Bottleneck #01: Tech Debt


In its early days, a startup searches for an excellent product-market match. When
it finds one it appears to be like to develop quickly, a part often called 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 find out how to assist them overcome numerous bottlenecks that
impede this development.

As we have executed this work, we have seen frequent
bottlenecks, and realized 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 via doing the proper
issues which are wanted early in a startup’s life, however are not proper as
development adjustments 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 find out how to break via the bottleneck, describing the adjustments we have seen
that enable scaleups to achieve 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 alter as soon as development kicks in.

How did you get into the bottleneck?

The commonest scaling bottleneck we encounter is technical debt —
startups frequently state that tech debt is their most important obstacle to
development. The time period “tech debt” tends for use as a catch-all time period,
typically indicating that the technical platform and stack wants
enchancment. They’ve seen function improvement decelerate, high quality points, or
engineering frustration. The startup group attributes it to technical debt
incurred as a consequence of an absence of technical funding throughout their development part.
An evaluation is required to determine the kind and scale of the tech debt.
It may very well 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 totally
automated. The answer technique is perhaps slight adjustments to the groups’
course of or beginning an initiative to rebuild components of the applying.

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 facets resembling high quality or robustness for product supply
pace. This may get the startup to its first aim – a viable enterprise
mannequin, a confirmed product and prospects that love the product. However because the
firm appears to be like 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 look at a few examples we’ve encountered.

Firm A – A startup has constructed an MVP that has proven sufficient
proof (consumer visitors, consumer sentiment, income) for traders and secured
the following spherical of funding. Like most MVPs, it was constructed to generate consumer
suggestions relatively than high-quality technical structure. After the
funding, as an alternative of rebuilding that pilot, they construct upon it, maintaining the
traction by specializing in options. This might not be an instantaneous drawback
for the reason that startup has a small senior group 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 group continues to concentrate on function
improvement and the debt isn’t getting paid down. Over time, the
low-quality MVP turns into core elements, with no clear path to enhance or
exchange them. There’s friction to be taught, work, and help the code. It
turns into more and more troublesome to increase the group or the function set
successfully. The engineering leaders are additionally very nervous in regards to the
attrition of the unique engineers and dropping the information they’ve.

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

Firm B – The corporate was based by ex-engineers they usually
needed to do every part “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 applying to be
carried out with completely different applied sciences, every optimized to scale
completely. In consequence, it would simply have the ability to deal with hyper development when
the corporate will get there.

The problem with this instance is that it took a very long time to create,
function improvement was sluggish, and lots of engineers hung out engaged on the
platform relatively than the product. It was additionally exhausting to experiment — the
finely grained structure meant concepts that didn’t match into an current
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 in a position to
discover a product-market match to achieve that scale of buyer base.

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

The theme with each is an lack of ability to search out the proper stability of technical
funding vs. product supply. Ideally we need to leverage the usage of prudent technical debt to energy
fast function improvement and experimentation. When the concepts are discovered to
be useful, we should always pay down that technical debt. Whereas that is very simply
acknowledged, it may be a problem to place into apply.

To discover find out how to create the proper stability, we’re going to look at the
various kinds of technical debt:

Typical varieties of debt:

Technical debt is an ambiguous time period, usually 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 improvement.

Code high quality
Code that’s brittle, exhausting to check, exhausting to grasp, or poorly
documented will make all improvement and upkeep duties slower and can
degrade the “enjoyment” of writing code whereas demotivating engineers.
One other instance is a site 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 mistaken distribution
(see check pyramid). The developer can’t shortly get confidence that
their code won’t break current performance and dependencies. This leads
to builders batching adjustments 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 decreasing the deployment frequency and
rising lead time for adjustments. One answer is to tug out companies
into microservices, which comes with it’s personal
— there might be extra simple methods of setting
clear boundaries inside the monolith.

Unused or low worth options
Not usually considered 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 circumstances that builders should design
round. This erodes the supply pace. A startup is experimenting. We
ought to all the time ensure to return and re-evaluate if the experiment
(the function) is working, and if not, delete it. Emotionally, it may be very
troublesome for groups to make a judgment name, but it surely turns into a lot simpler
when you’ve got goal knowledge quantifying the function worth.

Outdated libraries or frameworks
The group shall 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 likely to restrict additional upgrades and innovation.

Sub-optimum third-party merchandise or instruments that require plenty 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 stability between shopping for vs.
constructing is complicated and desires 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
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 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 will additionally go the opposite approach if you
spend plenty of time automating one thing that isn’t 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 submit. You need to
have the power to deploy at will, normally at the very least as soon as a day.

Data sharing
Lack of helpful data is a type of technical debt. It makes
it troublesome for brand spanking new workers and dependent groups to stand up to hurry.
As customary apply, improvement groups ought to produce concisely
written technical documentation, API Specs, and architectural
determination information. It also needs to be discoverable through a developer
portal or search engine. An anti-pattern isn’t any moderation and
deprecation course of to make sure high quality.

Is that basically 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 remedy with
planning, requirement gathering, and devoted assets.

For instance, Thoughtworks’ startup groups usually work with purchasers on
automating buyer onboarding. They could 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 may rent devoted operations employees to set
up the client accounts. Because the consumer base and performance grows, it
turns into more and more troublesome 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 influence KPIs — that is

Different types of technical debt are tougher to identify and tougher to level
to a direct influence, resembling code that’s troublesome to work with or quick
repeated guide processes. The easiest way to determine them is with
suggestions from the groups that have them day-to-day. A group’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 frequently see groups
working off historic instructions, creating future issues with out
realizing it. For a corporation on this circumstance, a couple of alternatives
generally set off when to re-evaluate their present technique:

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

The slippery slope

How did you find yourself with plenty of technical debt? It may be very exhausting to
pinpoint. Usually it isn’t as a consequence of only one occasion or determination, however
relatively a sequence of choices and trade-offs made below strain.

Satirically, on reflection, if one considers every determination on the level
in time at which it was made, based mostly on what was recognized on the
time, it’s unlikely to be thought-about a mistake. Nonetheless, one
concession results in one other and so forth, till you’ve got 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 exhausting to get well 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 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. Needless to say some technical practices are fairly
troublesome to realize, for instance steady supply; deploying
frequently with out affecting customers is technically difficult. Groups
usually have preliminary issues, and in response management could deprioritize
the apply. As a substitute we advocate the other, do it extra usually and
your groups will grasp the practices and kind sturdy habits. When the
powerful time comes, relatively than dropping the apply, use the suggestions to
information future funding in group functionality.

Blast Radius

We settle for that taking shortcuts is a needed a part of scaling the
enterprise. How will we restrict the blast radius, realizing that these shortcuts
will have to be resolved, and even completely rebuilt? Clearly, we want a
technique that limits the influence to the enterprise. A technique is to decouple
groups and methods, which permits a group 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 clarify 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
methods, 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 because of this product high quality finally suffers as effectively. While you
search for the foundation reason behind this bottleneck, it practically all the time comes down
to the stability inside the firm between enterprise, product and
engineering objectives. Lack of collaboration usually results in quick
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 doubtless.

  • The enterprise technique at any cut-off date ought to be clear and clear.
  • We empower group 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 quick time period influence 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, consumer analysis, A/B check outcomes.
  • Choices are revisited when knowledge is refined or new learnings are found.

A tech technique to restrict technical debt influence

When pondering 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 phases of a
startup’s improvement.

Section 1


Prototypes – semi-functional software program to show product,
transferring to practical with rising curiosity

Section 2

Getting Traction

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

Exchange prototype software program for core methods

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

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

Section 3

(Hyper) Development

Create decoupled product groups managing their very own companies

Set up SLAs and high quality bar, linked to indicators 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 short-term tiger groups to repair largest technical debt

Rebuild or purchase capabilities for improved effectivity

Prepare groups on good technical high quality practices

How do you deal with the tech debt

It begins with clear data sharing how the
enterprise is doing, the present product route, 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 enable
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 methods. As groups develop and take accountability for his or her
respective areas, there’s usually no clear possession for an end-to-end
journey, which leaves technical gaps that always turn into crammed with
technical debt. As groups develop and tackle new duties, it turns into
more and more troublesome to search out an proprietor for older code. Moreover,
with out possession, groups are much less incentivized to repair issues.

Now we have to empower groups to repair issues — resolving technical debt ought to
be a part of the pure circulation of product improvement. Engineers and product
managers want to barter the wholesome stability between tech debt vs.
performance with the proper pragmatic mentality. It’s a part of a product
group’s job to take care of and maintain technically wholesome merchandise, not one thing
executed as an after-thought. There ought to be an agreed course of to deal with and
monitor technical debt regularly. This requires exhausting trade-offs amongst
engineering and product leaders to maintain a secure stability.

Designing your group topology the proper
approach will also be an element. For instance, suppose we regularly see
technical debt created in sure areas. In that case, it would point out
that the group design is mistaken, and there is perhaps a platform or enterprise
functionality that wants sturdy possession and a focus.

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 ought to be used as guides
for the group to make choices about tech-debt relatively than for managers
to watch or incentivize. Skilled builders present worth by
deciphering the accessible knowledge and grounding their intution in fact-based
qualitative data.

Whereas we consider in autonomous groups, an excessive amount of autonomy is usually a drawback
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 overview, which will help implement
insurance policies and support builders.

How your group chooses to handle its tech debt is determined by your
context. One frequent 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 improvement exercise information the funding in resolving tech debt ends in
higher outcomes.


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