Pay Yourself First: The Art of Reducing Technical Debt


Hopefully you’ve read yesterday’s post about my quick primer on the Theory of Constraints (TOC). This is the foundation for what we are going to talk about today which is the art of reducing technical debt. You may have already heard me talk about this before, and it’s something that I strive towards on a daily basis.

What is Technical Debt?

Technical debt is not unlike regular monetary debt. It is something that hangs over us and continues to grow if we don’t remove it. Try to think of it as negative interest on your time that continues to accrue while you work.

Imagine a simple process like installing some software that takes 20 minutes. It doesn’t seem like much until you have to do it 5 times and then you realize that it’s now a 1 hour and 40 minute task. Now imagine that you have to do the same task on 50 machines. This is not only a task that has taken time, but every time you have to perform it, the task takes the full amount of time.

Just imagine now that you could automate the task, but it would take 8 hours to complete the scripting and testing. It may seem like a negative equity investment, but by doing so you would increase your ability to write scripts, plus if you have to run this on more than 24 different computers, you are winning on time invested. That is a phenomenal example of the advantage of automation and the reduction of technical debt.

Technical debt also comes in the form of meetings and other task management. If time is being spent discussing processes repeatedly, but there is no action being taken. Meetings without clear objectives going in and coming out can become a quick loss of valuable time.

Looking at some of the core of the TOC, one of the principles is that any effort that is spent on non-constraints will not provide a significant benefit. The goal is only achieved when improvements are made to constraints which will lead to reduction of technical debt.

The Wealthy Barber Way – Reducing Technical Debt on a Daily Basis

If you’ve heard of David Chilton’s book The Wealthy Barber, you may know that it’s a general financial guide that touts the method of paying yourself first. What is meant by that is to take 10% of your pay and putting it away. The small amount doesn’t affect your day-to-day, but the long term net effect is great because of compounding benefits of the base amount growing.

I use this same method with regards to technical debt. Every day I make a point of spending time on automating a process in some way, or mapping out something that will lead to better process management. In other words, I aim for a 10% piece of my day to spend on making future days better. It’s really that simple.

Out of your 8 hour day (480 minutes) you can easily set aside 48 minutes to spend on reducing technical debt. Great ways to do this include:

  • Write or improve a script to automate a process
  • Map the flow of a process to understand the potential constraints
  • Meet with stakeholders to build better feedback loops
  • Spend an hour with training materials such as video, or online media

These are just examples, so hopefully you can get the idea and find some way to take 10% of your day tomorrow and turn it into a technical debt reduction exercise.

Time spent on training may not seem like it is improving a constraint, but it is when you think of the long term benefit towards your daily efforts and your overall career.

Meetings that Matter

A big win that I’ve discovered is the move to use standing meetings. By making meetings 15 minutes long and having the participants stand to discuss, I’ve found that we get right to the result more quickly.

Always assign someone to track the discussion points and the deliverables coming out of the meeting. Be sure that you clearly document the assignees and the tasks. Using a tool like Asana or another task management product will be a big asset. The important thing is that you will find that the actual content of the meeting is like an artichoke heart. While there is some meat on the outside leaves, once we strip away all of of them we get to the part of the vegetable that is 100% edible.

In a 60 minute meeting we spend a lot of time doing introductions and side discussions. It isn’t that these don’t lead to potential productivity, but if we reduce the meeting by even 15 minutes, we gain back time that can be used on other tasks.

Make Every Day a Technical Debt Reduction Day

The ultimate goal is to spend some of each day on technical debt reduction. You may find that it is challenging sometimes, so if you begin by setting aside 1 hour of one day this week that is a great way to begin.

Block it off in your calendar and put priority to it. That time will pay off in dividends.


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  • Rob Nelson
    November 10, 2014 at 8:11 pm

    Eric, I disagree slightly with your terminology (I prefer the definition of technical debt that only applies to conscious decisions to take shortcuts) but the 10% rule is great, regardless!

    • DiscoPosse
      November 12, 2014 at 11:13 pm

      Good note Rob, thanks for that. I think you’ve got a great point on the terminology.


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