Have you ever been on a team that talks about tech debt like it’s a problem but then does…nothing or nearly nothing about it?
And when time eventually opens up in the schedule, instead of “getting things cleaned up”, everybody sort of… relaxes a little bit?
If it was such a problem and will keep being a problem soon, why aren’t people doing something?
How things occur to people
If people truly believed the tech debt was hurting them AND that they could do something to make it go away and stop hurting them, they’d be doing something about it.
Instead, they accept it as part of their reality, like weather, or rain.
If your general attitude towards tech debt is Not now, let’s do it later, then you are saying “This isn’t a high priority problem. It’s not that big of a deal. It’s not urgent. And it might be fine to never fix.”
That’s the message you are sending your team.
And even if they disagree with you on facts, they still know “My company/manager/higher-ups/teammates don’t really value this, so it is not going to help me advance my career.”
So either you have a superhero who’s happy fixing things thanklessly, or nobody wants to work on this.
Changing the story
If you want people to be motivated to clean up tech debt, the new behavior has to be woven into a new future.
And that new future needs to be something that includes We Keep Things Clean And We Care That We Keep Things Clean.
If you give it lip-service, but you’re only ever banging down your developers’ doors about the features that need to be shipped, they’re going to put their focus on what sounds important to you because that sounds like what will get rewarded.
I’ve only met a few developers in my career that will actually attack tech debt even when they aren’t being directly encouraged to do so.
People always do what makes sense from their perspective.
So change the story.
Make tech debt An Urgent Problem and stop allowing it to pile up on your normal work. Make it sound better to slow down now so that you can go faster every day.
Call out and encourage people and reward people who go out of their way to fix these problems.