While the term “technical debt” is rapidly becoming popular in software development, not many dev teams are aware of the impact of the term on their processes.
In the fast-paced world of technology, companies are under constant pressure to quickly release new products and features. In order to meet these demands, developers sometimes take shortcuts or make compromises in the code.
This leads to the generation and accumulation of technical debt.
Technical debt can be a severe problem for companies, as it can slow down development, increase costs, and even lead to customer dissatisfaction.
In this article, we’ll explore this idea in detail and try to answer questions such as what technical debt is.
So, whether you’re a developer or just curious about this emerging product development & delivery concept, this article will provide valuable insights into the importance of effectively managing technical debt.
Let’s start with the definition.
Table Of Content
- What is Technical Debt?
- Types of Technical Debt
- How Technical Debt Impacts Development Projects?
- When is Technical Debt Acceptable?
- When is Technical Debt Unacceptable?
- Technical Debt Examples
- Causes of Technical Debt (and What You Can Do to Avoid It)
- Here are some real-life examples of tech debt causes
- Measuring Technical Debt
- How to Reduce Technical Debt?
What is Technical Debt?
Technical debt arises as a result of software development decisions that prioritize short-term gains over long-term stability.
The cost of taking shortcuts in the development process is encountering problems down the line.
For example, a developer might apply a quick fix to resolve a bug instead of finding a more permanent solution. This quick fix might work in the short term, but it could cause problems later when the code is updated or revised in subsequent releases.
The problems that plague the next releases of the software add to the technical debt incurred by the development team.
Let’s explore this idea in more detail, including a look into the types of technical debt.
Types of Technical Debt
There are two types of technical debt.
Intended Technical Debt
This debt is incurred when a development team consciously takes shortcuts in the development process. This could be because of time constraints or the need to release a half-baked feature to beat the competition.
Unintentional Technical Debt
Teams incur this type of debt when they take shortcuts without realizing the long-term consequences of these actions. For example, a developer might use a library that is known to be outdated, not realizing that they will have to replace it and all the dependencies in the next releases.
How Technical Debt Impacts Development Projects?
Technical debt can impact development projects in several ways.
It can eventually slow down the development process, increase the likelihood of introducing bugs and errors, and make it more challenging to implement changes or updates in the future.
Technical debt can also make it more difficult to maintain the codebase over time, as developers may need to spend more time fixing problems caused by shortcuts taken in the past.
When is Technical Debt Acceptable?
After going through the previous section, you might think that technical debt is always a problematic concept.
However, there are times when dev teams see technical debt as acceptable and even necessary for the project’s progress. For example, if a startup is launching a new product, it may need to prioritize speed over quality to beat competitors to market. In this case, taking on technical debt can be a strategic decision that pays off in the short term.
Another scenario where technical debt may be acceptable is when the cost of “paying off” the debt in the future is lower than the cost of not delivering the feature or product in the present. Taking on the debt and addressing it later makes sense in this case.
When is Technical Debt Unacceptable?
However, in many cases, taking on technical debt is not a good thing. In fact, many experts compare it to taking financial liabilities.
Technical debt becomes unacceptable when it creates a significant burden on the development team or the organization as a whole. This can include increased maintenance costs, decreased productivity, and reduced quality. In some cases, technical debt can even lead to the introduction of security vulnerabilities or system failures, which can have serious consequences.
Technical Debt Examples
Here’re some examples of technical debt:
Outdated Operating Systems
One example of technical debt is outdated operating systems. As technology evolves, older operating systems can become incompatible with new software, leading to performance, security, and stability issues. This can be a significant challenge for businesses that rely on legacy systems, as upgrading to a new operating system can be expensive and time-consuming.
Another typical example of technical debt is legacy code. This refers to code that has been in use for a long time and is no longer efficient and effective.
As time passes, legacy code gets challenging to maintain and update because the documentation becomes obsolete and developers retire. This can lead to increased costs and longer development cycles.
Technical dependencies are another example of technical debt. These occur when multiple systems or components rely on one another to function correctly.
Over time, these dependencies can become complex and challenging to manage, leading to increased costs and decreased efficiency. This can be a significant challenge for businesses that rely on complex systems, as identifying and managing dependencies can get difficult as dependencies become more and more obscure and buried in the codebase.
Poor Testing Practices
Poor testing practices can also contribute to technical debt accumulation.
When a release is not sufficiently tested, bugs and errors can remain and lead to decreased product performance and stability over time. This can be a significant challenge for businesses that rely on software to operate, as it can lead to increased downtime and decreased productivity.
Finally, inefficient infrastructure is an often overlooked factor that generates technical debt. This can include outdated hardware, slow internet connections, and other factors that can slow operations and increase costs over time. Businesses that rely on technology must invest in efficient infrastructure to avoid technical debt.
Causes of Technical Debt (and What You Can Do to Avoid It)
We’ll now explore some of the causes behind technical debt and what you can do to avoid accumulating it.
One of the main causes that lead to technical debt is the pressure to meet tight deadlines.
When developers are pressured to deliver a project quickly, they may take shortcuts in the development process, leading to technical debt. Setting realistic deadlines and allocating sufficient time for testing and debugging is essential to avoid this important reason that leads to avoidable technical debt.
Lack of Planning
Another common cause of technical debt is the need for more planning.
When developers need a clear understanding of the project’s requirements or the system’s architecture, they may take shortcuts that can cause technical debt. It’s essential to have a clear plan in place before starting development to avoid debt generation.
Poor Code Quality
Poor code quality is another cause of technical debt. When code is well written, it is easier to maintain and debug. As a result, businesses don’t accumulate technical debt. Developers should strive to write clean, well-organized code that is easy to understand and maintain.
Inadequate testing leads directly to technical debt. When developers don’t test their code thoroughly, they may introduce bugs and other issues that can cause technical debt over time. To avoid this, thorough testing at all project milestones is critical to lessening or even negating technical debt.
Lack of Documentation
A lack of documentation can also lead to technical debt. When developers don’t document their code and system architecture, it can be difficult to understand and maintain the code over time. It’s important to document all code and system architecture thoroughly to avoid this.
Here are some real-life examples of tech debt causes
- When a team is given an unrealistic deadline, they may be forced to cut corners or skip essential steps in the development process. This can lead to tech debt as the team rushes to meet the deadline.
- Sometimes developers may choose to use a platform they are familiar with, even if it’s not the best option for the project. This can lead to tech debt as the team may have to work around the limitations of the platform.
- When software design decisions are made without proper planning or consideration, it can lead to technical debt. Poor design decisions can lead to scalability, maintainability, and overall software quality issues.
- If project goals are not clearly defined from the beginning, it can lead to tech debt. With clear goals, the team may be able to prioritize tasks or make informed decisions about the development process.
- If team members lack the necessary coding skills, it can lead to tech debt. Poor coding practices can lead to bugs, security vulnerabilities, and other technical issues.
- If there is a lack of product ownership, it can lead to tech debt. With clear ownership, there is clarity about who is responsible for making decisions and prioritizing tasks.
- When quick and risky band-aid fixes are used instead of complete refactoring, it can lead to tech debt. These quick fixes may solve immediate problems but can create long-term technical debt.
- If testing is not done thoroughly, it can lead to tech debt. Bugs and other technical issues may not be caught until later in the development process, which can be costly and time-consuming to fix.
- If team members don’t understand software architecture clearly, it can lead to tech debt. Poor architecture decisions can lead to scalability, maintainability, and overall software quality issues.
- If team members don’t refer to supporting documentation, it can lead to tech debt. Code that needs documentation can be difficult to understand and maintain.
- If there are urgent, last-minute changes to specifications, it can lead to tech debt. These changes may require quick fixes or workarounds that can create technical debt.
- If there is a long series of product improvements by different developers, it can lead to tech debt. Each developer may have their own coding style and approach, making the codebase challenging to maintain.
- If parallel development is done on multiple branches that require merging in the future, it can lead to tech debt. Merging code from multiple branches can take time and effort, creating technical debt.
Measuring Technical Debt
Now that you know the main causes behind technical debt, let’s see how you can measure the volume of technical debt incurred by your teams. You can use the following parameters in isolation or combine them for a more comprehensive KPI for analyzing the technical debt incurred by your teams.
New Bugs vs. Closed Bugs
One of the most straightforward ways to measure technical debt is to track the number of new bugs that are discovered in your software compared to the number of bugs that have been closed. If your organization consistently finds more new bugs than it is closing, it may indicate underlying technical debt.
Code quality is a measure of how well-written and maintainable your code is. It can be measured using tools like SonarQube or Code Climate. Poor code quality can lead to increased technical debt, so keeping an eye on this metric is essential.
Cycle time is the amount of time it takes to deliver a feature from start to finish. The longer it takes to deliver a feature, the more technical debt is likely to accumulate. Measuring cycle time can help identify bottlenecks and areas for improvement.
Code churn is the amount of code that changes over time. High code churn can be an indication of technical debt, as it suggests that frequent changes are being made to the codebase. Each incidence of change can add to the technical debt of the project.
Code coverage measures the percentage of your code that is covered by automated tests. Low code coverage can lead to increased technical debt, making it harder to catch bugs and ensure the stability of your software.
Technical Debt Ratio (TDR)
The technical debt ratio measures the amount of technical debt in your code compared to the total size of your codebase. It’s calculated by dividing the estimated cost of fixing all technical debt by the cost of developing the software from scratch. A high TDR indicates a high level of technical debt.
How to Reduce Technical Debt?
At this point, you must be wondering about how you can reduce or eliminate technical debt. We’ll now discuss ways to reduce technical debt and keep your software operations running smoothly.
Track and Cut Out the “Cruft”
The first step in reducing technical debt is identifying and removing unnecessary code. This is known as “cruft” and can accumulate over time as developers add new features or fix bugs.
Removing cruft can streamline your codebase and make it easier to maintain.
Do Not Hire Inexperienced Developers
Hiring developers who are not a good fit for the project is a recipe for technical debt disaster. Hiring experienced developers who have a strong understanding of best practices and can write clean, efficient code is an important step toward managing technical debt in the long run.
Write High-Quality Code
Writing high-quality code from the start can help reduce technical debt over time. This means following best practices, using design patterns, and writing code that is easy to read and maintain.
Use Automated Instead of Manual Testing
Automated testing can help catch bugs and other issues before they make it into production. This can save time and money in the long run by reducing the need for manual testing and fixing bugs.
Keep a Transparent Record of Changes
Keeping a transparent record of changes can help you identify and track technical debt over time. This can include using version control software, documenting changes in your codebase, and keeping track of minor bugs that are often left for later.
Create a Tech Debt Team
Creating a team that addresses technical debt can ensure that you have dedicated resources looking into how to reduce the debt. This team can work on identifying and removing cruft, updating outdated codef and ensuring that new code conforms to established high standards.
Set Aside Time and Resources to Tackle Debt
Reducing technical debt requires time and resources. It is important to set aside dedicated time and resources to tackle technical debt and ensure it is properly managed.
Ensure Regular Code Refactoring
Regular code refactoring can help keep your codebase clean and efficient. This means updating outdated code, and ensuring new code is written according to the organization’s standards.
Adjust Your Company’s Definition of “Done”
Adjusting your company’s definition of “done” can help ensure that technical debt is managed correctly. This means considering technical debt when evaluating the success of a project and ensuring that it is being properly addressed.
Technical debt is an unavoidable part of the software development process, but it’s important to understand its implications and take steps to manage it effectively. By prioritizing quality code and addressing technical debt as it accumulates, development teams can ensure that their projects are stable, maintainable, and future-proof.
Q-1) What is another name for technical debt?
Technical debt is also known as design debt, code debt, or software debt. The accumulation of design decisions or coding shortcuts can create extra work in the future. In order to reduce technical debt, developers should strive for quality code and regularly refactor existing code. Additionally, companies should ensure they hire experienced developers who understand best practices and can write clean, efficient code.
Q-2) What are short debt examples?
Short debt examples can include using code or design patterns that are quick to implement but inefficient or difficult to maintain. Usually, these fixes are applied by inexperienced developers and not properly documented. Poorly written code is another example of short debt, as it can quickly become outdated and difficult to maintain. Additionally, skipping automated testing can create short debt as issues may not be caught until too late.