An Engineering Manager’s Pocket Guide To Dealing With Technical Debt

Table Of Contents

Technical debt. It's the dark underbelly of our industry, that nagging 'to-do' list in the back of our brains, or maybe even sticky notes on your desk!

Let’s get them off.

We talk about refactors and clean code, but deadlines keep looming over our heads, stakeholders demand features, and those elegant fixes get pushed down the roadmap...again.

It's easy to measure tech debt's impact on release cadence or bug count, but what about what goes on inside your head?

Think of it like this: every clunky workaround, every dependency is like a grain of sand irritating your engineering team. 

One grain is no big deal. 

But over time, that constant friction wears the devs down.

It takes away the joy in building, turns creative problem-solving into grunt work, and turns excited engineers into clockwatchers hoping to survive another release.

Okay, I’ve been whining for the entirety of this intro but this isn't just a theoretical whine-fest.

It has real consequences for your business. 

Let's unpack how tech debt can turn your star devs into zombies, and what it'll cost you in the long run.

The Symptoms of the Tech Debt Disease

Alright, we’ll quickly cover a few things to look out for. These could fly under the radar for a long time if engineering leaders actively don’t pay attention to these.

It means you could be running your software and business to the ground and not even know about it until it's too late.

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Every time devs dive into that spaghetti code, or spend hours debugging an issue caused by some ancient, undocumented library, it's not just about wasted time.

Imagine each of those moments like a tiny paper cut.

Annoying, for sure, but no big deal on its own.

Imagine dealing with those day after day, release after release, the cuts add up.

The mental effort of remembering all the workarounds, the fear that one small change will trigger a falling house of cards...that kind of mental burden drains your developers.

Creativity? Forget it.

They're too busy in survival mode to think strategically.

Building software becomes firefighting.

Suddenly, even routine tasks feel like a minefield. That's the weird part of tech debt - the damage it does slowly, killing the vibe.

The Guilt Cycle

Here's the thing most non-engineers don't get: devs genuinely care about building things right.

Seeing the product out in the real world is a win, but deep down there's that nagging feeling when it ships held together with duct tape and prayers.

Having to layer on yet another hack, knowing it's making the problem worse? No developer really wants to do that.

And no, this is not just about being a perfectionist.

It's the sense of responsibility towards the codebase.

This shame spiral is mentally taxing, even for seasoned pros.

They start questioning their own abilities. Yes, imposter syndrome is real, you know it.

"If I were truly good, wouldn't I have built this more elegantly?"

Sinking Ship Syndrome

Imagine your codebase as a ship slowly developing leaks due to increasing technical debt.

Your team works hard to patch them, but each fix seems to compound the problem.

Even your most dedicated developers are going to reach their limits.

Creativity goes dry getting replaced by a struggle to maintain the status quo.

This is the moment when you risk losing your top talent.

Those who thrive on solving creative challenges, not endless firefighting, start feeling unfulfilled.

You and I both know that the consequences are undeniable.

How Tech Debt Harms Your Team Dynamics

Tech debt is a sneaky thing and it not only affects your team’s productivity but also the overall dynamics, emotion and takes the chill vibes away.

Let’s have a look at how this happens.

Knowledge Silos Are Bad for Software Teams

Tech debt also creates a toxic system where knowledge is dangerously concentrated.

Every change request or bug becomes a monstrous task for the sole dev who understands this undocumented code.

These devs become bottlenecks, their calendars fill up and they burn out.

Because of this even minor tasks sometimes escalate endlessly and needlessly.

Meanwhile, your other skilled developers sit on the sidelines at times increasing your MTTR in the wake.

What happens if this individual decides to change jobs? Or worse, leave because they are burnt out!

This is beyond inefficient, it's a recipe for a demoralized, dysfunctional software team.

Opportunities Go Unleveraged

When tech debt rules the land, everyone loses out on potential growth. 

Developers join companies to build great software, not to become career bug squashers.

Fixing typos in error messages isn't exactly inspiring, and the sense of stagnation just lowers the motivation.

What’s more? Your senior folks are stuck tweaking around with brittle code instead of mentoring, experimenting, or leveling up their own skills.

This hurts everyone: juniors don't get the guidance they need, and your veterans feel trapped in a dead-end firefighting role, their talent going to waste.

It's a recipe for a company to stagnate both innovation and knowledge transfer.

No Trust Within The Software Team

Imagine you're a product manager, excited about a new feature.

Your engineers push back. 

Reason? Tech debt - but to you, it sounds like excuses, not tangible problems.

Releases get delayed, features turn into disappointments, and customers get antsy.

Who takes the heat? 

Your engineers, who feel constantly undermined and under pressure to deliver the impossible.

Ops, meanwhile, has to constantly scramble with buggy deployments and outages your devs have fixed.

The blame game starts: Devs say "told you so" about needing time to refactor, Product says engineers are lazy, Ops just wants a quiet night without panic filled calls.

Collaboration, essential for tackling these complex issues, becomes impossible.

This downward spiral of mistrust poisons the entire product development cycle.

Quantifying What’s Beyond The Tickets

Engineering managers sometimes are just thrown into the fire pit. One day they were a promising developer and the next they are a manager of a team of devs just like them.

They must quickly learn to look at the data and then understand what doesn’t show in the metrics such as DORA.

Tech Debt's Hidden Toll

You won't find these consequences on your standard engineering dashboards, but they can be some of the most damaging.

  • The Sneaky Slowdown: It's gradual, insidious even. Tasks that took a week now take two, for no immediately obvious reason.
    Track velocity trends alongside code complexity metrics.
    If they're diverging (more complexity, slower output), that's a massive red flag that tech debt is the culprit.
  • Stress Beyond the Surface: Developer burnout isn't always all-nighters and public meltdowns.
    Ask a dev in your team in private: "On a scale of 1-10, how sustainable does your workload feel long-term?"
    Honesty requires trust, so ensure devs feel safe being candid.
    Watch out for a widening disconnect between what folks tell you vs. what the stress level suggests.
  • The Excellence Factor: Talented devs leave jobs for many reasons, but if your stars are jumping ship, don't just focus on salary in exit interviews.
    Probe how the state of the codebase factored into their decision.
    This is brutally honest feedback you won't get any other way.

Leadership Owns the Solution

Stop seeing tech debt as "that engineering problem." 

This is where proactive CTOs and engineering managers need to earn their titles.

  • Translate Code Pain Into Business Risk: Stakeholders don't care about elegant design.
    Frame it like this: "Every tech debt shortcut increases the chance a competitor beats us to market, or a major outage blows customer trust."
    Quantify it where possible: "We lost X dev hours to rework due to tech debt this quarter."
  • Reward What You Want to See: Don't just praise the devs who pull all-nighters to ship.
    Make sure to thank those who champion scalable architectures, write amazing tests that catch problems early, or are your resident documentation gurus.
    Show that these 'slow' things are what enable long-term success.
  • Build It Into The System: Refactoring can't be a once-a-year panic when things explode.
    Budget a percentage of EVERY sprint for it, or have dedicated 'fix-it' weeks.
    Treat tech debt like you do security, a constant concern, proactively managed, not a crisis to be solved after the damage is done. (I hope you treat security this way)

Final Thoughts

The fight against tech debt isn't about some obsession with perfect code.

It's about giving your A-team the tools and freedom to build software they can actually brag about in parties, not be scared of maintaining.

Every hacky fix, every "let's just ship it and fix it later" is like telling your devs, "Hey, you don't get to build something cool – just glue this mess together again."

It has a time and place but done time and again it’s a recipe for burnout, not innovation.

Technical debt might feel like it has a death grip on your codebase, but it's not Darth Vader.

It's the result of prioritizing quick wins over long-term health.

By calling it out for what it is - a bad business decision - and rewarding your devs for building clean, maintainable code, we can create a software delivery process where everyone wins.

Your team feels good about what they're building, and your product reaps the benefits of a solid foundation.

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