If you’ve been in the software industry for a period of time, chances are you’ve heard about the term “tech debt”. In today’s fast-evolving tech climate, managing technical debt has become a norm for various software developers.
When not managed properly, tech debt can not only increase development costs but also result in losing customers and being prone to cyberattacks. Just like financial debt, you need to settle your technical debt as the longer it’s left, the more threatening it can get. But does that mean it’s always a bad thing and something to avoid at all costs?
Discover more about the realities of technical debt, how it impacts engineering companies, strategies for reducing technical debt, and ultimately getting out of it in order to secure your product for the future.
Table of Contents
Strategies for getting out of tech debt
- What is technical debt, and why does it count?
- How tech debt impacts engineering companies
- Types of tech debt
What is technical debt, and why does it count?
Technical debt (also known as tech debt or code debt) is anything that slows or hinders the development process. It reflects the implied costs of reworking the code in a program due to previously taken shortcuts. Technical debt typically emerges when a developer relies on easy-to-implement, sub-optimal coding or design methods to rush production.
Like any other type of debt, you get convenience in the short term but must give payments and interest later. Quick fixes and inferior solutions speed up software development, but handling these issues in the future is expensive, time-consuming, and can impact the company’s mobile apps.
How tech debt impacts engineering companies
Engineering time is usually a scarce resource in many companies and, therefore, must be used optimally. In the same vein, to be profitable, the value a product generates should be higher than the sum of expenses to run it, and engineering time is one of those expenses.
While managing technical debt, if left unattended for too long will often turn into a big hindrance at the organizational level. With technical systems being unable to meet up with the business requirements, the company usually implements modernization or a technical transformation phase. This can span years, coupled with painful efforts that drain the enthusiasm and motivation of teams and engineers involved. Technical transformations can feel like re-implementing the same processes again.
For teams and individuals, if the business value is not clear to everyone, it can be difficult to get proper recognition and credit for the work done on technical transformation when faced with technical debt. This would impact the whole company, but for engineers and teams, more technical debt signifies more bugs, more performance/implementation issues, more downtime, reduced delivery, and therefore less time spent building and shipping features.
Types of tech debt
Technical debt can be categorized into two broad categories:
Intentional tech debt (deliberate or active debt):
Intentional technical debt is created deliberately when teams knowingly want a fast but imperfect implementation. In this case, the organization may want to establish itself in a fast-developing market by shipping out products rapidly. An example is when developing minimum viable products (MVP), which will be further developed on a continuous basis and fixed according to client and customer feedback.
Unintentional tech debt (accidental or passive debt)
Unintentional technical debt usually arises from sloppiness, unexpected complexity, or a lack of technical expertise in software engineering. For instance, when designing a software system, a team may opt to future-proof their plan with simplicity and delivery. However, as the system evolves and requirements change, they might realize their strategy is flawed, or the new functionality has become complex and even more time-consuming to implement.
Some real-life examples of technical debt include:
- A limited timeline pressuring the team into a speedy release.
- Using a more comfortable platform instead of an ideal one.
- Low-quality software design decisions.
- Poor up-front definition of project goals.
- Insufficient coding skills or product ownership.
- Relying on swift and risky band-aid solutions instead of an entire refactoring.
- Flawed testing (QA and QC).
- Poor understanding of the software architecture.
- Writing code without reference to supporting documentation.
- Making last-minute changes to specifications without proper consultation with relevant stakeholders.
- Untracked trail of product improvements by different developers.
The types of tech debt can be distinguished based on what the team owes, such as:
- Architecture Debt - Problems encountered in the project’s architecture, including poor architectural decisions and outlines, can incur technical debt that will negatively impact the quality of a software project.
- Build Debt - Occurs as a result of build-related issues that make working with a product more challenging and time-consuming.
- Code debt - Problems found in the source code that make maintenance more difficult. It is usually related to poor or speedy coding or not having applied appropriate design patterns.
- Defect Debt - Software projects may have both identified and unidentified defects in the source code. These defects are usually noted during testing activities or pointed out by the user. Instead of fixing them, due to competing priorities and limited resources, they are deferred to a later time. These defects accumulate into a significant amount of technical debt that becomes tedious to fix later.
- Design Debt - Refers to the design concepts or solutions and best practices that were skipped in order to reach a short-time goal quicker. This violates the principles of good object-oriented design.
- Documentation Debt - This type of technical debt describes problems in documentation such as missing, inadequate (not meeting certain quality criteria), or incomplete papers.
- Infrastructure Debt - Arises from infrastructure issues that occur from delaying an upgrade or infrastructure fix. This can later turn out to stall or hinder some development activities.
- People Debt - Spanning from the effect of delayed training or hiring and concentrating expertise on very few people. This can negatively impact the software development process.
- Process Debt - Is usually triggered when processes are poor or lacking to handle defects, documentation, or even tests.
- Requirement Debt - This debt is sustained while identifying, formalizing, and implementing requirements. Requirement debts are often trade-offs made regarding the requirements to be implemented or how to implement them.
- Service Debt - Substitution in web services can introduce a technical debt spanning multiple dimensions. This debt can be related to the selection, composition, and operation of the service.
- Test Automation Debt - Refers to the lack of automation in all simple and complex processes that will aid continuous integration and faster development cycles.
- Test Debt - Occurs when issues found in testing activities start affecting the testing quality. The team would spend more time on test maintenance than writing new tests. Examples include planned tests that were not run, known deficiencies within the test suite, etc.
Strategies for getting out of technical debt
Having a manageable tech debt is usually difficult because (as with all types of debt), it gets worse the longer it lingers. Once an organization finds itself carrying a heavy weight of technical debt, eventually, there comes a time for that debt to be paid rather than just being managed. Here are some strategies for reducing technical debt and eventually getting out of it.
Distinguish between good and bad technical debt and set priorities: It’s critical to categorize your technical debt based on where it originated and whether it was intentional (good) or otherwise (bad.) Whatever strategy you later decide to implement, the first step is to focus on the bad technical debt that can have the most significant impact on the business.
Involve software developers with a remediation strategy: Refactoring code is not always the best task as most developers will rather focus on developing new features and products. Hence, it’s important to position this work as a team effort. Instead of dumping the job on a handful of developers, consider splitting up the work among the entire development team.
Select a scalable, flexible architecture: Development teams need to identify an architecture that is secure, scalable, and flexible. Architecture debts are costly not just in technical debt but also in finance. Explore new technologies, web development tools, and architectures for your platform that offers seamless integration and feature expansions.
Develop metrics to measure the impact of technical debt: These metrics can be customer satisfaction ratings, application crash data, performance, etc., depending on the type of code. Monitoring these metrics over time will let you determine the success of your remediation efforts, which can be used to inspire the development team through rewards and recognition.
Make technical debt remediation an ongoing process: Just as DevOps emphasizes the importance of continuous development and integration, technical debt remediation should be locked into the continuous release cycle.
From tough decisions to mistakes in code, agile teams are able to determine how the amount of technical debt accrued can affect software updates. CTOs can inculcate remediation habits into daily scrums and sprints. This would help in clearing the product backlog and ultimately become a natural process in the production cycle.
Technical debt is occasionally a necessary evil when it comes to software projects. As we have come to see, there is no one-size-fits-all recipe for reducing technical debt. Some tactics that work for a small startup do not always work for a large enterprise-level system.
As long as the team understands these debts must be repaid, taking strategic shortcuts and occasionally trading off quality for speed can give you a considerable competitive edge in today’s market. The most effective approach is to treat technical debt like any other kind of debt, using it wisely and ensuring the team proactively manages the balance to avoid future roadblocks.