How to Handle Technical Debt in Scrum
If you work in software development, you likely encounter technical debt all the time. It accumulates over time as we prioritise delivering new features over maintaining a healthy codebase.
Managing technical debt, or code debt, can be a challenge. Approaching it the right way in the context of Scrum won’t just help you manage your tech debt. It can allow you to leverage it to strategically ship faster and gain a very real competitive advantage.
In this article, I’ll cover:
- The basics of technical debt and why it matters
- How tech debt impacts Scrum teams
- How to track tech debt
- How to prioritise tech debt, and fix it
- Why continuous improvement matters in tech debt
Thinking about Tech Debt in Scrum: The Basics
Scrum is an agile framework that helps teams deliver high-quality software in a collaborative and iterative way. By leveraging strategies like refactoring, incremental improvement, and automated testing, Scrum teams can tackle technical debt head-on.
But it all starts with good issue tracking.
Whether you're a Scrum master, product owner, or developer, I’m going to share some practical insights and strategies for you to manage tech debt.
The Impact of Technical Debt on Scrum Teams
Ignoring technical debt can lead to higher costs, slower delivery times, and reduced productivity. Tech debt makes it harder to implement new features or updates, because it creates excessive complexity.
Product quality suffers in turn. Then maintenance costs rise. There are more customer issues, and customers become frustrated. Unmanaged technical debt has the potential to touch every part of the business
Technical debt also brings the team down. It’s a serial destroyer of morale. Ignoring tech debt or postponing it is often frustrating and demotivating. It can also exacerbate communication problems and create silos, hindering project goals.
Good management of tech debt, then, is absolutely essential for the modern Scrum team.
How to Track Tech Debt
Agile teams who are successful at managing their tech debt identify it early and often.
Technical debt should be identified:
- During the act of writing code. Scrum teams should feel confident accruing prudent tech debt to ship faster. That’s so long as they track that debt immediately and understand how it could be paid off.
- Backlog refinement. This is an opportunity to discuss and prioritise the product backlog, and have nuanced conversations about tech debt in the codebase.
- Sprint planning. How technical debt impacts the current sprint should always be a topic of conversation during sprint planning. Allocate resource to paying back tech debt consistently.
- Retrospectives. An opportunity to identify tech debt which has been accrued or which needs to be considered or prioritised.
Use an in-editor issue tracker which enables your engineers to track issues directly linked to code. This is a weakness of common issue tracking software like Jira which often undermines the process entirely.
Prioritising Technical Debt in Scrum
There are many ways to choose what to prioritise. I suggest choosing a theme for each sprint. Allocate 15-20% of your resources to fixing a specific subset of technical debt issues.
For example, you might choose to prioritise issues based on…
- Their impact on a particular part of the codebase needed to ship new features
- Their impact on critical system functionality, security or performance
- Their impact on team morale, employee retention or developer experience
The headaches around issue resolution often stem from poor issue tracking. Once your Scrum team members have nailed an effective issue tracking system that feels seamless for engineers, solving tech debt becomes much easier.
The Importance of Good Issue Tracking in Managing Technical Debt in Scrum
Good issue tracking is the foundation of any effective technical debt management strategy. Scrum teams must be able to track technical debt issues systematically to prioritise and address them effectively.
Using the right tools can make or break a tech debt management strategy.
Modern engineering teams need issue tracking tools that:
- Link issues directly to code.
- Make issues visible in the code editor
- Enable engineers to visualise tech debt in the codebase
We created Stepsize to do just this, and more. It’s an all-in-one technical debt management tool that integrates beautifully with the more generalist tools you already use. Think Jira and GitHub.
Continuous Improvement in Scrum
Identify tech debt early and consistently. Address and fix tech debt continuously.
Use Scrum sessions such as retrospectives as an opportunity to reflect on how the team can improve their process for managing technical debt. Consider:
- Where does tech debt tend to accumulate?
- Is everybody following a good issue tracking process?
- Are issues high-quality?
Regularly review and update the team's “Definition of Done” (DoD), which outlines the criteria that must be met for a user story to be considered complete. Refining the DoD increases their likelihood of shipping high-quality code that is less likely to result in technical debt down the line.
Behavioural change is most likely when teams openly collaborate, supported by the right tools. I suggest encouraging everybody to reflect on their processes and actively searching for opportunities to improve.
Managing technical debt properly needs to be a natural habit for modern Scrum teams. Doing so protects the long-term performance of the team and product.
Properly tracking technical debt is the foundation of any effective technical debt management strategy. By leveraging the right issue-tracking tools and prioritising technical debt in the right way, Scrum teams can strategically ship faster.
Doing so also promotes better product quality and maintains team morale and collaboration.
Remember, technical debt is an unavoidable part of software development, but with the right approach and tools, it’s possible to drive behavioural change and safeguard the long-term success of your team.