Convincing agile product owners to prioritize technical debt

Chances are your agile development team struggles with addressing technical debt. That is unless you work for a ground-floor startup with a cloud-native microservices architecture engineered during the past few years. The rest of us have technical debt embedded in our applications, services, databases, and infrastructure that ranges in size, risk, complexity, and business impact.

Technical debt impedes teams from developing new features, enhancing customer experiences, addressing security issues, improving reliability, increasing performance, automating workflows, and addressing other business priorities.

What is technical debt?

The definitions and significance of technical debt vary. On the lower end, it can be a small area of code that requires refactoring, libraries that need upgrading, or unit testing that needs fixing. On the higher end, technical debt includes reengineering complex monolithic applications, porting outdated web service protocols, consolidating multiple platforms to one standard, cleansing data debt issues, modernizing infrastructure, introducing observability practices, or automating a backlog of manual test cases. The worst type of technical debt is burning platforms with recurring outages and incidents that impact the business.

My simple definition of technical debt is when technologies running in production require fixing, refactoring, modernizing, upgrading, reengineering, or replacing before or as part of implementing the strategic business requirements.

How technical debt impacts agile development teams

Here’s the conundrum facing agile and scrum teams that want to address technical debt. Although there are many approaches to how organizations adopt agile, most agile methodologies require assigning a product owner the responsibility to prioritize the backlog based on customer and stakeholder needs.

In the best scenario, product owners will listen, learn, question, and partner with their technology teams to address technical debt. Ensuring technical debt is prioritized requires product management groups (including product managers and owners) to consider technologists as delivery partners and also as stakeholders on what work ranks higher in the backlog.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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