The world of app and software development is not unlike business and finance. Sometimes you must take on a little bit of “debt” to get ahead or keep up with demand. However, just like financial debt, technical debt can quickly spiral out of control if it’s not managed properly.
In this post, we’ll discuss some strategies for how to solve technical debt. And we’re not just discussing how you can prevent it or do things better in the future. This article is absolutely for businesses who already find themselves in deep with technical debt. It’s not over yet, and you don’t have to start over with a new plan. By following these steps, you can work out of technical debt without damaging the business or starting over from scratch with a new app or software product.
What is technical debt?
Before we talk about what steps you can take to manage technical debt, it’s important to understand exactly what this term refers to. As Ward Cunnigham (one of the authors of the Agile Manifesto who originally coined the term), Martin Fowler, and other developers explained, technical debt is a concept in programming that reflects the extra development work that arises when code that is easy to implement in the short run is used instead of applying the best overall solution.
Essentially, taking shortcuts now can result in more work down the line. There are many types of technical debt, which aren’t always bad. Unfortunately, short-term solutions that “buy time” now can result in bigger problems later on. This is an easy trap for developers and anyone who runs a business to fall into.
We’re always trying to find a new way to work smarter, not harder. Which in general can be helpful, but it’s also always important to ask, “at what cost?” It’s natural to want to identify the most efficient and timely way to achieve our goals. But in the pursuit of those goals, it’s possible to mistake working smarter for taking shortcuts. This is why companies should always be looking at what these shortcuts are compromising in the long run.
The causes of technical debt can include a lack of resources or knowledge, unrealistic timelines, and rushed product releases. We’ve written an in-depth article about the causes and effects of technical debt that you can read for more information. Once you’re familiar with the concept, come back here to learn how to manage technical debt in a way that will benefit your business over the long term.
What kinds of problems can technical debt cause for tech businesses?
When it comes to tech debt, it must be addressed promptly, if possible. Otherwise, it can lead to significant problems for your business in the following ways:
One of the biggest concerns with tech debt, which is considered metaphorical, is that it can actually lead to real financial debt in several ways if not handled properly.
One example of this is when shortcuts are taken during the development process to meet deadlines or budget constraints, which can result in performance issues with the product. This can lead to customers being dissatisfied with the product and choosing to use a competitor’s product instead, resulting in a loss of revenue for the company.
Another example of how tech debt can lead to financial debt is when a product or service fails to deliver what was promised to customers. This can lead to a loss of trust and credibility with customers, and they may choose to take their business elsewhere, resulting in a loss of revenue.
Additionally, tech debt can also lead to financial debt by causing issues with the overall business model. If a product or service is unstable, it can lead to a loss of employees, investors, and partners, resulting in a loss of revenue and a decrease in return margins.
Losing customers due to poor product performance
Customers are always on the lookout for a better product or service. You’ll likely lose customers to more efficient competitors if frequent crashes, poor functionality, or outdated features plague your tech business. That’s why code quality is crucial from the perspective of both consumers and employees.
For example, let’s say a customer is using a mobile app for online shopping and the app frequently crashes or has poor functionality, the customer is likely to uninstall the app and switch to a competitor’s app that offers a better experience. This can lead to loss of revenue and damage to the company’s reputation.
Another example, in a SaaS company, if the software frequently crashes or has outdated features, it can lead to frustration among employees and negatively impact their productivity. This can lead to increased turnover and difficulty in hiring new talent.
In both cases, it’s clear that code quality is crucial for the success of a tech business. It’s important to ensure that the product or service is reliable and up-to-date to meet the demands of consumers and employees. This can be achieved through regular testing, code reviews, and implementing industry best practices for development.
Low customer conversion rates
Your existing customers aren’t the only ones who will flee if your product is unstable. Prospects may be wary of using your service if they have doubts about its reliability. Customers who have had issues with your products may leave negative reviews that highlight the problems.
And in today’s digitally saturated market, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t read reviews and place some stock in them, so it could be extra challenging to reach new customers after something like this happens. Prioritizing speed over quality is a surefire way to lose customers and revenue. Code debt can be a huge hindrance to conversions as well.
When implementing new features or making updates to existing code, it’s vital that you address any potential security loopholes. Unfortunately, this can be a challenge for businesses with large amounts of debt. For instance, if your coding standards are lax because you’re using legacy systems, your product may easily be hacked. New technologies are often more secure, so it’s important to keep up with the times.
Another example is the use of outdated software libraries or frameworks. For example, if a business is using an older version of a web framework that has known security vulnerabilities, a hacker could exploit these vulnerabilities to gain access to the system. This is why it’s important to keep up with the latest software updates and security patches.
Part of DevOps is maintaining a development and production environment that is closely aligned. Technical debt can slow down your development cycles. All the refactoring, backlog, and support tickets will take a toll on your resources and bottom line. To reduce the time to market for your MVP, you need to take a holistic approach that includes code quality and efficiency in your development process.
Rising development costs
As for your development team, technical debt can make it nearly impossible to meet deadlines and handle the growing demand for new features. If they constantly have to rework the codebase due to poor quality, your development costs will likely increase over time. New code is not only expensive to create, but it is also an ongoing expense in terms of maintenance.
Additionally, technical debt can make it difficult for the development team to keep up with the growing demand for new features. This is a result of the increasing technical complexity of the code, which may cause the team to struggle to keep up with the pace of innovation in the industry.
Programmers and software engineers are some of the most highly sought-after professionals in today’s job market. However, poor code quality that leads to constant reworks and confusion amongst the team can lead to lower productivity and an overall drop in morale, making it difficult to retain your team members. Employee churn can also result in additional costs as you search for new talent.
Managing technical debt
As you can see, tech debt can seriously affect your tech business. Thankfully, managing technical debt isn’t as difficult or time-consuming as you might think. In fact, you don’t have to throw out your product and start from scratch.
Here are some course correction steps you can take to reduce your code debt:
Assess and communicate
Project management is key when addressing technical debt. It involves assessing the situation by gathering data and communicating with your team and stakeholders about the current state of your codebase.
It is important to communicate with your engineering team and stakeholders about the current state of the codebase and to get their feedback and input on the best ways to address the technical debt. This can include holding meetings to discuss the current state of the codebase, as well as gathering feedback from developers through surveys or interviews.
Look at that data
If you haven’t been tracking code quality metrics, now is the time to do so. It provides the data needed to inform decisions about how to best reduce technical debt. Some examples of code quality metrics that can be tracked include:
Code coverage: This metric measures the percentage of code that has been tested. A high code coverage percentage indicates that a significant portion of the codebase has been tested, which can help to identify areas of the codebase that are at risk of bugs or errors.
Defects per line of code: This metric measures the number of defects (such as bugs or errors) per line of code. A high number of defects per line of code indicates that the codebase is of poor quality and may need to be refactored.
Complexity ratings: This metric measures the complexity of the codebase, such as the number of nested loops or the number of variables used in a function. A high complexity rating indicates that the codebase may be difficult to understand or maintain and may need to be refactored.
Code duplication: This metric measures the percentage of code that is repeated in different parts of the codebase. A high code duplication percentage indicates that there is a lot of redundant code, which can make the codebase difficult to understand and maintain.
Technical debt ratio: This is a metric that quantifies the cost of maintaining the codebase over time. A high ratio indicates that the codebase is difficult to maintain and requires a lot of effort to fix.
With this information, you can prioritize your refactoring efforts and identify areas that need the most attention.
Restructure your strategy
Sometimes, it’s not just one part of your codebase that is suffering. Rather, the issue may be systemic, meaning there are pockets of debt throughout different parts of the product. In this case, you may need to work with your team to figure out new processes, tools, or organizational structures that can help streamline development and improve code quality.
For example, automation can help cut development time and reduce errors. Depending on your business needs, you can also turn to the Scrum framework’s sprint planning to prioritize high-value and low-risk items.
Technical debt is not a one-time fix. Rather, it’s an ongoing process that requires continuous monitoring and management. The amount of technical debt in your development process will fluctuate over time, so it’s crucial to track your debt accumulation and make regular course corrections. Use your roadmap as a guide, and have regular check-ins with your team to evaluate progress and identify potential roadblocks.
Finally, reduce technical debt by ensuring that you have robust testing and quality assurance practices in place. According to the Scrum framework, testing is one of the most critical pieces of a project since it helps uncover potential issues before the product is released to customers. From code reviews to bug fixes, use testing to your advantage and keep technical debt at bay. Automated tests are especially useful, enabling you to test more frequently.
Preventing technical debt
Technical debt is a common occurrence in most tech businesses, but it doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to managing its effects indefinitely. At this point, prevention is key. There are several proactive steps you can take now to prevent technical debt in the future. Now that you’ve presumably been through the rigors of experiencing technical debt and working out of it, it’s impossible not to come out of the other side having learned several valuable lessons about business. These lessons will help you on your journey forward. Carry this new knowledge into your future business endeavors so you never have to work your way out of technical debt again.
First and foremost, invest in high-quality training and resources to help your team members learn more effective coding practices. Bad code is often the result of inadequate workers or poorly defined requirements. By providing your employees with the proper training and tools, they can construct all your lines of code more easily and efficiently.
Additionally, using Agile development methodologies can also help reduce the risk of code debt. Moving quickly and iteratively allows you to fix issues as they arise and work out any kinks in your product before it’s too late.
Finally, follow a set process for defining requirements, designing interfaces, building units or features, testing in production environments, and monitoring outcomes. By taking a systematic approach to coding and development, you can prevent many issues from ever coming up in the first place.
Contact SWARM today
If you’re a startup or product owner, all this talk about technical debt is probably making your head spin. Don’t worry—you’re not alone. At SWARM, we specialize in helping tech businesses navigate the complexities of launching a new product or scaling an existing company.
With our expert guidance and streamlined development processes, we can help eliminate technical debt and reduce the risk of future issues. Don’t let product management take over your life. Contact us today, and let us help you on the road to success!