Product Managers: Stop Hiding Behind "Technical Debt"

Thanks to Daniel Elizalde for his recent guest post on how amazing product managers stop adding features and start eliminating technical debt. It was a good summary of the challenges that product leaders face working to create the greatest value for their customers and company. And it provided a fine warning as well for PMs who are always focused on “the next great feature.”

I am blessed to have the opportunity to engage with bright product leaders like Daniel on topics like this every day. It has never been more exciting to build great products. And there is no better job than product management.

Apparently many of you found this topic worth discussing. More than 2,000 of you took the time to read the post over the past several days.

I was surprised at the overwhelming feedback we received from our customers. It definitely warranted a deeper look.

In the post, Daniel suggested that product managers should focus on big-picture tasks rather than automatically adding more features from the backlog. He made the strong case that their time is better spent on tasks such as enabling the sales team, investing in the user experience, and issues of scalability and stability.

Finally, he advocated that product managers should concentrate on areas of greatest impact, such as paying down technical debt.

I agree that the role of a product manager is to focus on adding value, not just new features. However, I cannot agree with his assertion that ‘technical debt’ is a natural part of building a new product, and that it is something that product managers must pay off.

The very idea of “technical debt” creates the wrong mindset though. It leads too many product managers to sit back and hide behind the notion that they need to stop innovating and pay back a loan that they took out in the past. Let’s consider the definition of “technical debt” to better understand why.

“Technical debt” can be thought of as work that needs to be done before a particular effort can be considered finished or done right. If the debt is not repaid, then it will keep on accumulating interest, making it harder to innovate or create new value moving forward. When thought of in this way, it is considered to be a drag on everything else until it is paid off.

I think the very concept of “technical debt” is dangerous and does more harm than good. That is because I have seen it lead organizations to a dark, unforgiving place. I worked in product management for a large organization that completely lost its ability to innovate because product managers felt burdened by every little product imperfection and worse, engineering refused to build anything new.

They were convinced that if they took a long pause and invested in “technical debt” that they would create greater value. What they did not realize was that every aspect of the application could be improved. When they figured that out, the insight paralyzed them.

So, for over three months in a highly competitive market, not a single new feature was shipped as everyone huddled behind the flag of “technical debt.”

Here is why I believe that focusing on “technical debt” destroys product and engineering teams (and actually hurts customers too).

Innovation and improvement must co-exist
Ongoing improvements are needed for any product to survive long-term, so it must be part of the normal operations of the business. Innovation and improvement must be invested in simultaneously, and product and engineering managers must figure out how to do both as part of their product roadmaps.

It is focused on the technology
Well-meaning teams use the threat of growing “technical debt” like a hammer to pound the organization into submission. But the very term — and often the description of what it is and why an investment in it is necessary — is inherently a “technical thing.” It distracts those involved from what really matters, which is the customer experience.

Everything can be improved
In today’s dynamic world, there is almost always a better way. What you build today is never done and is always a work in progress. “Technical debt” is often presented as an investment that must be made at a given time, yet constant improvement is needed in every product if it is going to survive for the long term.

If you are waiting to improve your product until the technical team convinces the business that it cannot move forward until servicing the “technical debt,” it may already be too late. It was for the large company that I worked in.

Every great team I have ever worked with has rapidly innovated with the belief that their innovative work was never done. They knew that they would need to continue to iterate and improve even the most fundamental aspects of what they had built. They served “technical debt” as part of what they did — and it was generally known as improving the product.

Let’s all stop swinging the “technical debt” stick and refocus on the customer experience. Life is better and our work more enjoyable when we invest in innovation AND make the product a little better every day.

How do you feel about “technical debt”?

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product roadmap software — and the author of Lovability. His two previous startups were acquired by well-known public companies. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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