Fix Your Technical Debt: The Secrets to a Healthy Engineering Ecosystem

Fix Your Technical Debt: The Secrets to a Healthy Engineering Ecosystem

Evolving Industry

In a time when everyone is racing to keep up with rapidly evolving technologies, why do many organizations still struggle to harmonize with their software engineering team’s workflows?

In this episode, Karim Shehadeh, Senior Engineering Manager at Under Armour, leans on over 25 years of experience to explain why organizational alignment tremendously influences productivity.

Karim talked with us about:

  • Why constantly changing processes to keep up with technology doesn’t work
  • Implementing a tech strategy that avoids crushing technical debt
  • When to build in-house software platforms and when to buy

Predictability Is an Engineering Team’s Best Friend

In this rapidly changing technological landscape, many companies feel the pressure to evolve and adapt constantly. 

But as Karim points out, there's a fine line between adapting for efficiency and altering core methodologies too frequently. 

"One of the problems is that if you, as a company, keep changing your methodology... You have that breakdown in communication. Happiness goes away. Productivity goes away."

When there's a lack of stability in organizational processes, it often breeds confusion. And engineering teams need consistency to build upon previous efforts rather than feeling they're starting anew with each methodology shift.

“Technology is an important part of everything that we do,” he said. “You have to keep in mind that how you achieve that technological supremacy is going to change over time.”

But a common faux pas for many leaders who don’t understand their engineers’ capabilities is they expect the impossible when setting their strategic goals.

Setting the bar unrealistically high may seem like a way to drive progress, but it often backfires, leading to burnout and inefficiency. 

Of course, companies often have to pivot with customer expectations. But if and when that happens, you must communicate with your engineers and keep them in the loop.

“You need to set yourself and your team up so that you’re constantly reviewing where you sit in the organization,” Karim said.

By recognizing the true capacity of individuals and the team as a whole, leaders can set achievable goals that motivate rather than suffocate.

Pay Off Technical Debt By Investing in Your Engineering Team

Karim argued that it’s not enough for leaders to be pragmatic when outlining their team’s objectives. For the best results, they need to give their teams autonomy. 

“If a leader comes to you and says, ‘You’re accountable for this,’ then you need to be empowered in order to make significant decisions.”

Ultimately, your organization’s managerial approach over your engineering team can be a boon — or a bust — on your company’s bottom line.

For example, technical debt can be a crippling side effect when organizations compromise their long-term tech strategy to implement short-term solutions.

While not all tech debt is inherently detrimental, like financial debt, the danger lies in allowing it to accumulate unchecked. And the absence of a tech debt strategy can have a damaging effect on your engineering team, as well.

“I think that there's this cognitive load, this very unpleasant thing that happens over time, especially [with] legacy software if you didn't have a hand in building it,” Karim said. “If you're not empowered to improve it, what you have is a situation where the engineer is not fulfilled.”

But by empowering your engineers to address foreseeable problems with forward-thinking solutions, your organization can avoid being drowned by a technological anchor.

“It’s about feeling valued and impactful,” Karim said. “If they can’t get anything out… then they’re not going to be happy [and] they’re not going to be productive.”

When to Build Versus When to Buy a Software Platform

Almost every tech-oriented organization grapples with this choice at some point… 

Do we build an in-house software platform tailored to our specific needs, or do we adopt a pre-existing one and customize it?

Karim suggested that your choice should be tied to the company’s identity.

For example, in-house solutions can be built around specific requirements, ensuring that every feature aligns perfectly with the company's needs.

"Build the things that are unique to your organization, that you need to differentiate yourself,” Karim said. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the most practical choice, especially for smaller companies that don’t have the resources to build a platform from scratch. But Karim has become a believer in one viable alternative.

“Over the last two years, I have become a big proponent of the model where you have open-source software that is supported by a company [and] has a community around it,” he said. “Those sorts of things, for a smaller company, are invaluable and, in my opinion, worth the cost.”

Regardless of the direction you choose, it's a decision that will have long-term implications for your organization’s future growth. So as Karim said, you’ll need to budget accordingly.

“You just have to do a little bit of math on that.”

Align Your Engineering Team With Your Brand’s Mission

He believes the ceiling for his fellow engineers is incredibly high. They just need a chance to reach it.

“The vast majority of people, if they actually have a passion for this stuff and you give them the runway, they can do an amazing job in whatever path you set up for them.”

That’s because sustainable growth doesn't come from squeezing every ounce of effort out of a team. 

It comes from understanding, empowering, and equipping that team to handle the challenges of tomorrow.

Craving more? You can find this interview and many more by subscribing to Evolving Industry on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, or here.

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