Managing technical debt from acquired companies

Technical debt is a very problem that encumbers software developers and hampers operations for businesses across industries. When companies acquire others, they also acquire the legacy code debt that comes with them—a hidden liability that can result in negative repercussions that compound over time.

Inherited technical debt can quickly accumulate and significantly impede performance. It's like stumbling upon a backlog of unresolved issues that can delay timelines and hinder the release of critical updates. And addressing technical debt isn't as straightforward as it may seem.

Non-technical stakeholders often downplay the importance of addressing technical debt, overlooking its implications for security, performance, and long-term sustainability. This lack of awareness can exacerbate the problem and make it difficult for developers to advocate for necessary changes without facing unpleasant pushback that can further affect performance, collaboration, and morale.

Let’s delve into the practical challenges of managing technical debt inherited from acquired companies, as well as discuss strategies for effectively addressing this hidden liability and ensuring the smooth integration of acquired software assets.

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Inheriting legacy software

Acquired companies often have legacy software systems that have been in use for many years. These systems may have been developed using outdated technologies, programming languages, and architectural patterns, making them difficult to understand and maintain. Without competent software documentation to accompany these technologies, software developers resort to troubleshooting and Googling information, potentially affecting deadlines, further innovations, and adding undue pressure to projects. 

Lack of documentation in acquired companies (reliance on experts)

technical documentation

Lacking documentation is a common challenge in the context of mergers and acquisitions, where companies acquire other businesses that may have legacy software systems developed over many years. Following is a more detailed exploration of the risks and implications:

  1. Reliance on tribal knowledge: In many cases, the knowledge about these legacy systems resides primarily in the minds of a few long-term employees, often referred to as "experts" or "gurus." These individuals may have extensive experience with the system but have never documented their knowledge, leading to a situation where critical information about the software is not accessible to others.

  1. Dependency on key individuals: The lack of documentation creates a dependency on these key individuals who possess specialized knowledge about the legacy systems. If one of these individuals were to leave the company or become unavailable due to unforeseen circumstances, the organization would face significant challenges in maintaining and supporting the software.

  1. Risk of knowledge loss: Without documentation, there's a risk of losing critical knowledge about the software system over time. As key individuals leave the company or retire, their knowledge about the system may be lost forever, leaving the organization with no recourse for understanding or maintaining the software.

Implications for the acquiring company 

software documentation

Expert knowledge is not a replacement for technical documentation. Rising technical debt can have far-reaching implications for an organization, affecting productivity, quality, customer satisfaction, innovation, competitiveness, costs, risk, and cross-functional collaboration. 

  1. Operational disruption: The sudden departure or unavailability of key individuals with specialized knowledge about the acquired software can disrupt operations and hinder business continuity. Without access to critical information about the software, the acquiring company may struggle to address issues, implement changes, or integrate the acquired systems into its existing infrastructure.

  1. Quality and reliability issues: Technical debt often results in compromised code quality, leading to more frequent bugs, errors, and system failures. This can affect not only the development team but also the quality assurance and testing departments, as they must spend additional time identifying and resolving issues before software can be released to customers.

  1. Poor customer satisfaction: Poorly maintained software with high levels of technical debt can result in a subpar user experience, leading to customer frustration, dissatisfaction, and ultimately, churn. This can have direct implications for sales and customer support departments, as they may have to deal with increased inquiries, complaints, and customer retention challenges.

  1. Compliance and regulatory risks: In regulated industries such as finance, healthcare, or government, the lack of documentation can pose compliance and regulatory risks. Without clear documentation of system functionality, data flows, and security measures, the acquiring company may struggle to demonstrate compliance with industry standards and regulations, potentially exposing itself to legal liabilities and penalties.

  1. Loss of competitive advantage: In today's fast-paced business environment, agility and innovation are key drivers of competitive advantage. The inability to quickly understand, adapt, and leverage the acquired software systems due to the lack of documentation can put the acquiring company at a disadvantage compared to competitors who have more streamlined and modernized IT infrastructures.

  1. Collaboration difficulties: Rising technical debt can create friction and communication barriers between different departments within an organization. Developers may struggle to convey the importance of addressing technical debt to non-technical stakeholders, while other departments may feel the impact of technical debt without fully understanding its root causes.

In summary, organizations must recognize the significance of technical debt and prioritize strategies to manage and mitigate its impact across departments and operations.

How technical documentation alleviates technical debt

technical documentation experts

Technical documentation plays a crucial role in mitigating the risks caused by technical debt in several ways. Comprehensive documentation provides developers with clear insights into the codebase, architecture, and design decisions. This clarity helps them understand the rationale behind certain implementations, making it easier to identify and address areas of technical debt. Detailed documentation can also serve as a reference point for future development efforts, reducing the likelihood of repeating past mistakes.

Benefits of technical documentation 

Expert technical writing consultants can help alleviate your company's technical debt, creating comprehensive technical documentation that supports inherited software and provides a number of benefits:

  1. Reduces dependency on tribal knowledge: Comprehensive documentation helps mitigate the risk of losing valuable information due to employee turnover, reassignments, or changes in team composition. By documenting key design decisions, implementation details, and best practices, organizations can ensure that critical knowledge is preserved and accessible to all team members.

  1. Supports onboarding and knowledge transfer: Documentation plays a vital role in onboarding new team members and facilitating knowledge transfer within an organization. New developers can quickly get up to speed on the project's architecture, coding conventions, and development workflows by referring to comprehensive documentation. 

  1. Promotes consistency and standardization: Consistent and standardized documentation practices promote uniformity across development efforts, reducing the risk of divergent coding styles, undocumented features, or ad-hoc solutions. By establishing clear guidelines for documenting code, API documentation, and architectural decisions, organizations can alleviate inconsistencies or deviations from established best practices.

  1. Enables effective collaboration and communication: By documenting requirements, specifications, and project milestones, organizations can ensure alignment across different departments and stakeholders, reducing the risk of misunderstandings or miscommunications that could lead to costly rework or delays.


In summary, documentation mitigates the risks associated with technical debt in a variety of ways, reducing its rippling effects that can hamper progress. Investing in expert documentation services is essential for organizations looking to manage and mitigate the impact of technical debt without further burdening their development staff.

Let us help create a documentation that resolves your technical debt and empowers your team to succeed. We are software developers with extensive experience helping organizations reduce their technical debt through improved documentation. Let us consult on, edit, or write your technical documentation. Get in touch today.

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