Timing Your Tech Debt Payments

It’s impossible to ignore that developers have a visceral reaction against tech debt. Even if they agree that it’s worth it. That’s because they are the ones that need to service the debt.

Tech debt is a cost similar to real-life debt like a mortgage. If you can use tech debt to bring forward revenue and growth, you can pay off the debt later.

But, until then, the interest must be paid.

So, when you are calculating the cost of taking on some debt, a factor in that calculation is how much future work is going to happen on that code. The more work you do, the more interest you pay. If you fix bugs or add features to debt-laden code, you are servicing the debt by making an interest payment. If you refactor, you are paying off principal, and future interest payments are lowered, but that only matters if there are going to be future interest payments.

If you have a system that works and doesn’t need any changes, the fact that it has tech debt doesn’t matter.

To carry the analogy forward, some mortgages have penalties for early payment. Paying off tech debt also has a penalty, usually in QA and system stability.

This is why my favorite time to pay off tech debt is just before a major feature is being added to indebted code. You are trading off the looming interest payments (which will balloon) and your penalty is already being incurred, because you need to QA that whole area again anyway.