How do you handle technical debt in the backlog?

Tackling Technical Debt in Your Backlog

A question was thrown my way recently, and I thought, “That’s not a bad question.  In fact, it’s a reasonable one.”

The question?

“How do you handle technical debt in the product backlog?”

Let’s dive deep into this topic with my insights and tips. πŸ“

What is Technical Debt?

First, for those unfamiliar, technical debt refers to the accumulated cost of the shortcuts, patches, or any other solutions that deviate from best practices, which a team must eventually address. 🧩

Think of it as the “I’ll deal with it later” of the coding world.

The danger?

Yep, all those shortcuts, the copy-pasting, and things that aren’t entirely up to the standard you claim to uphold.

Over time, as this debt accumulates, it becomes a ticking time bomb, causing unforeseen issues and setbacks.  It’s the reality many of us face.

Slow Down and Reassess

I’ll be candid, so here’s my honest take.   If you’re racking up technical debt, it’s a red flag that you’re moving too quickly.  You’re going too fast.

The easiest solution?

Slow down.  By ensuring you meet your “definition of done” standards and quality with every task, you will reduce debt and improve the overall quality of your product or service.  Slow down to a pace where quality isn’t compromised.

Investment Over Speed

Slowing down could be considered an investment in your project’s future health.  You may need to decelerate a bit, but this is a strategic move.  πŸ“ˆ

Think of it like this: running at top speed without care can lead to stumbles and falls (in our world, costly mistakes).  Recognise the signs, understand why it happened, and adjust your pace accordingly.

This isn’t about being cautious – it’s about being smart.

Using the Debt Metaphor

How do you communicate the severity of technical debt to stakeholders like product owners, who may be a little less technically inclined?

I always revert to using the leverage of the debt metaphor.  It’s about placing it on a spectrum, like below:

– Mortgage Debt: Long-term and low interest.  It’s not urgent but costly in the long run.

– Credit Card Debt: Requires regular payments.  It can escalate if not addressed promptly.

– Payday Loans: High risk, high cost.  Address these ASAP!

This metaphor helps convey the urgency and potential impact, ensuring everyone is on the same page.

Fostering Trust in the Team

Product owners need to trust developers when they bring up technical debt issues.  Open and honest conversations help determine the priority of these tasks in the backlog.

As a Scrum Master, it’s my job to foster this trust, ensuring the team collaborates effectively.   Trust is vital. 🀝

Technical Debt on the Backlog

Let’s face it, sometimes technical debt is a real consideration, and if you must place technical debt on your backlog, treat it like any other item.   Scrum doesn’t stop you from doing precisely that.

Communicate its impact, prioritise accordingly, and ensure the team understands its significance.  πŸ“‹

If it does end up on your backlog, ensure you’ve had that thorough discussion with your product owner so they can prioritise it correctly.

Final Thoughts

Every team’s journey with technical debt is unique; we all face technical debt at one time or another.

Whether addressing it immediately, slowing down, or placing it on your backlog, the key lies in transparent communication and trust. ✨

One answer is rarely sufficient for anything.

For those eager to dive deeper into Agile methodologies and effective backlog management, check out my Agile and Scrum courses.

Equip yourself with the tools to navigate challenges like these with confidence!

Keen to minimise your technical debt and maximise efficiency?

Join my Agile and Scrum courses now and redefine your team’s success! 🌟

If you are interested in becoming an agile coach and value mentored, coach-driven skills development in your journey to mastery, visit our Growing Agile Coaches page.

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If you like the idea of becoming a scrum master and want to achieve internationally recognised and certified accreditation as a scrum master, visit our Certified Scrum Master (CSM) course page.

If you are already a scrum master and want to upskill to a more advanced level of knowledge and agile coaching capability, visit our Advanced Certified Scrum Master (A-CSM) course page.

If you have several years’ experience as a scrum master and want to validate and certify your professional skills, visit our Certified Scrum Professional Scrum Master (CSP-SM) course page.

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John McFadyen Managing Partner
John McFadyen is an Executive and Enterprise Agile Coach with proven experience working on some of the UK and Europe’s largest, most complex Agile Transformations. As a Certified Scrum Trainer, John brings a wealth of experience as an Agile coach, Agile practitioner and software developer into each of the four core courses he provides. The war stories, the insights into successful Agile transformations and everything he has learned from coaching high-performance Agile teams combine to provide course delegates with a unique, compelling training experience that transforms as much as it empowers.

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