Technical debt and HR – what do they have in common?

At first glance, it may sound absurd. Here we have technical debt, a purely engineering problem, as technical as it can get, and another area, HR, dealing with psychology and emotions, put into one sentence. Is it possible that they are closely related? Let’s take it apart and see.

Exploring technical debt

What is technical debt, anyway? A tongue-in-cheek definition is that it is code written by someone else. But there is more to it – it is code written years ago, possibly by someone who has left the company. Also, every major piece of software is written incrementally over many years. Even if it started with a very detailed, well-thought-through design, there inevitably came plenty of modifications and additions which the original design could not easily accommodate.

Your predecessors sometimes had to cut corners and bend over backwards to achieve desired results in an acceptable amount of time. Then they moved on, someone else took over and so on.

What you now have is a tangled mess, mixing coding styles, techniques and design patterns, with an extra addition of ad-hoc solutions and hacks. You see a docstring like “temporary solution, TODO: clean up”, you run git blame and it is seven years old. It happens to everybody.

The business behind technical debt

Technical debt is a business issue. You can read about it in more detail in our previous post.

Source: Medium

The daily tasks of most developers are fixing bugs and implementing new features in existing code. The more messy and convoluted the code is, the more time it takes every time one has to read it and reason about it. And it is real money: according to McKinsey Report, this burden amounts to 20%-40% of an average business’ technology stack. Engineers are estimated to spend up to 50% of their time struggling with it.

So what can businesses do to get their code in check? Here are some suggestions:

  • Taking a step back 
  • Reassessing the architecture and techniques 
  • Making more informed choices 
  • Rewriting parts of the code to make it consistent and understandable, removing unused code and duplications

Unfortunately, this is very rarely done, since it does not bring any visible improvements to the product – clients are not interested in code quality, they want software that does its job. Improving the code costs real money, while the increase in developer productivity is impossible to quantify.

Technical debt also has another property – it is annoying. And this brings us nicely to the second topic.

Happy HR, Happier devs

What is HR about? In part, it is about the well-being of employees. Every employer wants good people to stay in the company. The most valuable employee is someone who likes their job and feels good about the place. HR departments go to great lengths to achieve this.

But, you can buy new chairs and phones, decorate the office, buy pizza, organise board games evenings – all this is mostly wasted if the following morning your devs show up in their workplace only to say “Oh no, not this old cruft again”, embellishing that statement with a substantial amount of profanities.

Now I tell you this: Nothing makes developers happier than allowing them to address their pain points. Ask them what they hate the most about the codebase and let them improve it, the way they choose to, at their own pace. They will be delighted.

You may ask how I know. Firstly, I’m a dev myself. Secondly, I’m fortunate enough to be currently working for a company that took the steps and did exactly that:

Step 1: Set up a small “tech debt” team

Step 2: Collected improvement proposals from all developers

Step 3: Documented them

Step 4: Defined priorities

Currently, the technical debt team or the proposers themselves are gradually putting these proposals into action, one by one. The code is getting better. We are becoming more productive. And if we’re happy, isn’t HR?

Calling upon the compassionate and proactive HR professionals out there: talk to your CTOs, tell them you all are after the same thing – you want these frustrated, burned-out coders happy, enthusiastic and more productive, and that you have an idea of how to achieve this.

Chances are they will be interested.

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