Agile: Tech Debt Sprint

In software development, the biggest thing you can do for the users of your product is deliver value. Adding business value is critical to maintaining a good product and keeping users happy. But there is another group you need to keep happy as well, and that is your development team.

Technical Debt (think of it like real money debt) is the extra WTF’s that add up in your codebase over time. You add a new feature, and take some shortcuts, you say “we will fix it later” but later never comes. You end up with untested (Unit Tests/Developer Tests) code and with “legacy code” that is hard to maintain. How do you get rid of all that? You have to pay down your debt, that is where Tech Debt Sprints come in.

Just like paying down regular debt or even how people keep regular debt, you usually have some. People have mortgages, or car loans, that they pay down. So in any app you end up having tech debt, but you need to keep paying it down instead of just adding more and more debt, because sooner later you’d have to declare technical bankruptcy, which is no good. (Close Shop? Rewrite? etc).

What I like to do is balance tech debt in two ways.

1. First, in every sprint, there should be a percentage of points dedicated to technical debt. 15-25% is a good number.

2. Second, every X sprints you should flip that percentage. So if you usually do 70% enhancements, 10% bugs, and 20% tech debt, every 4-6 sprints, you should flip it around: 70% tech debt, 10% bugs, and 20% enhancements. I might most later on the concept of another type of sprint, a “Hardening Sprint” where you dedicate 70% to just bugs to “harden” your app.

Now, you may have to negotiate with your Product Owner, which after a while they might get high on the drug that is enhancements and business value. Most reasonably Product Owners though, will realize that the code and developers need to pay down tech debt to make the overall application better and also make it easier to get future enhancements to market faster.

You may even get some stories that I like to call “Trifecta” stories. What are they? Well it is that “magical” story that satisfies three causes, Enhancement, Bugs, and Tech Debt. An example might be a crappy custom control that you’ve had in your app that you can replace with built in functionality or a better architected 3rd party control. Users will get the added functionality (enhancement), crazy bugs from your custom code are gone (bug fixes) and tons of crappy code is just dropped from the codebase (tech debt). Everybody is a winner!

I blogged previously on using User Voice to track your tech debt items at a higher level and have devs vote on them, it works somewhat, better than nothing. Usually stories come out of each “idea”. The bottom line though is to make sure you dedicate time and effort to paying down your technical debt. Far too often dev shops ignore this or always put it off till some mythical “later” that never comes. You need to just do it. It will make your code and app better, your devs happy, and keep things moving forward.

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