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Strategies for Prioritizing Technical Debt Repayment

Last updated on
January 22, 2024


How to prioritize tech debt repayment

The Quadrant Method

This method involves categorizing technical debt into four quadrants based on cost-to-fix and impact, prioritizing high-impact, low-cost issues to enhance performance efficiently.

Addressing highest interest debt first

Focus on tech debt with the most significant long-term maintenance costs, such as security vulnerabilities, to prevent future issues and streamline development.

Paying down impeding debts

Address technical debts that obstruct new feature development or necessary updates, ensuring project progress and maintaining operational fluidity.

To get familiar with other strategies for prioritizing technical debt repayment, scroll down to access the whole article.


Strategies for Prioritizing Technical Debt Repayment

Avoiding technical bankruptcy

Legacy modernization challenges - technical debt
Report: State of Software Modernization 2024

Since you're reading this article, you've probably found yourself in a situation of ascending technical debt and are wondering how to avoid technical bankruptcy. Good news – we can help you get back on track. 

By reading this guide you will learn:

  • Strategies for prioritizing technical debt repayment.
  • A tech debt repayment step-by-step process.
  • The company culture that leads to tech debt. 
  • The difference between intentional and unintentional debt.

The most popular strategies for prioritizing tech debt repayment

Prioritizing tech debt repayment is an ongoing process that should align with your project's goals, resources, and constraints. It's important to strike a balance between addressing existing debt and continuing to deliver new features to maintain a competitive edge while ensuring long-term system stability. Let's look at some strategies for prioritizing tech debt repayment. 

The Quadrant Method 

In this method, you categorize technical debt into quadrants based on two criteria: the cost to fix the debt and the impact it has on the project. Prioritize addressing the issues that fall into the high-impact, low-cost quadrant first. In this way, you'll quickly improve performance while better budgeting for future improvements.

Debt with the highest interest first

Another strategy of tech debt repayment is to focus on the long-term perspective. In dealing with tech debt, there is often a temptation to address the most vexing and glaring issues first. However, you should consider which areas of the system will have the most serious consequences and address them first. Implementing this strategy, prioritize tackling tech debt that accrues the highest interest in terms of future maintenance costs, such as security vulnerabilities or code that slows down development.

Pay down debt that impedes new features or necessary updates

Focus on addressing technical debt that hinders the development of new features or the implementation of necessary updates or bug fixes. This approach ensures that the debt is not impeding project progress and will enable you to maintain operational and financial liquidity while paying off technology debt.

Prioritize business outcomes

Prioritize the issues based on their importance and potential impact on the project's success. To do that, you need to align identified problems with the business goals. This strategy will be especially helpful if you need to meet the project deadlines.

Modernization of legacy systems

Legacy systems are those that have been around forever. They are subject to modification and ad hoc expansion, making them complex, outdated, and non-functional over time. As a result, they often accumulate significant technical debt over time. Prioritize the modernization of such systems to bring them in line with current technology standards and improve their maintainability. Wondering how to do this? Take a look at our guide. 

Conduct a technology audit

Perform a comprehensive audit of your technology stack and codebase to identify areas with the most significant technical debt. This can help you pinpoint specific issues that require immediate attention.

<span class="colorbox1" fs-test-element="box1"><p>Learn how to cope with technical debt by identifying areas for improvement that support business, not just clean the code. Plus, this was possible thanks to conducting a technology audit first. Read this use case.</p></span>

Collaborate with external experts

Having worked in a technologically indebted organization for a long time, it can be difficult to objectively assess which areas need the most urgent change. Getting used to certain procedures and priorities can be difficult to change without additional support. Engage external experts, such as Fractional CTO, Software Agency, or Facilitator, to provide fresh insights and expertise in identifying and addressing technical debt. They can offer a different perspective, recommend best development practices, and help you to plan a repayment strategy.

Restructure vendor management

Most companies do not carry out all processes in-house and use the support of third-party companies, delegating various tasks to them or using their tools. With such a dependency, technology debt is influenced not only by your company's actions but also by your vendors. Planning technical debt repayment strategy, review your vendor relationships, and identify any dependencies that may lead to accumulating tech debt and vendor lock-in. Restructure your vendor management to reduce long-term debt by ensuring flexibility and scalability

Educate your team

Even as a true expert on tech debt, you need a team that takes the issue seriously and enforces best practices. Promote a culture of awareness and responsibility regarding technical debt within your development team. Educate employees about the importance of addressing debt, and empower them to make informed decisions about prioritization. 

Develop good habits and procedures

An organization's culture and values have a huge impact on employees' approach to work. To repay your tech debt and avoid technical bankruptcy, reinforce good software development habits. Show your team that procedures are important and compliance is required. Reward accuracy and remember that quality takes time.

Tech debt repayment plan step-by-step

The above strategies will be most effective if they are part of a larger, long-term plan of tech debt repayment. Here are the most important steps to make it happen. 

Step 1: Start with a tech audit

To prioritize technical debt effectively, it's crucial to start with a comprehensive tech audit. This audit serves not only to identify technical problems but also to make stakeholders aware of the broader implications of tech debt.

Step 2: Identify and prioritize technical debt areas

Begin by conducting a thorough assessment of your codebase, architecture, and development processes to identify areas with the most significant technical debt. Categorize them based on severity, maintenance cost, and impact.

Step 3: Get buy-in from stakeholders

Present the findings to key stakeholders, including executives, product managers, and development teams, to secure their support and approval for the tech debt repayment plan.

Step 4: Allocate resources

Determine the necessary resources, including development teams, time, tools, and budget, required to address the identified technical debt effectively. Remember to keep the company's operations running smoothly while maintaining the quality of ongoing projects. 

Step 5: Assign project managers

Appoint project managers and team leaders who will be responsible for overseeing the repayment efforts, coordinating teams, and ensuring progress. Ensure that they are aware of the nature and consequences of tech debt and oblige them to follow company procedures and uphold the organization's culture. 

Step 6: Incorporate debt repayment into the product roadmap

Integrate tech debt repayment tasks and schedules into your product roadmap, aligning them with other development activities and milestones. This ensures that technical debt is treated as a priority alongside project development.

Step 7: Monitor progress

Regularly track and monitor the progress of tech debt repayment initiatives. Use KPIs to gauge the impact of the work being done and adjust priorities as needed.

Step 8: Implement testing, code reviews, and quality assurance

Quick-and-dirty coding got you into a state of serious technology debt, so don't make the same mistake coming out of it. Ensure automated testing, code reviews, and quality assurance procedures to verify that changes are made without introducing new issues. This step helps maintain code quality and long-term viability.

Step 9: Update documentation

Revise and improve documentation as you address technical debt. Ensure that it reflects the changes made, making it easier for future development and maintenance efforts.

Step 10: Prepare preventive procedures

Implement practices and processes to prevent the accumulation of new technical debt. This can include enforcing coding standards, conducting regular code reviews, and keeping software components up-to-date.

Step 11: Improve continuously

Tech debt repayment is an ongoing process. Continue to iterate on your plan, adapting it to changing circumstances, evolving codebase, and emerging best practices.

Tech debt repayment plan - case study

Let's take a closer look at the potential technical debt repayment plan for a web application from the financial sector.

Identified problems:

  • Outdated security protocols: Given the sensitive nature of financial data, outdated security can lead to vulnerabilities.
  • Legacy codebase: Parts of the application are built on outdated technology, making maintenance difficult and time-consuming.
  • Inefficient database design: The current database design is not optimized, leading to slow performance.
  • Poor documentation: Lack of updated documentation makes it difficult for new developers to understand and work on the project.
  • Inconsistent coding standards: Varied coding practices have led to a disorganized codebase.

Possible tech debt repayment plan:

Identify technical debt:

  1. Conduct a thorough technology audit to identify areas of high technical debt within the application, such as outdated libraries, inefficient code, security vulnerabilities, and unoptimized database queries.

Prioritize debt repayment:

  1. Use the Quadrant Method to categorize the identified technical debt based on impact and cost-to-fix. Prioritize high-impact, low-cost issues.
  2. Focus on debts that incur the highest long-term costs, such as security flaws or performance bottlenecks.

Plan implementation:

  1. Secure buy-in from stakeholders by presenting the identified technical debt and its business implications.
  2. Allocate necessary resources (time, budget, personnel) for addressing the technical debt.
  3. Integrate technical debt repayment into the product roadmap, aligning it with ongoing development and business goals.

Execute and monitor:

  1. Assign project managers or team leads to oversee the repayment process.
  2. Implement changes and enhancements systematically, ensuring code quality through testing and reviews.
  3. Regularly monitor progress and adjust the plan as necessary.

Prevent future debt:

  1. Develop and enforce coding standards to minimize the accumulation of new technical debt.
  2. Continuously educate the team on best practices and the importance of technical health.

Specific actions to take:

  1. Security update: Implement the latest security standards and regularly review security protocols.
  2. Legacy code refactoring: Gradually refactor legacy code, starting with the most critical and frequently used functionalities.
  3. Database optimization: Redesign the database for efficiency and scalability.
  4. Documentation overhaul: Create a comprehensive and accessible documentation system.
  5. Standardize coding practices: Develop and enforce a consistent coding standard across the team.

<span class="colorbox1" fs-test-element="box1"><p>Need some help with creating your technical debt repayment plan? Check out this ranking of top fintech software development companies, who have experience with technical debt and legacy system modernization.</p></span>

Technology debt sneaks through broken windows

To avoid rushing technology debt in the future, you need to understand the reasons for finding yourself in this situation. These are usually: neglect of good practices, poor organizational culture, and prioritizing rapid implementation with a quality basket.

The mechanics of creating technological debt are a bit like a dangerous urban neighborhood. Broken windows theory is a concept in criminology stating that visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior, and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder, leading to more serious crimes. The theory was introduced by social scientists – James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling – who noted that crime and vandalism are more likely to occur in neglected neighborhoods. When no one takes care of common property, social responsibility diminishes. Technological debt sneaks in through such “broken windows”. 

The rule once broken…

Every firm has some kind of rules and good practices for development. But, as you know, business is dynamic and sometimes there is a temptation to take shortcuts. A broken rule is like the first broken window in your company neighborhood. And a rule broken without consequences ceases to be a rule. Soon, no one takes good practices seriously. Keeping careful documentation and automated testing is time-consuming, and since no one requires it – why bother? More windows are breaking in the organization, provoking further negligence. And the tech debt builds up.

Quantity over quality or the fast track to tech bankruptcy

The deepening of technological debt is also fostered by the attitude of management itself. Developers and engineers are appreciated primarily for their speed of work, which is equated with efficiency. And implementing good practices takes time. Project managers and board members, who are often non-technical people, are not in a position to verify the quality of code, while seeing that work has been completed faster than expected they are impressed. Consequently, employees learn to work fast and dirty, because following procedures and accuracy is not appreciated. On the contrary, an employee who works slower is often judged worse, even if in the future it is his code that will require less time and resources to maintain. 

What are the dangers of technical debt?

Increased maintenance costs

As technical debt accumulates, the cost of maintaining existing code increases. This is because the code becomes more complex and interconnected, making it harder to understand, modify, or extend.

Reduced code quality

Over time, the presence of technical debt can lead to a decrease in code quality. This might manifest as more bugs, less readable code, or code that is difficult to test.

Slower development pace

Carrying a lot of technical debt can slow down the development of new features. Developers might need to spend more time working around existing issues or refactoring old code, reducing their efficiency in adding new functionality.

Increased risk of system failures

Accumulated technical debt can lead to more fragile systems. The software might become more prone to crashes, performance issues, or security vulnerabilities, as the underlying code base is less robust.

Difficulty in implementing changes

Technical debt can make it difficult to implement changes, whether they are new features, bug fixes, or adaptations to new technologies. This is because the existing code might not be well-structured or documented, making it hard to understand how changes will impact the system.

Higher barrier for new developers

A codebase with significant technical debt can be daunting for new developers to understand and contribute to. This can slow down the onboarding process and make it harder to integrate new team members.

What happens when technical debt is not repaid?

Poorer code quality

The overall quality of the code deteriorates. This can manifest as more bugs, security vulnerabilities, and performance issues, making the software less reliable and harder to use.

Higher risk of system failures and downtime

With increased complexity and reduced code quality, the risk of system failures, crashes, and downtime escalates. This not only affects the user experience but can also have financial implications for the business.

Reduced agility and flexibility

The ability to respond to market changes, customer needs, or new opportunities is significantly hampered. Implementing new features or making changes becomes more difficult and time-consuming, reducing the organization's agility and competitive edge.

Compromised product quality and customer satisfaction

The quality of the final product is often compromised, which can lead to dissatisfied customers and damage to the company's reputation. This can have long-term implications for customer retention and business growth.

Strategic business risks

In the worst-case scenario, unchecked technical debt can lead to strategic business risks, including the inability to meet regulatory requirements, keep up with competitors, or adapt to new technologies. This can jeopardize the company's market position and long-term viability.

Types of technical debt

Tech debt refers to the extra cost and effort required to maintain and develop software. It is usually a consequence of a short-term approach to development, taking shortcuts and putting quantity over quality. But is technical debt always bad?

It depends.

Tech debt can be taken consciously and serve specific goals of the organization, such as acquiring a customer or meeting a deadline. It's like with finances – you don't take a loan to ruin the family budget but to build a house, start a business, or buy a piece of art. In this situation, we are talking about intentional debt, which serves to invest and accelerate the development of the company.

Unfortunately, the situation doesn't always look that way. Technology debt has gained such a grim reputation primarily by companies where it has deepened as a result of accumulating neglect, leading to declining productivity and rising costs. We speak of non-intentional debt when it is the result of ignoring good development practices, sacrificing long-term code quality, and over-engineering unconsidered system expansion. This type of tech debt quickly spirals out of control and can lead to tech bankruptcy. 

What distinguishes the two types of debts? First of all, awareness, both of the consequences and the terms of repayment. With intentional debt, companies know that incurring debt is a tool to achieve a short-term goal, but such a working model cannot become the standard. With unintentional debt, a company choosing immediate gratification and quick profit exposes itself to additional costs and complications in the future, gradually losing productivity. 


If you're facing technology debt, you probably feel like you've failed. But the problem is not making mistakes. The problem is not learning lessons. By reading this article, you've gained the knowledge you need about tech debt repayment strategies, and you can not only return to the status quo but bring a new, better, more functional approach to your business. 

By prioritizing clean, high-quality code, appreciating developers for following procedures, and educating your team about tech debt, you will go from being an organization heading toward tech bankruptcy to becoming an example of a well-managed conscious company that knows how to combine the business and technology aspects. And then nothing will stop you.

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Olga Gierszal
Software Engineering Editor

Software development enthusiast with 6 years of professional experience in the tech industry.

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