Tech debt rocket

Image by ANDRI TEGAR MAHARDIKA from Pixabay

Surviving in the startup world means being skillful and fast. A startup innovates, iterates, and pivots at a rapid speed that larger corporate companies can only dream of. Part of the race includes getting version 1 of your product or service to market as quickly as possible.

During the initial development phase, accruing ‘technical debt’ - shortcuts the job quicker today, but will need fixing in the future – is almost inevitable.

This post covers how a startup founder or technical lead can balance technical debt and a clean codebase. In order to launch your minimum viable product (MVP) swiftly, and still measure success from day 1 - an open and honest approach to technical debt is required.

Understanding & Accepting Technical Debt

Acceptance is the first step towards managing debt - and in this case, your ‘technical debt’. All fast-paced startups will inevitably opt for shortcuts or quick fixes to get their first version out in the market quickly.

Technical debt isn’t necessarily a negative entity. Like financial debt, when managed correctly, it can provide significant benefits, such as fast-tracked delivery times, quicker market entry, faster feedback loops and validation of your idea

Balancing Technical Debt with a Clean Codebase

While quick coding to meet deadlines can result in technical debt, maintaining a clean codebase should not be neglected.

Adopting a continuous refactoring approach can be your best earned friend here. Consider planning for ‘source code hygiene’ time in each sprint, where development teams can clean up, refactor, and improve code quality.

Aim to decouple and segregate unstable/quick ‘validation’ code from your core codebase. This will help you maintain a cleaner codebase while still allowing you to accrue technical debt in the short term.

Consider if validation of an idea/feature needs to happen inside your core codebase. If not, consider using a separate codebase or repository to validate the idea. This will allow you to accrue technical debt in the short term, without impacting your core codebase.

MVP and Scalability

A common misconception among startups is that your MVP needs to be scalable. This is far from true. Scalability is a future requirement and an area where it is acceptable, even strategic, to accrue technical debt. Your focus for the MVP should be on validating your hypotheses with your target audience ASAP.

If your idea doesn’t work with a small audience, it’s unlikely to work with a larger audience.

Focusing your energy on scalability at this stage is a waste of time and resources. Instead, focus on building a product that works for a small audience and then scale it up.

Never Neglect Measurement

While some elements of technical debt are deferrable, especially in the early stages of your startup, measurement is not one of those.

Data and insights are key - they help you make informed decisions and are crucial for your long-term success

It’s ok if your measurement approach is manual and if data is spread across different platforms. It’s more important than not having any measurement at all.

From user counts to session durations to feature usage - decide on your success metrics and start tracking them from day one!

Managing Technical Debt: A Checklist/Guide

  1. Identify and Understand: Be aware of the areas where you’re accumulating technical debt. Ensure you and your team understand why it’s being accumulated and its impact
  2. Prioritise: It’s vital to prioritise your technical debt. Not all debts need immediate attention. Some can be deferred, while others demand swift action
  3. Document: Keep a record of all your technical debts, including their nature, reasons, prospective solutions, and risks associated
  4. Plan a Repayment Strategy: Set a dedicated time in your future sprints to address the technical debt. You don’t have to clear it all at once
  5. Create Debt Awareness: Include technical debt issues in regular discussions within your team, stakeholders, and investors. Keep everyone on the same page about current and prospective debts
  6. Re-evaluate Regularly: Maintaining regular check-in will ensure the debts are handled smoothly and progressively mitigated over time
  7. Be open and honest: Be open and honest about your technical debt with your team, stakeholders, and investors. It’s better to be transparent about your technical debt than to hide it

Wrapping Up

While embracing this strategic approach to manage your technical debt, remember that a certain level of technical debt is a sign of a healthy, growing startup. What matters is acknowledging it, managing it, and turning it from a risk into an opportunity.

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