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Question: Product Owner and Technical Debt

Question from Meredith:

As a product owner, what are the best ways to record technical debt and what are some approaches to prioritizing that work amid the continuous delivery of working software?

Answer:

Hi Meredith! This is an interesting question. I’ll start by answering the second part of your question first.  The two most common ways of handling technical debt, quality debt and legacy debt are:

  1. Fix as you go. The Scrum Team works on new PBIs every Sprint, but every time a PBI touches a technical, quality or legacy debt area, the team fixes “just enough” to make the PBI implementation have no debt.  This means that refactoring and the creation of automated tests (usually through TDD) are done on the parts of the product/system that have the problems.
  2. Allocate a percentage. In this scenario, the Scrum Team reduces its velocity (sometimes significantly) to allow for time to deal with the technical, quality and legacy issues. This reduction could be adjusted every Sprint, but is usually consistent for several Sprints in a row.

In both approaches, the business is paying for the debt accumulated, and the cost includes an “interest” fee.  In other words, the sooner you fix technical, quality and legacy debt, the less it costs.  This approach to thinking about your product/system is essential for long-term sustainability.  One organization I worked with took three years working on their system to clean it up without being able to add any new features!  Don’t let your system get to that point.

Now to the first part of your question…

As a Product Owner, you shouldn’t really be making decisions about this cleanup work. Your authority is limited to the Product Backlog which should not include technical items. The only grey area here is with defects which may be hard to classify as either fully business or fully technical. But technical design, duplication of code, technical defects, and legacy code all are under the full authority of the Scrum Development Team. Practically, this means that every Sprint the team has the authority to choose however few PBIs they feel they can take while considering the technical state of the product/system.  We trust and respect the team to make wise decisions.

Therefore, your main job as a Product Owner is to provide the team with as much information as possible about the business consequences of the work they are doing.  With strong communication and collaboration about this aspect of their work, the technical members of your team can make good trade-off decisions, and balance the need for new features with the need to clean up previous compromises in quality.

A final note: in order for this to work well, it is critical that the team not be pushed to further sacrifice quality and that they are given the support to learn the techniques and skills to create debt-free code.  (You might consider sending someone to our CSD training to learn these techniques and skills.)

Using these techniques, I have been able to help teams get very close to defect-free software deliveries (defect rates of 1 or 2 in production per year!)

Let me know in the comments if you would like any further clarification.


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