This could go each methods, reducing
corners in important areas or gold plating one thing that isn’t worthwhile
are equally probably.

  • The enterprise technique at any cut-off date ought to 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 based mostly on lengthy and brief time period impression to the enterprise.
  • Selections are made with information – e.g. the present state of the technical platform,
    estimates, evaluation of anticipated worth and KPI enchancment, consumer analysis, A/B check outcomes.
  • Selections are revisited when information is refined or new learnings are found.

A tech technique to restrict technical debt impression

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

Section 1


Prototypes – semi-functional software program to exhibit product,
shifting to purposeful with growing curiosity

Section 2

Getting Traction

Ecosystem choices – cloud vendor, language decisions, service
integration fashion

Substitute prototype software program for core techniques

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

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

Section 3

(Hyper) Development

Create decoupled product groups managing their very own providers

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

Set up platform groups targeted on the effectiveness of product

Section 4


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

Audit state of technical platform, sponsor initiatives in product
groups and create momentary tiger groups to repair greatest technical debt

Rebuild or purchase capabilities for improved effectivity

Practice groups on good technical high quality practices

How do you handle the tech debt

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

There ought to be clear end-to-end possession of all merchandise and
their associated techniques. As groups develop and take duty for his or her
respective areas, there may be usually no clear possession for an end-to-end
journey, which leaves technical gaps that usually turn into crammed with
technical debt. As groups develop and tackle new duties, it turns into
more and more tough to search 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 fitting 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 ought to be an agreed course of to deal with and
monitor technical debt regularly. This requires onerous trade-offs amongst
engineering and product leaders to maintain a steady steadiness.

Designing your staff topology the fitting
method may also be an element. For instance, suppose we regularly see
technical debt created in sure areas. In that case, it’d point out
that the staff design is fallacious, and there could be a platform or enterprise
functionality that wants robust possession and a focus.

Some metrics are highly effective — for instance, scanning for widespread
errors or measuring construct and deployment occasions. The engineering
group ought to present self-service tooling into which groups
can rapidly combine their techniques. Metrics ought to be used as guides
for the staff to make choices about tech-debt quite than for managers
to watch or incentivize. Skilled builders present worth by
decoding the accessible information and grounding their intution in fact-based
qualitative data.

Whereas we imagine in autonomous groups, an excessive amount of autonomy could be a downside
and may end up in a chaotic technical panorama. There ought to be light-weight checks and balances such
as automated checks or architectural peer evaluation, which will help implement
insurance policies and help builders.

How your group chooses to deal with its tech debt will depend on your
context. One widespread theme we’ve seen throughout many organizations is the will
to “simply do one thing,” usually leading to a band-aid which quickly creates its
personal set of frictions. As a substitute, 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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