Understanding Technical Debt

Why Product Teams Must Pay Attention


16 years ago, MindCandy, a kids’ entertainment brand, launched an incredibly successful MMORPG (multiplayer online role-playing game) which was played in a web browser. With over 80 million registered users across 150 territories at several points the company was valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. What could go wrong? There was one problem – Flash. The entire product was based around Macromedia’s Flash technology – something that whilst providing great interactivity in a browser was rapidly falling out of flavour. Steve Jobs called this out in his 2010 open letter to Adobe  – He was basically pointing out that this technology was so flawed it should not be allowed on Apple products.

Flash was rapidly becoming replaced by faster, more secure and more viable technologies. MindCandy did not look to pivot to mobile and simply maintained their product (only worked in Flash) and by carrying this tech debt, not innovating their platform architecture, they had to sunset their core product. This was a real lesson of the dangers of tech debt where it can lead to a catastrophic failure of a product and ultimately a business.

What is Technical Debt?

Technical debt refers to the future cost incurred when software development teams take shortcuts to meet deadlines or quickly implement features. Coined by Ward Cunningham in 1992, the term draws an analogy to financial debt: opting for quick solutions now leads to more complex and time-consuming fixes later. This concept has evolved to encompass various scenarios where immediate gains are prioritised over long-term code quality and maintainability.

Technical debt can be classified into different types based on intent and prudence. According to Martin Fowler’s Technical Debt Quadrant, there are four main types:

  1. Prudent and Deliberate: This debt is taken on with full awareness of the future costs but is justified by the benefits of a quick release.
  2. Reckless and Deliberate: Teams knowingly produce suboptimal code for the sake of speed, often without considering the long-term implications.
  3. Prudent and Inadvertent: Here, debt arises despite best efforts to avoid it, often because better solutions emerge post-implementation.
  4. Reckless and Inadvertent: This is the result of poor practices or lack of knowledge, leading to suboptimal code without realising the consequences.

When is Technical Debt Justifiable?

While technical debt often carries negative connotations, it can be strategically beneficial. For instance, startups frequently incur technical debt to quickly launch products and gain market traction. This approach allows them to validate ideas and attract early adopters, providing a critical competitive edge. However, this debt must be managed and paid off over time to prevent it from becoming crippling.

The Dangers of Neglecting Technical Debt

Ignoring technical debt can lead to several serious issues:

  1. Increased Costs: Just as with financial debt, the “interest” on technical debt accumulates, making future changes more expensive and time-consuming.
  2. Reduced Agility: As the codebase becomes more complex and unwieldy, the team’s ability to adapt to new requirements or fix issues quickly diminishes.
  3. Higher Risk of Failures: Poorly managed technical debt can lead to critical system failures, security vulnerabilities, and other operational risks.
  4. Team Morale: A codebase riddled with technical debt can demoralise development teams, leading to higher turnover and reduced productivity.

Best Practices for Managing Technical Debt

To effectively manage technical debt, teams should:

  • Identify and Track Debt: Use tools and processes to make technical debt visible and track it over time.
  • Prioritise Refactoring: Regularly schedule time for code refactoring to address and reduce debt.
  • Adopt Good Development Practices: Implement code reviews, automated testing, and continuous integration to minimise the accumulation of new debt.
  • Educate Stakeholders: Ensure that all stakeholders understand the implications of technical debt and the importance of managing it proactively.


Technical debt is an inevitable part of software development, but its impact can be managed with careful planning and strategic decision-making. Product teams that understand and address technical debt can maintain agility, reduce costs, and ensure long-term success. Understanding and managing technical debt is crucial for maintaining the health and agility of software projects. By recognising its causes, impacts, and best practices for mitigation, teams can make informed decisions that balance short-term gains with long-term sustainability.