Technical debt – all you need to know

Trends & Technology

The world keeps accelerating, which translates into quicker business decisions and processes. And although speed is justified and often necessary, it may result in technical debt. Sooner or later you will have to manage it so try to understand technical debt concept right now.

Tech debt usually begins with time pressure. Software development teams, trying to deliver a product quicker than it usually takes, sometimes decide to leave some bugs unfixed or fix them later. While such an approach may help them get the software done quickly, in the long term unaddressed bugs that accumulate may cause bigger and more expensive to fix problems. Meanwhile, tech debt impact the entire organization: team motivation, service quality and financial performance.

What is technical debt?

In software development, the term technical debt (also known as tech debt or code debt) is used to describe the cost of additional work caused by choosing a quicker and easier solution instead of an approach that is better but would take longer. 

Definition of technical debt

The technical debt concept was first used in 1992 by Ward Cunningham, a pioneer in design patterns and extreme programming, who explained that while a “quick and dirty” solution may be better short-term, in the long run, it may become problematic mainly because of the increasing costs of fixing it.

Is technical debt always bad?

Technical debt is not inherently bad or good. It is a natural part of the software development process and depending on the origins of technical debt, it can be used as a strategic tool. If managed and dealt with in the right way, it can become a useful tool, allowing for quicker development when needed. 

The technical debt quadrant

To best understand the causes of tech debt, let’s look at the graph showing technical debt quadrants.

Il. 1. Technical debt quadrants, source:

As per the graph, we distinguish four causes of tech debt: deliberate and reckless, reckless and inadvertent, deliberate and prudent, and inadvertent and prudent. While deliberate tech debt is a result of a decision made by a software development team for the sake of quicker delivery, inadvertent debt happens without any decision, accidentally. 

Il.2. Examples of tech debts, source:

What is the purpose of technical debt?

When technical debt is accrued intentionally and with awareness of the consequences, it can be a valid trade-off to deliver software quickly and meet deadlines. It allows teams to prioritize certain features or functionalities while acknowledging that the codebase may need refactoring or improvement in the future.
The purpose of technical debt in software development is to provide short-term benefits or trade-offs to meet immediate business or project goals. Here are some common purposes of technical debt:

  1. Meeting deadlines: In fast-paced development environments, there may be pressure to deliver software quickly to meet project timelines or market demands. Technical debt can be incurred deliberately to implement temporary solutions or workarounds that allow for faster delivery.
  2. Prototyping and experimentation: During the early stages of development, technical debt can be used to quickly build prototypes or proof-of-concept solutions. This enables teams to gather feedback, validate ideas, and make informed decisions before investing additional time and effort into a more polished implementation.
  3. Managing resource constraints: Limited resources, such as time, budget, or personnel, can lead to trade-offs in code quality and maintainability. Technical debt can be incurred to allocate resources to critical features or urgent bug fixes, deferring more comprehensive improvements or refactoring to a later stage.
  4. Iterative development and feedback loops: Technical debt can support an iterative development approach, allowing teams to release an initial version of the software quickly and gather user feedback. This feedback can then inform subsequent iterations and refinements, including addressing accumulated technical debt.

However, if technical debt is accumulated unknowingly or without a plan to address it, it can lead to several negative consequences. These include increased maintenance costs, reduced productivity, decreased code quality, higher bug density, and difficulties in adding new features or making changes. Over time, the accumulation of technical debt can severely impact the software’s stability, performance, and maintainability.

Therefore, it is crucial in tech debt management to effectively balance short-term needs with long-term considerations, regularly addressing and paying down accumulated debt, and maintaining a sustainable development process.

Unintentional technical debt

Unintentional technical debt refers to the accumulation of suboptimal or problematic code or design choices that occur inadvertently during the software development process. Unlike intentional technical debt, which may result from conscious shortcuts or trade-offs, unintentional technical debt is often a byproduct of factors such as lack of experience, insufficient understanding of requirements, or inadequate infrastructure.

The impact of technical debt

Technology debt can affect your organization in several key aspects.

The impact on business

Starting from a broad perspective, tech debt can cause a number of adverse consequences for your business as a whole. First and foremost, it impacts your organization’s financial performance, due to reduced product performance, but also the cost of ad hoc bug fixes, fixes, or patches. Ultimately, the longer you procrastinate, the more the debt adds to your bottom line. Is it worth it?

The performance of your product or service will, of course, also affect Customer Satisfaction. The greater number and frequency of errors and the amount of hassle your customers will have to deal with will negatively affect your image and, in extreme situations, lead to customer churn. Remember that money is not the only currency in which you will incur technical debt costs.

Impact on the Product

The risks that tech debt poses in terms of your product (or service) obviously relate to 3 key aspects: functionality, delivery time, and downtime. Even if you have managed to locate the effects of debt in only one of these aspects, you can be sure that sooner or later the consequences will spread to the other issues.

Impact on the Team

Tech debt also has an impact internally on your organization. The team of professionals working in your company will be directly affected by its consequences. Their work will not be able to run smoothly and shuffles will revolve around putting out the same fires over and over again, instead of focusing on long-term goals. You can be sure that the motivation of your top employees will drop until, eventually, the lack of development opportunities will be the factor that makes them start looking for another project.

Identifying technical debt

While technical debt is sometimes necessary and may even be beneficial, it is crucially important to know about it and always address it rather than leave it be. To do so, tech debt needs to be properly measured. How to go about it?

A good way of measuring and illustrating tech debt is a technical debt ratio or TDR – the ratio comparing the cost of fixing the problems to the cost of building the software.

Technical Debt Ratio = (Remediation Cost / Development Cost) x 100%

TDR can be used to make stakeholders realize that paying off the technical debt is beneficial and in the long term, it will always mean savings. 

What are the best tools to manage technical debt?

Are you wondering what to do if you already have technical debt? There are several tools available that can help in tech debt management in software development projects. These tools to fight tech debt assist in identifying, tracking, prioritizing, and reducing existing tech debt, as well as supporting the efforts to address and mitigate it. Here are some popular tools used for managing technical debt:

  1. SonarQube: SonarQube is a widely used open-source platform that provides code quality and static analysis tools. It can identify code smells, bugs, vulnerabilities, and other quality issues in the codebase. SonarQube helps in tracking technical debt and provides metrics and reports to measure code quality.
  2. JIRA: JIRA is a popular issue-tracking and project-management tool. It allows you to create and manage tasks, issues, and user stories. By creating specific tasks or issues for addressing technical debt, you can track and prioritize them alongside other development work.
  3. CodeClimate: CodeClimate is a cloud-based platform that analyzes code quality and identifies areas of improvement. It provides insights into code complexity, duplication, and other code smells. CodeClimate integrates with version control systems like Git and helps track technical debt over time.
  4. GitHub: GitHub is a widely used version control system and collaboration platform. It offers various tools and features that can aid in managing technical debt. Issues and project boards in GitHub can be utilized to track and prioritize tasks related to addressing tech debt.
  5. Visual Studio Team Services (VSTS) / Azure DevOps: VSTS, now known as Azure DevOps, is a comprehensive platform for managing software development projects. It offers features for source control, project management, and continuous integration/continuous deployment (CI/CD). By utilizing its issue-tracking and backlog management capabilities, you can manage and prioritize technical debt effectively.
  6. Squale: Squale is an open-source platform for managing technical debt. It provides tools for code analysis, metrics measurement, and reporting. Squale helps identify areas of code that contribute to technical debt and provides insights into its impact on the system.
  7. Tech Debt Tracker: Tech Debt Tracker is a specialized tool designed specifically for managing technical debt. It allows you to catalog and track technical debt items, assign them to team members, and monitor progress. It helps in prioritizing and addressing tech debt systematically.

Remember that tools alone cannot fully manage technical debt. They provide assistance in identifying and tracking tech debt, but it requires a proactive approach, collaboration among team members, and a commitment to addressing and mitigating tech debt effectively. Tools should be used in conjunction with good development practices, code reviews, refactoring, and continuous improvement processes to manage technical debt successfully.

How to reduce technical debt?

While the best solution for managing tech debt would be not to have it in the first place, it is often impossible to achieve. So if you are aware of existing technical debt, measuring it and communicating it to the stakeholders is the first and most important task.

Other crucial steps in the tech debt management process include compliance with good code writing practices, incorporating DevOps and software architects into the software development processes from the very beginning, and determining the size and impact of every tech debt you are about to have before deciding to take it. Creating and maintaining a comprehensive list of all existing tech debts is also of utmost importance.

The right management of tech debt is crucially important in every software development process. At New Digital Street we have the right expertise and experience to help you do it and to solve any tech debt-related problems that may occur. 

Preventing tech debt

If you are wondering how to prevent technical debt, here are some practices and strategies:

  1. Prioritize code quality: Make code quality a top priority from the start of the project. Emphasize clean, maintainable, and well-structured code. Encourage developers to follow coding standards and best practices, and conduct code reviews to ensure adherence to quality guidelines.
  2. Establish a culture of refactoring: Regularly allocate time for refactoring and improving the codebase. Refactoring involves restructuring code to enhance its design, readability, and maintainability without changing its functionality. By making refactoring an integral part of the development process, you can address potential tech debt early and keep the codebase clean.
  3. Test-driven development (TDD): Adopting TDD can help prevent tech debt by promoting comprehensive testing and code coverage. With TDD, developers write tests before writing the actual code, ensuring that the code meets the expected requirements. This approach reduces the likelihood of introducing bugs and increases code quality.
  4. Continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD): Implement CI/CD practices to automate the build, testing, and deployment processes. Continuous integration ensures that changes are frequently merged into the main codebase and validated through automated tests. Continuous delivery ensures that the software is deployable at any given time. These practices help catch issues early and minimize the chances of introducing tech debt.
  5. Agile development and iterative approach: Agile methodologies, such as Scrum or Kanban, emphasize iterative development with frequent feedback loops. Breaking down work into smaller, manageable tasks and delivering value incrementally reduces the risk of accumulating tech debt. Regular retrospectives enable teams to reflect on the development process and identify opportunities to improve code quality.
  6. Documentation and knowledge sharing: Encourage thorough documentation of code, architecture, and design decisions. This includes API documentation, code comments, and README files. Proper documentation helps new developers understand the system quickly and reduces the chances of introducing unintended technical debt due to misunderstandings.
  7. Proactive monitoring and issue tracking: Implement monitoring systems to detect and address performance issues, errors, and technical glitches promptly. Utilize issue-tracking tools to log and manage bugs, tasks, and improvements. Promptly addressing identified issues minimizes their impact and prevents them from accumulating as tech debt.
  8. Continuous learning and skill development: Encourage ongoing learning and professional development among developers. Staying updated with the latest technologies, frameworks, and coding practices helps prevent outdated solutions that can lead to tech debt. Encourage knowledge sharing within the team and provide opportunities for skill enhancement through training, workshops, or conferences.

By adopting these practices and fostering a proactive mindset within the development team, businesses can significantly reduce the likelihood of accumulating tech debt. Regularly evaluating and addressing the technical debt should be an integral part of the software development lifecycle to ensure the long-term success and maintainability of the software system.

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