The Never-Ending Battle Against Tech Debt

As our small team of full stack developers continues cranking out web apps and internal tools for clients across industries, we constantly wrestle with one inevitable adversary: technical debt.

With our core stack of Next.js, TypeScript, Tailwind and serverless, we can build everything from contractor dashboards to medical intake forms fairly efficiently. But the dirty truth is that none of our projects remain pristine codebases for long.

We pride ourselves on being iterative - quickly spinning up MVPs based on client specs, showing progress, gathering feedback, and rapidly improving each component. This works well in practice, keeping stakeholders engaged and ensuring we build what users actually need.

But iterating quickly also inevitably piles on tech debt. What started as clean, separated components and interfaces starts to get tangled. Abstractions break down, bugs creep in, performance suffers. Before long, keeping up with new features requires hacking together solutions on top of a messy codebase rather than thoughtfully extending the core architecture.

Like most dev teams, we constantly struggle to balance delivering new functionality while paying down this mounting technical debt before it gets unmanageable. And there are no easy solutions. Going heads-down for a full rewrite guarantees falling behind on roadmapped features. Doing nothing inevitably slows velocity to a crawl.

As a small team without huge engineering resources, here are some of the tactics we use to keep technical debt in check:

  • Enforce code reviews for all pull requests, not just to check functionality but specifically call out areas accruing tech debt before they spiral out of control.
  • Schedule tech debt sprints between scheduled feature launches to pay down identified issues before moving forward.
  • Test ruthlessly, unit tests for all components and integration tests for core user flows to prevent new features from breaking existing functionality.
  • Prioritize refactoring, componentization and separation of concerns in frequent code reviews and planning sessions, not just throwing together solutions that "work for now".
  • Use lightweight documentation and diagrams mapping out overall architecture so it doesn't get lost in the weeds as new engineers spin up or as the codebase grows.

Are these solutions perfect? Of course not. We still deal with plenty of hairballs in legacy code or race conditions that slip through testing. But by prioritizing architectural integrity and technical excellence as a team through both automated and manual quality checks, we keep our projects on track and costs under control.

If you're struggling with technical debt, don't assume you need to allocate months for a risky rewrite that may just accrue brand new issues. The better path is empowering your whole team to prevent, identify and address debt throughout the development lifecycle - not putting off hard decisions until the mess overwhelms everything else. It's a constant battle, but a necessary one.