The Balancing Act of Product Management, how to avoid the Rebuild Trap 🏗️

The Balancing Act of Product Management

Bart Slaets

In my role as Chief Technology Officer (CTO), I often explain in a unique analogy the complexities of product management to operating a bulldozer in my discussions with business directors.

Just as a bulldozer must carefully manage the earth it moves, balancing technical debt and functional requirements demands strategic precision. Let's explore how navigating these challenges can lead to a mountain of problems if not handled carefully, and why continuous maintenance, rather than a complete rewrite, is the key to sustainable progress.

For the non-tech readers: Technical debt in software development can manifest in various ways, such as using outdated libraries, components and frameworks (eg Microsoft .Net, NodeJS, React, ...), but also reworking code to optimize readability, performance, ... and insufficient (automated) testing that leads to undetected bugs and maintenance challenges. These are a few examples.

The Bulldozer Analogy

Imagine a bulldozer clearing land for a new development project. Initially, it operates smoothly, moving earth efficiently. But as the project progresses, piles of dirt begin to accumulate. If the bulldozer keeps pushing without a strategy, these piles grow larger, and the machine struggles to navigate the terrain and pushing the growing mountain. Eventually, the mountain becomes so immense that further progress seems impossible without a drastic overhaul.

This scenario mirrors how technical debt accumulates in a product’s lifecycle. Let’s break down the analogy:

Initial Progress: At the outset, development focuses on delivering features that meet business and customer needs. The bulldozer clears land effectively.

Accumulating Debt: Over time, shortcuts are taken, quick fixes are applied, and the architecture isn't always revisited. Also keeping up with upgrading versions and frameworks costs time that has little business value. It is easy for management to push this forward as this will not break the project today and perhaps not even in a year. This is similar to pushing dirt into piles without a plan.

Mounting Challenges: Eventually, the accumulated technical debt becomes a mountain. The bulldozer—our development team—struggles to create new features and technical debt gets in the way everywhere, slowing things down. Performance suffers, new features are harder to integrate, and the system becomes brittle. Where often the development team starts to play with the idea: “It is time for a rewrite of the project.”

But a rewrite is in most cases a bad idea.

• It is the moment where ‘all problems will be solved', so complexity is huge. Technical and functional requirements of a long time should be solved with this new project.

• if you start, it takes very long to match the existing project, if ever reached. The current project has a lot of functionality and development of the legacy version typically cannot be frozen until the new project catches up. So the functional gap keeps growing.

• It is very costly to make functionality you already have.

Balancing Functional Requirements and Technical Improvements

Product management involves juggling immediate functional requirements with the necessity for long-term technical health. Here’s how we maintain this balance:

1. Prioritize Effectively

Just like a bulldozer operator needs a plan for where to move earth first, product managers must prioritize features and technical improvements. We use frameworks like the Eisenhower Matrix to classify tasks based on urgency and importance, ensuring we address high-impact items without losing sight of necessary technical enhancements.

2. Allocate Time for Refactoring

It’s tempting to continually push forward with new features, but neglecting technical debt can be disastrous. Allocating time for refactoring and addressing technical debt is crucial. Think of it as periodically leveling the ground before it becomes unmanageable.

3. Continuous Integration and Testing

Much like a bulldozer needs maintenance to function efficiently, our codebase requires regular integration and testing. Automated tests and continuous integration pipelines catch issues early, preventing technical debt from piling up unnoticed when refactoring and upgrading the project.

4. Stakeholder Communication

Balancing functional and technical needs requires clear communication. Just as a bulldozer operator communicates with a site manager about where to clear next, product managers must engage with both business stakeholders and development teams. Transparent dialogue ensures that both sides understand the implications of technical debt and the value of technical improvements.

Proactive Maintenance: Avoiding the Rewrite

Despite the challenges, a full rewrite is rarely the best solution. Here’s why proactive maintenance and managing technical debt effectively is a more sustainable approach:

1. Incremental Improvement

Continuous improvement is similar to the regular maintenance of our bulldozer's terrain. By addressing technical debt incrementally, we prevent it from growing into an unmanageable mountain. This allows us to maintain steady progress without halting operations for a major overhaul.

2. Cost Efficiency

A full rewrite is costly and time-consuming, diverting resources away from delivering new value. Instead, allocating a portion of our development efforts to regular maintenance ensures that we keep our system robust without incurring the significant costs associated with a rewrite.

3. Risk Mitigation

Rewrites introduce considerable risk, including potential disruption to ongoing services and the introduction of new bugs. Incremental improvements and refactoring allow us to manage risk more effectively, making smaller, controlled changes rather than sweeping modifications.

4. Long-Term Viability

By regularly addressing technical debt, we build a culture of sustainability and resilience. This proactive approach keeps our development environment healthy and adaptable, ensuring that we can continue to evolve and meet new demands without being hindered by legacy issues.

Conclusion

In product management, as in operating a bulldozer, strategic and continuous maintenance is essential for long-term success. Rather than letting technical debt accumulate into a mountain that necessitates a complete rewrite, we must prioritize regular maintenance and incremental improvements. This approach ensures that we maintain a steady pace of development, keep our systems healthy, and avoid the pitfalls of massive rewrites.

By balancing functional requirements with ongoing technical health, we navigate the complexities of product management effectively, building a sustainable and scalable future without the need for drastic overhauls. Through proactive maintenance and vigilant management of technical debt, we ensure that our development efforts remain focused, efficient, and forward-looking.

About Paybix

Paybix offers integrated payroll solutions to multi-country employers, based on its global payroll platform Epix. The Paybix platform unifies and digitizes global payroll operations leveraging on digitized and localized payroll data exchange with ICPs. The beauty of the platform is its plug-and-play nature, allowing seamless integration with any ICP and minimizing the implementation effort to be done by payroll administrators. The platform reduces significantly the time spent on monthly payroll processing both for the employer and its ICPs and offers detailed insights into the composition and labor cost of an international workforce. Paybix has partner agreements with numerous ICPs, covering in total more than 100 countries.

Do you want to discover how Epix can radically streamline your international payroll operations? Then make sure to register for this 45-minute live demo (30 minutes of demo + 15 minutes of Q&A). During the demo we will showcase our platform Epix and share our roadmap of future releases.

If you have any questions up front, don't hesitate to contact us. If you want more insights in our unified processing offer using Epix you can check this out.

About the author Bart Slaets

Bart is CTO at Paybix and has already a long career in the development and product management world of payroll and time and attendance applications. He is used to create and manage products with an international orientation in a SaaS environment.

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