Technical debt is hardly a new concept for digital and software leaders. Interestingly enough, it was a term first coined more than three decades ago by Ward Cunningham — one of the authors of the well-known Agile Manifesto — when he established the debt metaphor to explain the costs associated with refactoring.

Perhaps one of his most well-known quotes comes from a speech he gave in 1992 at the OOPSLA conference when he stated:

Shipping first-time code is like going into debt. A little debt speeds development so long as it is paid back promptly with refactoring. The danger occurs when the debt is not repaid. Every minute spent on code that is not quite right for the programming task of the moment counts as interest on that debt. Entire engineering organizations can be brought to a stand-still under the debt load of an unfactored implementation, object-oriented or otherwise.

Since then, technical debt has long become a central focus — and concern — of digital leaders. On the one hand, pressure continues to mount for software and application teams to meet ever-growing demand for continuous delivery, release, and speed to market. While on the other hand, there are greater expectations for that product to be superior, capable of wow-ing the end user, and incorporating the perfect blend of human ingenuity with technological innovation.

The result?

Software and product development teams often take steps forward (whether intentionally or unintentionally) to prioritize shorter term gains to meet deadlines often at the expense of quality and sound approaches. These moves and shortcuts ultimately cause excessive rework, deteriorated product experiences, harder to maintain code… among countless other impacts… and thereby, mounting technical debt.

An Old Problem with Steep Impact

The impacts of technical debt continue to grow. In fact, technical debt is now cited as the No. 2 greatest issue for IT executives (second only to the skills shortage), according to IDG. What’s more, 86% of leaders have been impacted by technical debt over the past 12 months, particularly as it affects ability to innovate, meet SLAs, and avoid downtime.

As the consequences associated technical debt continue to increase, the question for digital leaders needs to shift from…

“How do we reduce our technical debt” to

… “How do we gain a more org-wide, multi-dimensional approach that allows us to change how we quantify debt so that we can prevent it from accumulating in the first place?”

Now, more than ever, leaders need to prioritize a deeper understanding of:

  • Unique organizational factors that result in debt accumulation
  • Macro and micro, and down- and upstream effects on debt
  • Role predictive intelligence can play in prevention and mitigation

The race is not simply about reporting the news on standard dashboards and reacting fast to put out fires. Instead, it’s about finding what is causing the fire in the first place.

Futures oriented leaders are ready to ignite the race to what we refer to at SQA Group as “net zero technical debt” — fueled by data and powered via analytics.

Next-Gen KPIs to Drive Towards Net Zero

Technical debt has long been measured by standard KPIs — reworks, cycle time, defect, burndown rate, bugs, etc. But that only measures debt after it’s already accumulated, versus measuring the levers that can impact debt accumulation well before it occurs.

At SQA Group, we believe that next-gen KPIs enable organizations to shift from “reporting the news” on technical debt to preventing the debt from occurring in the first place. By embracing fresh approaches to what and how an organization measures, digital leaders can stake a stance to elevate insights that position their organization to drive towards what we refer to as net zero technical debt.

In our latest guide, “The Race to Net Zero technical Debt in 2024,” we offer up 50 new KPIs leaders can deploy to take a more intentional stance around debt mitigation.

The Race to Net Zero Technical Debt - Click to Download Now








What’s more, we categorize these KPIs in terms of maturity — presenting next-gen KPIs that should be doable for any organization today, as well as ones that are more aspirational but hold incredible power towards the net zero charge. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Freedom: Reduction of product restraint through conscious decision making as to what to include and what to exclude
  • Rate of Divergence: Frequency of non-adherence to established guidelines, conventions, or best practices classified as incident, minor, major, or critical, depending on severity and potential impact
  • Stakeholder Committee Precision: Efficiency of selecting stakeholders based on their real and potential power in decision making
  • Transparency via Candor: Utilization of internal whistleblower programs to create safe spaces for illuminating areas for improvement and governance

The ability to lift the veil as a digital leader and understand hidden factors that most contribute to debt accumulation is there. But it requires a shift in mindset to measure not just what’s easy… but to also measure what feels immeasurable.

Is your organization with us? Are you ready to ignite your race to net zero technical debt?

Ready to unlock 50 next-gen KPIs? Click here. As you sift though them, our Technical Leadership team is available to chat through those that pique your interest. You can book time directly here, and they’ll be happy to share tips as to how we’re supporting the quest to reverse and prevent debt accumulation.