Technical Debt Management with Feature Flags: Strategy & Best Practices

Written by: Elliott Landon

4 min read

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Technical debt is accumulated as unmanaged flags accrue in an application’s code. And the associated marginal gain (i.e. each unmanaged flag added) directly impacts the amount of time and resources needed for testing. This can lead to more serious issues with the affected development, performance/testing and product processes becoming more expensive. 

As software teams grow and become more agile, it’s important to ensure a feature flag solution can scale. But it’s imperative that best practices and techniques are followed to avoid the technical debt accumulated by poor flag lifecycle strategy. This post will cover best practices for avoiding technical debt management when using feature flags.

Strategic feature flag planning to avoid technical debt


Sometimes, an ad hoc fix is necessary that can easily be resolved through an additional feature flag. All too often though, scenarios come up where teams feel pressured with time or resource constraints and resort to implementing feature flag gated code without a second thought. While this is somewhat of a normal byproduct of software development, planning is essential and a fundamental precursor to long-term success with feature flags.

The time taken to plan prior to implementation assists in feature flag due diligence. Teams should ask themselves:

  • What will the flag be used for?

  • What team will use the flag?

  • How long will the flag be in use?

The questions were listed in descending order. It’s important to realize this as each question helps filter flags, with the first dividing flags based on its high-level use and the last providing more granular detailed information. This preparation is critical to avoid the hassle of technical debt management later. 

How to Name Feature Flags to Avoid Technical Debt

With these questions answered we can now begin naming flags. Companies have style guidelines for writing code, and should append these with its use of feature flags. Before creating a flag, cement the naming convention to be used; this will standardize the practice and help onboard future employees. Like variables, flag names are best left at the intersection of descriptive and terse (i.e. short and sweet).

Some feature flag management solutions provide a namespace. This is the first funnel or way to search flags later on. A namespace should be used to identify how a flag will be used. For example, a set of flags should be defined to the namespace “releaseFlags” allowing for a separate group of “abTestFlags.”

Once a flag has been created with a namespace, a label can denote which teams are using a flag. Since multiple labels can be applied in a flag management UI, it allows multiple teams to associate themselves with each flag.

The description of a created flag provides verbose details, like flag creation date, or necessary information related to a dependency on another flag. This information is the last and most granular bit of the flag’s information.

Best Practices in Flag Lifecycle Management 

Review flags often. Flag management solutions can display and filter which flags are on, off or experiencing no traffic through an interface. But teams must be vigilant about removing flags and have a well-defined clean up process.

Integration with tools like JIRA can help monitor and associate a ticket with the lifespan of each flag. Once a notification is sent that the flag is to be removed (e.g. the A/B test has finished, canary deployment was successful, etc.), the ensuing removal process is easily outlined from previously established naming conventions.

After reviewing a flag’s description, dependencies can be noted and dealt with accordingly. we can review dependencies on all other associated flags. Referring back to the labels will delegate work as the responsible team will be notified to remove the flag from the code base.

And where in the code should they look? Developers turn to the flag’s namespace, although it may exist across multiple tech stacks defined within an application. This is where an additional dashboard should be leveraged, specifically one that displays the environments and code languages a flag has been used in. With all of this information in place, it’s fairly easy to notify the responsible party and search within an IDE for all instances of the flag. 

Summary

Naming conventions are the next most important element in feature flag management. Using an inverted pyramid mechanism helps define and sort flags from its highest tier of grouped buckets (i.e. type of flag) to its lowest where detailed information is defined.

Managing flags throughout their lifecycles avoids the incurred technical debt they create. By constantly monitoring flag usage, teams can establish hard deadlines to clean up flags in code. Technical debt management - and the cleanup process - is simplified by sorting through knowledge communicated in naming conventions (in reverse order they were performed).

These processes should be defined by a strategic feature flag plan, set up to avoid flags’ technical debt. If followed diligently, teams can leverage the unrealized gains to drive product innovation and ensure processes will scale.

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