Sometimes clients come to us in rough shape. Their platform needs to evolve, but technical challenges have become insurmountable. Progress is at a standstill and they’re not sure how they’ve been led so far astray. This is symptomatic of technical debt—the cost of revisiting projects is much higher than it would have been if a more robust or scalable approach were chosen at the start.
The term is most often used in software development, but it’s an idea that resonates broadly because all types of work are susceptible to the consequences of short-term decision making. In larger projects, debt might be induced by lack of foresight, time constraints, significant changes in requirements or changes in the business context. But technical debt can also be at the personal level—a debt in expertise or skills due to lack of opportunity or incentive to learn, evolve or form good habits.
Balancing agency and product developer roles
In 2021, most agencies double as software teams—partnering with companies to execute anything from sites and apps to full-blown platforms. We’re not always prepared for the complete scope of challenges, so technical debt can be a real issue as clients shop for big results on small timelines.
Success today is often measured in clicks, appearance and speed. Nuances that are critical to quality and scalability, such as management of code and assets, collaborative practices, and research are generally invisible to stakeholders, so it can be difficult to defend the extra costs involved. This is especially true when stakeholders are used to relying on agencies for speed and creativity.
Any time craftsmanship or process corners are cut, the resulting quality may remain passable for a while, but will eventually erode along with our individual strengths as practitioners. Without incentives to learn and evolve technique and process, technical debt won’t just manifest itself in projects. It can accumulate in the form of bad habits and a lack of expertise.
The FATFREE team knows better than to let that happen, as our long-term outlook is a big reason clients come to us in the first place. They trust that our process won’t allow quality and efficiency to compete in ways that might eventually hang them out to dry. But it’s a tough balance, especially when trying to account for the unknown. It takes practice, communication, mindfulness and a plan.
Discovery and communication are key
Technical debt may not always be avoidable, but it’s important to mitigate risk to internal and external teams by building consensus. Make sure your team, then your clients, understand the pros and cons of different approaches. With everyone properly informed, your team will be better equipped to explain and justify forward-thinking approaches that require more upfront investment.
Every phase of any process should include adequate time to discuss possibilities, vulnerabilities and processes—especially in discovery. Clients are sometimes hesitant to invest in discovery when they already know what they want, but this is the best time to ensure that they not only understand the end goal, but what may come after that, what success looks like, and whether they understand the potential paths forward.
Invest in your internal teams
Everyone wants to learn new things, so don’t wait for downtime or a specific client project to try new things. Education should be a structured, frequent priority so familiar patterns don’t become future bottlenecks. It’s an easy, ongoing investment that will yield a stronger, more competitive and efficient team.