Despite not being familiar with the term technical debt, people understand the concept of debt. In the case of financial debt, you borrow money and then pay interest to the lender. For instance, your credit card balance will continue to increase if you do not make regular monthly payments towards your debt. Interest payments can add up over time, resulting in a large financial burden. Similarly, sleep debt refers to the accumulation of sleep deprivation over time. When you fail to get enough sleep each night, you experience adverse side effects such as irritability, decreased mental sharpness, and impaired motor skills.
But there is another type of debt that people are less familiar with—technical debt. This blog post will explore how tech debt affects the software development industry and discuss some common reasons why businesses accumulate technical debt.
What is technical debt?
The first definition of technical debt is often attributed to Ward Cunningham, a co-author of the Agile Manifesto. According to him, technical debt refers to design decisions that negatively impact code quality or maintainability. He used it to explain to WyCash’s stakeholders why refactoring was essential to their software project.
However, many other definitions have since been introduced to expand the concept of technical debt. Martin Fowler added the concept of cruft, which refers to code that is unnecessarily complicated to read. He explains how much time and effort is required to keep such code working and how it makes features harder to add in the future.
Regardless of the definition you choose, technical debt can have a detrimental impact on software projects. It increases development costs, lowers code quality and functionality, and leads to more frequent errors in production. Therefore, it is important for businesses that engage in software development or app development to be aware of the factors that contribute to technical debt.
Finally, Steve McConnell described it as such in his 2008 whitepaper: “Technical debt” refers to delayed technical work that is incurred when technical shortcuts are taken, usually in pursuit of calendar-driven software schedules. Just like financial debt, some technical debts can serve valuable business purposes. Other technical debts are simply counterproductive.
What’s an example of technical debt?
In short, technical debt is the cost of choosing to take a short-term approach over a long-term one. While it might be cheaper or faster at the moment, it will often result in more time and effort being required in the future to address the problems created by this decision.
Suppose your team is working on an app development project for a new social media platform. With zero users during the early stages of development, you decide to cut corners and reduce the number of security features implemented to save time.
However, not long after your app launches, it is flooded with hundreds or thousands of users constantly trying to find and exploit security vulnerabilities.
As a result, you spend weeks or even months dealing with bugs and crashes and implementing new security measures. In the long run, you could have saved time and money by investing the extra effort needed during development to ensure that your app was secure.
Different types of technical debt
Various types of technical debt can accumulate during the software development process. Some of the most common ones include:
Trade-offs are often made during software development, such as choosing a less efficient algorithm to better optimize for speed. These trade-offs can have long-term implications that increase the difficulty of future updates and maintenance. Maintenance debt is particularly important to be aware of when deploying software that is continuously updated, such as mobile apps.
You might need to be more cautious about this type of technical debt if you are working with legacy code, as well. Software entropy is a phenomenon in which code becomes increasingly more difficult to maintain over time. This is especially common for large, complex software projects that have been developed over several years or decades.
Developer efficiency debt
Another common type of technical debt is developer efficiency debt. It refers to code written in a way that reduces the productivity and efficiency of software developers working on the project. For example, workflows that are overly complex or cumbersome can lead to developer efficiency debt.
The development cycles for tech-focused projects can be notoriously short, so taking steps to prevent or address technical debt as early in the process as possible is vital. Consider automation tools, code reviews, and other best practices.
Part of the user experience with software often involves stability or the extent to which it functions properly and without bugs. Stability debt occurs when code is written in a way that makes it more likely to crash or result in other performance issues.
Stability debt can be particularly problematic for companies depending on their users’ satisfaction with the quality of the software product. For example, if you work for a startup that relies on its mobile app to process transactions and manage customer accounts, stability debt can have a major impact on the success of your business. Any rework or fixes required to address stability debt can result in a high cost, both in terms of time and money.
Of course, security is always a primary concern for software development, and technical debt can increase the risk of security vulnerabilities. Code that is written in a way that makes it to exploit or bypass critical security features can result in significant damage to both user trust and revenue. High-quality, up-to-date security features are key to minimizing the risk of technical debt and maintaining user confidence in your software.
Some companies might be tempted to wait until users report bugs or security issues before addressing security debt, but this can be a risky strategy. For instance, the fintech sector has faced several major data breaches in recent years, and technical debt is often to blame.
Technical product debt
Next up is technical product debt, which refers to flaws or limitations in the underlying architecture of your software. The amount of technical debt can vary significantly from project to project and company to company, but there are often several common contributors. Your product’s long-term development plans should always be a top priority.
Finally, decision, or design debt, might be the culprit you’re looking for. If you have a long backlog of features or product updates that you simply haven’t had time to prioritize, this might be causing technical debt. Upgrading and maintaining your software can be resource-intensive, and developers often need to make difficult trade-offs between new features and technical debt.
These are complex decisions that often require input from a range of stakeholders, including designers and product managers.
Causes of technical debt
In order to prevent or address the problem, it is crucial to understand the causes of technical debt. Some of the main contributors include:
Prioritizing a speedy release over the quality of the product
Code debt is often attributed to the pressure to release a product quickly. You might have tight deadlines after receiving a critical funding round or be trying to compete in a crowded market where time-to-market is key.
You might think that your Beta version of a product doesn’t need to be as rigorously tested or robustly designed, but this can lead to significant problems.
Poor code quality
The codebase of your product is at the heart of technical debt. If you have a high volume of bugs, they might have accumulated as developers have had to make changes quickly or work with limited resources. Legacy code can also play a role, as code written years ago can quickly become obsolete or difficult to maintain.
Lastly, the language or frameworks that your developers are using can also contribute to technical debt. Modern languages and platforms are constantly evolving, making it challenging to keep up with the latest best practices.
It’s not unheard of for a development team to use shortcuts or workarounds. From using third-party plugins and libraries to copying/pasting code, there are many ways that developers can quickly “hack” their way to a working solution. While these quick fixes might save time initially, they can come back to bite you later on as your product grows and evolves.
What if the third-party plugin you’re using is no longer supported, or the workaround you were using is at odds with a new feature in your product? Think twice before cutting corners, and prioritize quality and long-term maintenance.
Lack of skill on the development team
An inadvertent contributor to technical debt can also be a lack of skill on the development team. You can make every decision with the best possible intention, but if your team members don’t have a strong technical foundation, you might end up with a poorly-architected product.
In software engineering, a poor hiring process that focuses on skills and experience over critical thinking, problem-solving, and a passion for learning can result in a development team that lacks the necessary technical skills to build high-quality products.
Disconnect with users
At the end of the day, your product’s success is ultimately determined by your users. Prioritizing what your users need can help to reduce technical debt. Otherwise, your roadmap becomes obsolete the moment it is set. You might end up building features that your customers don’t actually want.
Of course, Agile teams can always adapt to changing user needs. But it still takes time, effort, and resources. And the more your product doesn’t align with user needs, the more likely you will end up with technical debt.
Lack of testing
Finally, technical debt can also be a result of poor testing. Testing is essential to ensure your product works as intended and meets the highest quality standards. But if you don’t have an adequate QA team, you risk building out a product with numerous bugs and other performance issues.
The very basis of DevOps is to continuously improve your product and ensure communication between all stakeholders. It aims to make the process of building software and managing it much more efficient. This goal aligns perfectly with the idea of reducing technical debt. Both allow you to spend more time and resources on what really matters—your customers.
How to avoid technical debt
Now that we know the main factors that cause technical debt, how can we avoid it? Well, like a credit card or other types of debt, the goal isn’t to avoid debt altogether. Instead, it’s about managing technical debt wisely so that it doesn’t impact the quality and stability of your product.
Some key ways to avoid debt include:
The first step to managing technical debt is planning. Whether creating a product roadmap or simply deciding which features to tackle first, be sure that all decisions are well thought out and vetted by the entire team. Involve developers, QA specialists, and other stakeholders in product discussions so that you can ensure that your product is built with quality in mind.
Your business goals and product roadmap should align with what users want. It would be best if you also considered your business needs, such as meeting deadlines, staying within budget, and other factors. Remain proactively aware of your product’s technical debt so that you aren’t forced to slap a band-aid over issues that need a more systemic solution.
According to the Scrum framework, every sprint should have a dedicated regression test phase. That means before releasing code to production, you should thoroughly test and validate it so that you can root out any bugs or performance issues. Doing so will help you catch any technical debt before it becomes a serious problem.
Test everything in a controlled environment, from new features to bug fixes. Use valid metrics, tools, and processes to ensure the highest quality.
Work with experts
Sometimes, even the best teams and planning can’t prevent technical debt. In that case, you just have to seek help from experts in your field. Project management is about much more than just software development. There are several other areas to the development process, and it’s impossible to be an expert in all of them.
So consider working with an experienced project manager or consultant who can advise you on best practices for your specific product. A qualified consultant can help you hire the best talent and keep your team on track. They’ll create a technical debt quadrant that will show you where the most urgent risks are and what resources are necessary to mitigate them.
Invest in skilled coders & product designers
Lastly, to really prevent technical debt, you need to invest in the right people. A great programmer will keep your product stable and help you stay on budget. They won’t make as many mistakes, and they’ll work faster than others. Their code quality will be higher, resulting in a more stable product.
Similarly, great product designers can contribute to your product’s overall quality and user experience. They’ll help you prioritize what matters most and keep things simple, so your customers have an excellent experience.
We understand that startups and small businesses may not have the resources to invest in top talent. That’s where a consultant or project manager can be a huge help. They’ll know where you can scale back your budget to invest in the right talent and how to get more value out of your existing team.
Technical debt can make or break a software project, so it’s essential to manage it actively. By following these tips, you can keep your product on track, on budget, and high in quality.
Do you run a tech company or work in software development? At SWARM, we specialize in helping businesses manage their technical debt and avoid potential risks. Contact us today to learn more about our services and how we can help you keep your product on track, on budget, and high in quality.