Technical debt is a concept familiar to anyone building digital products. It is something teams inevitably accumulate and have to manage as they build and iterate on products over time. While it may seem like a technical issue best left to engineers, technical debt in fact has wide-ranging impacts on strategy, product, design, and the business itself. As such, it is a critical concept for digital leaders and product managers to deeply understand.
What Is Technical Debt?
The metaphor of "technical debt" was coined by Ward Cunningham, one of the original signers of the Agile Manifesto, back in 1992. As Cunningham describes it:
Shipping first-time code is like going into debt. A little debt speeds development so long as it is paid back with refactoring. The danger occurs when the debt is not repaid. Every minute spent on code that is not quite right for the programming task of the moment counts as interest on that debt. Entire engineering organizations can be brought to a stand-still under the debt load of an unfactored implementation, object-oriented or otherwise.
In essence, technical debt refers to the shortcuts, hacks, and compromises made in code over time to accelerate short-term goals. Like financial debt, it accrues "interest" in the form of extra effort and complexity required to maintain and extend the code going forward. If left unchecked, technical debt can accumulate to the point that progress grinds to a halt.
Causes of Technical Debt
There are many factors that contribute to the accumulation of technical debt:
Resource Constraints: Engineering teams often have to work within tight budgets, staffing limits, and timelines. This forces compromises that create debt.
Market Pressures: The pace of competition doesn't allow for pristine, perfect code - teams have to ship quickly and evolve over time.
Requirements Evolution: As products change based on user feedback and market demands, existing code can become debt that needs to be refactored.
Innovation Over Stability: Startups and new products emphasize rapid experimentation, which inevitably accumulates debt to be paid down later.
Complexity: As systems grow larger, dependencies multiply, and small changes cascade into major undertakings - a web of complexity emerges.
Why Digital Leaders Should Care
Technical debt is not just an engineering concern - it has real impact on product strategy, user experience, development velocity and ultimately, the bottom line. Here are some key reasons it matters:
Debt makes further development more tedious and time-consuming. Progress slows to a crawl.
It contributes to bugs, reliability and security issues in the product.
Too much debt leads to high turnover within engineering teams.
Paying off debt takes resources away from creating new value for users and customers.
Debt causes conflict and friction between teams over roadmaps and priorities.
For these reasons, technical debt must be closely monitored and managed. Digital leaders need to partner with engineering leaders to have visibility into debt, make strategic tradeoffs around it, and enable engineering to pay it down responsibly.
Developing Debt Management Skills
Managing technical debt should be viewed as a core skill for any digital leader or product manager. Here are some ways to develop this capability:
Understand debt monitoring - Learn how engineering teams assess debt levels and get visibility into this metric over time. Treat it like a key business KPI.
Integrate debt into roadmaps - Enable engineering time to specifically pay down debt and factor it into estimates. Avoid viewing this as unplanned "slippage".
Align incentives - Make paying down debt when appropriate part of success metrics, not just delivery of new features.
Communicate proactively - Help non-technical leaders understand debt levels and implications without getting lost in jargon.
Promote architectural thinking - Encourage upfront system design and refactoring as proactive measures against debt.
Learn continuously - Develop literacy around warning signs of excessive debt and modern development best practices.
Just as learning to manage financial debt is critical to any business leader, managing technical debt is a core competency for anyone guiding digital products and platforms. By partnering closely with engineering leaders, digital leaders can make strategic decisions that keep debt in check, enable innovation and create a healthy, sustainable codebase.