Untold story of ‘technical debt’ every founder should hear

Untold story of ‘technical debt’ every founder should hear

By Dmytro Grechko, founder and CEO at Deskree

One of the greats, Ward Cunninghame, once said: “Shipping first-time code is like going into debt."

In 1992, he introduced the concept of "technical debt" to describe the cost of making quick fixes in software development, which can speed up product building but lead to complications and extra work — akin to accumulating interest on a debt.

I’ve experienced having technical debt while working on my startup Deskree. Until then, I didn’t realize how much hardship it could bring to a tech startup.

The way I see it, technical debt equals messy code no one wants to fix, a headache for a founder, and a giant red flag for potential investors. The debt limits scalability and leads to higher spending.

Although it’s almost impossible to eliminate it entirely, there are some ways to reduce it.

What causes technical debt

When working under pressure with limited resources, many startup founders make wrong decisions leading to technical debt. I’ve been there, too.

Compromising quality for speed. Your team might say things like, “We needed this feature to be done by yesterday,” or, “Software testing is only for large companies and will slow us down,” or, “We need to have 20+ features to compete with our competitors.”

Then developers take quick shortcuts without proper testing, documentation, and a plan to manage tech debt. These implementations may seem fine until a bug surfaces or a sudden increase in usage causes the system to break.

Under-engineering. Your team might say things like, "We saved money by choosing the cheapest cloud plan, but now our product crashes with every usage spike," or, "Why is our AWS bill so high? We used their starter templates!" or, "I know WordPress, so let's use it for now and migrate to a scalable platform later."

Then under-engineering can cause problems such as frequent downtime, bad user experience, scalability limitations, data security risks, and high infrastructure costs. It's often easier to rebuild the product from scratch than to fix these issues. Goosebumps.

Over-engineering. Your team might say things like, “We want to outshine competitors with the most advanced solution,” or, “Investors will be impressed by our sophisticated approach,” or, “We need to build a product that can handle 2 million daily users, even if we're not there yet.”

Then your product’s features may become too complex. You'll have to improve existing code to maintain stability in legacy components, leading to a slower product launch.

How to reduce technical debt

Startups can minimize technical debt by balancing under- and over-engineering, making sure that product quality isn't compromised.

Invent only if it’s vital for your company. Investing in R&D may result in great new products or features, or it may turn into a big, unnecessary overhead.

Invent if it can significantly improve the core product and the team's productivity, or if the invention is unique and vital for the company's growth.

Don’t invent if it doesn’t fulfill the startup's main needs, for example, if a big data fintech startup decides to develop a new user interface framework. Also, it's not worth doing if alternatives already exist (even if they aren't perfect) and the team lacks expertise in the subject.

Outsource if you need to fill resource or knowledge gaps. Outsourcing can bring many advantages to startups. For instance, at Deskree, we work with third-party vendors like Vanta to manage our SOC 2 and HIPAA compliance certifications. This allows us to focus on product development.

If you're planning to outsource a task, think if it will bring value to the startup at its current stage. Perhaps you don't need it now.

If you do, make sure the outsourced tasks don't require too much attention from your side and can be handled by an external company. Next, assess if outsourcing is more optimal than developing internally in terms of time and costs.

For example, for a hardware startup expanding into B2C e-commerce, it’s better to outsource setting up an e-commerce platform — to hire a Shopify developer or an agency.

This is because a hardware startup usually doesn’t have expertise in e-commerce development. Managing a small e-commerce site typically doesn't require a full-time engineering team. Also, this is a sales channel, not a core product feature.

Use frameworks and tools. Frameworks and tools for development and management help teams work faster and keep code easier to read, maintain, and modify. They can be opinionated and un-opinionated.

Opinionated software has specific standards and provides a clear, predefined structure for development — the system guides users. It can be helpful in complex projects, such as enterprise applications, also when custom tools aren't needed, or when it’s necessary to speed up development. Examples: Laravel for PHP, Next.js, Firebase.js.

Un-opinionated software is often used in projects where flexibility and customization are more critical than strict guidelines. It allows for multiple ways to complete a task, giving developers the freedom to make their own decisions, tailor the software to their needs, and integrate third-party services. Examples: Node.js, Express.js, Flask.

Also, you can try the product of my company, Deskree, an opinionated no-code cloud infrastructure platform. Our tool makes it easy to build great products without the headache of setting up complex backends, helping mitigate tech debt.

In addition, explore our subscription service for API development, Startups Accelerate. It offers startup-friendly packages, including cloud credits, and the assistance of experienced developers.

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