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How to Talk to The Business About Tech Debt

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Summary
The Talk is never easy—the talk with the business about tech debt. As a developer, you may find this conversation challenging, maybe even a little daunting. The key to success? Come prepared with facts about how your app is performing—and how it’s impacting the business in a positive way.

Hi, I’m Chase Q. Aucoin, a new member of the Technical Evangelism Team here at AppDynamics. I’ve worked with the development teams at several dozen Fortune 500 enterprises to improve SDLC, company culture, and to solve some truly massive-scale technical challenges. I’m going to be contributing articles to help developers get more out of work every day. My goal is to help enable you to have better discussions with leadership, make your job easier, and foster meaningful change in your workplace that makes you and your coworkers excited to be there every day!

With introductions out of the way, let’s talk about tech debt…

As developers, we care deeply about our systems. For many of us, when our systems hurt, we hurt. When we foresee trouble on the horizon, sometimes it is difficult to have conversations with the business about our needs. Even though we can discuss with the leadership team, we feel like our needs will fall on deaf ears in favor of the next killer feature—but it doesn’t have to be that way.

“You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.” ~Zig Ziglar

The Art of Negotiation

If there was one life skill I wish I could impart to every developer, it would be how to negotiate. Most things in life require some amount of negotiating, whether it is buying a car, getting a mortgage, applying for a job or, in this case, getting the business to support you knocking out the technical backlog emphatically. The most significant piece of advice I can give you is this:

People do not care about why you want to do anything. They care about why they want to.

Keeping in mind that the business cares more about what is hurting them than what is bothering you, we can start by trying to understand the pain points of the company. It seems unfair that the business would always put feature development before fixing problems, but there are many reasons why this makes sense from a nontechnical business perspective.

  • Competitive Advantage: Your company wants to stay ahead of, or catch up with any significant competitors.

  • Low Sales: Your company is banking on the next great idea to create a swell of business growth and enable sales teams to hit their targets.

  • Industry Event: Your company is preparing for some major industry event with hopes of getting some big sales under their belt.

All of these come down to exactly one thing: Money. Decisions in the business have to make sense not just from a logical perspective of pain, but also from a financial standpoint. If something is painful, but the company feels like it would cost less just to play hurt, then that is what they will do typically*.

How Do We Show the Value of Improvement?

Since we know that money is the key motivator, how do we tie back our technical debt to value? The quickest and most straightforward answer is to measure, then measure some more, then compare.

Measuring alone, though, won’t help if what you are measuring doesn’t ultimately turn into some financial figures, so try reaching out to some members of your business team to get an understanding of what they are looking for to indicate positive business performance. The term is usually known as KPI or “Key Performance Indicators.” Here are some examples of how technical issues can relate to business value.

  • Not having enough hardware for Black Friday in retail—if you can get the data for the previous year to show that performance affected customers’ ability or willingness to buy.

  • Performance affecting marketing funnel: Maybe your company isn’t prioritizing performance because it doesn’t affect existing users too much. New users won’t have the same threshold of tolerance to performance, especially if your product is 5+ years old. Try to measure performance impact on new customer trial conversion based on performance.

  • Users not getting info: If pages are silently failing to let customers do a vital action that leads to a financial return for your company, then you are effectively just leaving money on the table.

Conclusion

Now armed with some facts about how your app is performing and how it is affecting the business, you can have a discussion with leadership that is much more compelling. The other thing this does is, instead of you being able to say “we improved the speed of the system by 20%,” you can say phrases like “we increased revenue by X amount of dollars,” which look great not only to the business but also as you build your career.

If you’d like to see how we can automate much of this process and make it easy to enable you to have those conversations, let us know, and we’ll show you how our platform can automatically track business metrics, performance metrics and correlate them. Having this automation saves you months or years of time and keeps you focused on the parts of the system that you love to engineer.