Understanding Technical Debt | Revelry Labs

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Technical Debt During Software Development

What is Technical Debt?

Definition, Examples, and Solutions

As companies become more digital, technology is becoming an increasingly critical value driver for business. However, one subtle problem could challenge their efforts to keep up with the competition: technical debt.

When businesses allow an accumulation of too much technology work for the future, they undermine their ability to compete with more agile companies. Tech debt is a growing problem for many: 68% of organizations stated that they expect their technical debt to increase this year. [1]

The word “debt” carries a negative connotation. Like financial debt, though, there are times when technical debt is necessary. However, it is a problem when it goes unaddressed for too long and accumulates. Regularly addressing technical debt is critical for your software’s speed, efficiency, and health.

Here is what you need to know about technical debt, including what it is, why it’s important, and what to do about it.

Technical debt, sometimes called code debt, is when developers create inferior code that they will have to address and fix in the future. It is a short-term compromise in code quality, making it difficult to develop, test, and maintain down the road.

Typically, technical debt results from prioritizing speed over well-designed code or a lack of communication between team members. Technical debt comes when developers use patches and quick fixes instead of a comprehensive solution. This causes cruft, or mediocre code that is poorly designed, redundant, useless, or a mix of the three.

The end result of technical debt is refactoring. Refactoring is when developers must go back to change the software’s internal structure to fix cruft and make improvements. If they fail to go back and improve their code, the team will find that the software becomes more difficult to update and more prone to bugs and issues.

Why Technical Debt is Important

Technical debt is similar to financial debt in that it accumulates “interest” in the form of increasingly difficult changes later on as the software evolves. However, unlike financial debt, it is not easy to understand the impact as some of the costs of technical debt are not fully understood upfront.

Is Technical Debt Good?

Technical debt is not always a bad idea. There are sometimes good reasons to take on technical debt to address later. For example, sometimes delivery is more important than clean code or smooth functionality. It might be crucial for your company because of time to market or revenue, and if your organization does not rely on the perfect design, it might make sense.

There are times when the technical debt could seriously harm your software. Procrastinating on finding and fixing bugs, for example, is dangerous and quickly results in out-of-control technical debt the longer you take to address it.

Whether the technical debt is good or bad, it’s critical to recognize it so that it doesn’t get the best of your development team and delay future deliveries. Unaddressed technical debt slows down innovation and gets in the way of building new features. It also leads to an inferior quality product that lags and is prone to bugs and regressions.

What is an Example of Technical Debt?

Just a few ways technical debt can show up include:

Management sets a deadline to get the product to market quickly. As a result, developers choose a framework that is fast to build but has flexibility problems. The team will have to refactor the app later to a more flexible framework or face additional issues.
Another common source of technical debt is breaking “clean code” rules. For example, writing code that isn’t modular or the modules aren’t cohesive results in technical debt. It requires developers to go back and rewrite all the problematic code.
Some technical debt has immediate and severe consequences. For example, developers may prefer to work with a platform that doesn’t serve the company’s needs. Building an eCommerce website on the wrong platform, for example, could result in a site that cannot handle high volume and result in missed sales. It will also cause significant disruption as engineers will have to migrate the site to another platform.

There are various ways that IT teams find themselves in technical debt. In most cases, it is impossible to avoid. However, that doesn’t mean that all technical debt is the same. Some cause more severe and immediate consequences than others, such as lost sales due to developing on the wrong platform. It’s critical that IT teams weigh the costs of technical debt and if it needs to be avoided in the first place.

How to Reduce Technical Debt

While unavoidable, large pieces of debt often become a liability for software. The best way to address technical debt is to work on it continuously. Yet, many teams fail to develop a plan to address their debt. One survey found that 58% of organizations do not have a process to manage their technical debt. [2]

The top three ways to address technical debt include:

Code and Architecture Refactoring

The simplest way to handle technical debt is to organize a refactoring week after a set number of sprints. How many sprints you should have between refactoring weeks depends on your company, IT team, and upcoming updates. During a refactoring week, your team will evaluate the current architecture, resolve any open bugs, and prepare the architecture coming product features.

Choosing to have a refactoring week has advantages and disadvantages. It gives developers time to solve big pieces of debt and ensures you handle them regularly. However, dedicating an entire week could slow down your team and avoids addressing debt continuously.

Have Regular Technical Debt Conversations

Retrospective meetings are a critical time for engineers to share their knowledge with the team. They provide a crucial time to share updates about code and enable engineers to explain what they’ve accomplished. Plus, engineers present codebase changes, their effects, and how they achieved them. It’s a pivotal way to reduce information silos between team members and ensure a flow of information.

While these meetings are critical, they take time for engineers to work on their presentations and require everyone to be there. Leadership and stakeholders need to be on board for meetings and give engineers time to prepare for them.

Track Technical Debt in Your Editor

Tracking debt makes it easy for your IT team to find and solve code problems. Plus, tracking your technical debt in an editor helps engineers:

See the context for every codebase problem
Reduce context-switching
Gain total awareness and visibility of debt
Solve technical debt continuously

Since your team spends most of their time in the editor, to begin with, it’s the most efficient place to report and track all technical issues.

Reduce Technical Debt

Technical debt is the necessary compromise between clean code and business. It’s crucial that leaders recognize it and address it regularly—if not continuously—to ensure everything runs as smoothly as possible.

Those who reduce their technical debt will ensure greater speed, efficiency, and a product that is ready for the future of your business.

When faster software development requires smart technical debt

Resources:

[1] Doerrfeld, B. A pandemic side effect: Rampant technical debt. 28 January 2022. DevOps.com. Retrieved from https://devops.com/a-pandemic-side-effect-rampant-technical-debt/

[2] Stepsize. The “State of Technical Debt 2021.” July 2021. Retrieved from https://assets.website-files.com/5f922f81cc30586744dc7122/60e306c6db6224328eaf47a3_Tech%20debt%20report.pdf

Learn About Code Audits for Reducing Technical Debt

Learn about Code Audits