Bottleneck #01: Tech Debt

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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 easy methods to assist them overcome varied bottlenecks that
impede this development.

As we have performed this work, we have seen frequent
bottlenecks, and realized approaches to cope with them. This text is the
first in a series that examines these bottlenecks. In every article we’ll look
at how startups get into the bottleneck, normally by means of doing the suitable
issues which can be wanted early in a startup’s life, however are not proper as
development adjustments 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 easy methods to break by means of the bottleneck, describing the adjustments we have seen
that permit scaleups to succeed in their correct potential.

We begin this sequence by taking a look at 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 most typical scaling bottleneck we encounter is technical debt —
startups often state that tech debt is their primary 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 characteristic improvement decelerate, high quality points, or
engineering frustration. The startup group attributes it to technical debt
incurred on account of an absence of technical funding throughout their development part.
An evaluation is required to determine the sort and scale of the tech debt.
It could possibly 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 adjustments to the groups’
course of or beginning an initiative to rebuild elements of the applying.

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 similar to high quality or robustness for product supply
pace. This may 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, now we have 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 (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 slightly than high-quality technical structure. After the
funding, as an alternative of rebuilding that pilot, they construct upon it, conserving the
traction by specializing in options. This will not be a direct downside
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 give attention to characteristic
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 may be friction to be taught, work, and help the code. It
turns into more and more tough to broaden the group or the characteristic set
successfully. The engineering leaders are additionally very nervous concerning the
attrition of the unique engineers and dropping the data 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, that means characteristic improvement has to
decelerate, permitting opponents to catch up.

Firm B – The corporate was based by ex-engineers and so they
wished to do the whole lot “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. Because of this, it should simply have the ability to deal with hyper development when
the corporate will get there.

The difficulty with this instance is that it took a very long time to create,
characteristic improvement was gradual, and lots of engineers frolicked engaged on the
platform slightly 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, based mostly on an amalgamation of varied
shoppers with whom the startup groups at Thoughtworks have labored. Firm A
acquired itself right into a technical debt bottleneck that paralyzed the corporate.
Firm B over-engineered an answer that slowed down improvement and
crippled its means to pivot shortly because it learnt extra.

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

To discover easy methods to create the suitable stability, we’re going to study the
various kinds of technical debt:

Typical forms 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 characteristic improvement.

Code high quality
Code that’s brittle, exhausting to check, exhausting to know, 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 information mannequin that doesn’t
match the present enterprise mannequin, leading to workarounds.

An absence of unit, integration, or E2E assessments, or the fallacious distribution
(see test pyramid). The developer can’t shortly get confidence that
their code won’t break present performance and dependencies. This leads
to builders batching adjustments and a discount of deployment frequency.
Bigger increments are tougher to check and can usually end in extra bugs.
Between modules (usually occurs in a monolith), groups probably
block one another, thus decreasing the deployment frequency and
growing lead time for adjustments. One resolution is to tug out providers
into microservices, which comes with it’s own
— there may be extra easy methods of setting
clear boundaries throughout 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 circumstances, extra edge instances that builders must design
round. This erodes the supply pace. A startup is experimenting. We
ought to all the time be sure to return and re-evaluate if the experiment
(the characteristic) is working, and if not, delete it. Emotionally, it may be very
tough for groups to make a judgment name, however it turns into a lot simpler
when you’ve got goal information quantifying the characteristic worth.

Old-fashioned libraries or frameworks
The group might be unable to benefit from new enhancements and
stay weak to safety issues. It should end in a abilities
downside, slowing down the onboarding of latest hires and irritating
present builders who’re pressured 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 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 stability between shopping for vs.
constructing is complicated and wishes reassessment with the remaining debt in

Reliability and efficiency engineering issues
This will have an effect on the shopper expertise and the power to scale. We
must watch out, as now we have 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”.

Handbook 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 manner if you
spend a number of 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 put up. You must
have the power to deploy at will, normally no less than as soon as a day.

Information sharing
Lack of helpful info is a type of technical debt. It makes
it tough for brand new workers and dependent groups to stand up to hurry.
As commonplace 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 is not 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 may have a single-tenant resolution
with little automation. This begins off nicely sufficient — the builders can
manually arrange the accounts and observe 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 workers to set
up the shopper accounts. Because the consumer 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 enhance. At
this level automating the deployment and configuration or shifting to a
multi-tenant setup will straight affect KPIs — that is

Different types of technical debt are tougher to identify and tougher to level
to a direct affect, similar to code that’s tough to work with or quick
repeated guide processes. One of the simplest ways 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 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 an organization 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 — it will compound
    present issues. Addressing present technical debt must be a part of the
    funding plan.
  • New product course can invalidate earlier assumptions and put
    stress on new elements of the techniques.
  • governance course of entails reevaluating the state of the
    know-how on a daily cadence.
  • New opinions may help keep away from “boiling frog” issues. Exterior assist, group
    rotations and new workers will carry a contemporary perspective.

The slippery slope

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

Mockingly, 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 of a mistake. Nonetheless, one
concession results in one other and so forth, till you’ve got a major problem
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 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 suitable. In these circumstances, creating the brand new options will
end in much more debt. That is the slippery slope, a vicious cycle
that sadly results in a cliff as the trouble to implement the subsequent
characteristic 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 that some technical practices are fairly
tough to attain, for instance steady supply; deploying
often with out affecting customers is technically difficult. Groups
usually have preliminary issues, and in response management could deprioritize
the apply. As an alternative we suggest the alternative, do it extra usually and
your groups will grasp the practices and kind robust habits. When the
robust time comes, slightly than dropping the apply, use the suggestions to
information future funding in group functionality.

Blast Radius

We settle for that taking shortcuts is a obligatory a part of scaling the
enterprise. How will we restrict the blast radius, understanding that these shortcuts
will must be resolved, and even completely rebuilt? Clearly, we want a
technique that limits the affect to the enterprise. A method is to decouple
groups and techniques, which permits a group 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 clarify 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
techniques, and selecting poor area boundaries between groups can add
communication friction. We might 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 nicely. While you
search for the basis explanation for this bottleneck, it almost all the time comes down
to the stability throughout the firm between enterprise, product and
engineering targets. Lack of collaboration usually results in quick
sighted choices made in a vacuum. This will go each methods, chopping
corners in essential areas or gold plating one thing that isn’t worthwhile
are equally doubtless.

  • The enterprise technique at any cut-off date must 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 prepared to make commerce off choices based mostly on lengthy and quick time period affect to the enterprise.
  • Choices 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.
  • Choices are revisited when information is refined or new learnings are found.

A tech technique to restrict technical debt affect

When pondering of methods for a startup, and the way it scales, we like
to make use of a four-phase model to know the completely different phases of a
startup’s improvement.

Part 1


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

Part 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

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 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 tackle the tech debt

It begins with clear info sharing how the
enterprise is doing, the present product course, metrics on the present
scaling capability, what prospects are saying concerning the product and what
buyer help 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 techniques. As groups develop and take duty 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 out to be full of
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 have now to empower groups to repair issues — resolving technical debt ought to
be a part of the pure movement of product improvement. Engineers and product
managers want to barter the wholesome stability between tech debt vs.
performance with the suitable pragmatic mentality. It’s a part of a product
group’s job to take care of and maintain technically wholesome merchandise, not one thing
performed as an after-thought. There must be an agreed course of to deal with and
monitor technical debt frequently. This requires exhausting trade-offs amongst
engineering and product leaders to maintain a secure stability.

Designing your team topology the suitable
manner will also be an element. For instance, suppose we frequently see
technical debt created in sure areas. In that case, it would point out
that the group 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 frequent
errors or measuring construct and deployment instances. The engineering
group ought to present self-service tooling into which groups
can shortly combine their techniques. Metrics must be used as guides
for the group to make choices about tech-debt slightly than for managers
to observe or incentivize. Skilled builders present worth by
decoding the out there information and grounding their intution in fact-based
qualitative info.

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

How your group chooses to handle its tech debt will depend on your
context. One frequent theme now we have seen throughout many organizations is the need
to “simply do one thing,” usually 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 improvement exercise information the funding in resolving tech debt leads to
higher outcomes.

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

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