Reframing ‘tech debt’

The Medium Newsletter
The Medium Blog
Published in
Sent as a


3 min readMay 23, 2024

⚒️ A 2020 survey of tech leaders at companies generating at least $1 billion in annual revenue found that most of them allocate 10–20% of their engineering resources to paying down technical debt
Issue #82: Talking about the things you’re doing, going deep on backpacks, and giving feedback
Harris Sockel

No matter where you work or what you do, you’ve inherited decisions and tools from those who came before you (and may still work alongside you!). Some of these tools may work just fine, but others may not. Sometimes, a tool built by your predecessors may be so outdated that it’s blocking your entire team.

Among software engineers, there’s a term for the latter scenario: tech debt. Programmer Ward Cunningham coined the term in 1992 as part of a comparison between engineering and finance. “Shipping first-time code is like going into debt,” he explained. Unless you pay it down (by keeping your code up-to-date) it will gradually accumulate interest (bugs) until you can’t really build anything new.

Vincent Déniel via Chuck Groom’s “The Tech Debt Playbook.” Licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.

People love to hate on tech debt, often without understanding it. We sometimes use the term to mean “code we’re afraid to touch” or “dumb decisions made by our predecessors.” Raphael Moutard, a former tech lead at Amazon, reframes the conversation. Debt is just a tool, he writes, and most organizations have to use it strategically (especially at the beginning) in order to get things done. Expedient, hacky solutions are like loans that can “buy you time, get you clients, and unblock projects.” It’s similar to accepting seed investment.

This concept applies to a lot more than software. Every team has to answer for the decisions made by those who came before them. Paying down organizational debt — from tech to strategy, communications, and beyond — is often more of a cultural challenge than a technical one. “I’ve learned to assume good intentions,” Moutard writes. “The team before you had different constraints but knew what they were doing. If you don’t understand a choice, ask about the context of the decision. It could have been the only valid choice at the time.”

What else we’re reading

  • Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi, a Jewish convert who recently signed the “Rabbis for Ceasefire” petition, reflects on the difficulty of that decision. “I am so very tired of hearing folks say that… there are two sides in this conflict, power versus vulnerability, war versus genocide,” she explains. Peace, DeBlosi maintains, will depend on breaking down binaries, seeking out nuance, and “keep[ing] the experience of having been Othered at the forefront of the way we then refuse to Other in turn.”
  • A tip about self-promoting for people who hate self-promoting: Just do things and tell people about those things!
  • Apropos of nothing, if you’re in the market for a new backpack or duffel, I have three words for you: Pangolins With Packs. Think: Wirecutter, if it only focused on backpacks and reviews were written by obsessives. Case in point: “The Anatomy of a Backpack,” a 13-minute read that taught me how to use the “load-lifter” straps on the backpack I’ve owned (and been using wrong) for almost a year.

Your daily dose of practical wisdom: about giving feedback

Before delivering negative feedback, establish your intent. Say something like: “I’m going to tell you something because if I were in your shoes I’d want to know so I could fix it.” Doing so softens the blow and helps the other person actually listen, explains Radical Candor author Kim Scott.

Learn something new every day with Medium’s Daily Edition. Sign up here.

Edited and produced by Scott Lamb & Carly Rose Gillis

Questions, feedback, or story suggestions? Email us: