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What is technical debt: common causes & how to reduce it

When your development team chooses to deliver a quick solution to meet immediate project requirements, they might opt for less elegant, less efficient, or not as thoroughly tested code. Sometimes, that’s a necessary trade-off to beat a competitor to the market or satisfy customer demand.

However, over time, these decisions create technical debt. Your team must “payback” the shortcomings in the future by refactoring, fixing bugs, or reworking certain parts of the system. A 2019 study found that technical debt reduces adjusted profit by 16%.

Left unchecked, it can eventually overwhelm (and even hinder) development moving forward. The longer you let technical debt sit unresolved, the harder it becomes to fix. You’re essentially building your entire infrastructure on an unstable foundation, and that’s a recipe for an eventual collapse.

In this article, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know to manage technical debt better and reduce it wherever possible.

What is technical debt?

Technical debt is the accumulation of sub-optimal or expedient solutions in software development that can slow future progress and increase costs. It represents the extra development work that arises when a team chooses a quick and easy solution now instead of using a better approach that would take longer.

Like financial debt, tech debt has a cost over time:

  • Software patches
  • Increased maintenance requirements
  • Restructuring
  • Bug fixes
  • Lengthy development processes

What factors cause tech debt buildup?

Every business accumulates tech debt differently. Remember, not all technical debt is bad. Just like you sometimes need to borrow money to finance a business expansion, it’s okay to take on a manageable amount of tech debt to grow or accelerate your business.

To better manage trade-offs, engineering organizations must understand how technical debt accumulates.

Here are a few common reasons it starts to grow:

  • Deadline pressure. Tight project schedules or urgent demands may force developers to take shortcuts to meet delivery deadlines, leading to less-than-ideal solutions.
  • Lack of experience. Inexperienced software developers might inadvertently write code that isn’t efficient or maintainable.
  • Changing scope. If requirements shift during development, previously well-designed code might become obsolete or incompatible.
  • Temporary solutions. Sometimes, developers implement quick fixes or short-term solutions to address immediate issues, intending to revisit them later (which often never happens).
  • Ignoring code quality. Failure to adhere to coding standards and best practices can lead to bad code debt that is difficult to read, understand, and maintain.
  • Outdated technologies. Using obsolete or deprecated technologies can create technical debt as they become harder to maintain and integrate with newer solutions.
  • Inadequate testing. Incomplete or insufficient testing may cause undetected bugs or vulnerabilities, leading to future complications.

10 ways to manage and reduce technical debt

While some technical debt is unavoidable (and even necessary) in certain situations, managing it effectively is crucial to prevent it from hurting the long-term software development process.

Here are some strategies your development teams can use to manage and reduce tech debt:

1. Regular code reviews

Conduct regular code reviews to identify and address potential technical debt early in development. Code reviews help catch issues, ensure compliance with coding standards, and encourage knowledge sharing among team members.

Plus, when developers know their code will be reviewed, they tend to practice a bit more due diligence in the coding process.

2. Automated testing

Implement automated testing practices to detect bugs promptly. This ensures that changes to the codebase don’t introduce new technical debt and provides a safety net for refactoring.

You can find plenty of development tools that streamline this process and ensure quality code from the ground up.

3. Refactoring

Refactoring involves restructuring legacy code without changing its external behavior, making it easier to maintain, understand, and grow. Dedicate time for intentional and systematic refactoring of code.

4. Document debt

Keep track of technical debt and document it to increase awareness among team members and stakeholders. Communicate the impact of technical debt on development speed and quality to ensure its resolution becomes a shared responsibility.

Ignoring tech debt is one of the biggest concerns. If you’re going to use it effectively, keep a record of it and make it a regular part of your development conversations.

5. Align with business objectives

Make decisions about addressing technical debt based on your business goals and needs. Choose to manage the most critical technical debt that aligns with your product roadmap and the company’s long-term plans.

6. Technology upgrades

Regularly assess the software stack and update outdated technologies to avoid accumulating technical debt due to unsupported or obsolete integrations.

7. Modularity and design patterns

Encourage the use of modular design patterns and clean architecture. Well-designed systems are more maintainable, making it easier to address technical debt when the time comes.

8. Collective code ownership

Foster a culture of collective code ownership, where team members feel responsible for the quality and maintainability of the entire codebase.

This encourages collaboration and shared accountability for managing technical debt.

9. Avoid over-engineering

While writing maintainable code is crucial, avoid over-engineering solutions that can lead to unnecessary complexity and potential technical debt.

10. Measure technical debt

Use tools and metrics to evaluate and quantify technical debt. This can help set realistic debt reduction goals and track progress over time.

Here are a few ways to measure technical debt:

  • Code metrics. These include various measures such as code duplication and cyclomatic complexity. High values in these measures often indicate high technical debt.
  • Defect density. This is the number of known defects divided by the size of the number of lines of code. A high defect density often signals a high amount of technical debt.
  • Code churn. This metric refers to the frequency with which code is modified. A high rate of code churn, where portions of the code are continually rewritten or modified, suggests that the software carries technical debt.
  • Time-to-market. As technical debt accumulates, new features take longer to implement as developers must navigate and manage a more complex codebase. A growing time-to-market for new features might indicate an increasing technical debt.

Remember: completely eliminating technical debt is often impractical and unnecessary. Debt speeds development. Your goal should be to manage it effectively and balance handling existing debt and delivering new features.

Real-life examples of destructive tech debt

Here are some real-life examples of companies that faced challenges (and obliteration) due to ineffectively managing their technical debt:

  • Myspace: Myspace faced significant technical debt issues as it struggled to keep up with the rapidly evolving social media landscape. The platform’s architecture didn’t scale efficiently, leading to slow performance and poor user experiences. Users started migrating to other platforms like Facebook, contributing to Myspace’s decline.
  • Nokia: Blackberry, known for its early success in the smartphone market, encountered tech debt issues when it failed to adapt its operating system and hardware to compete with newer smartphone platforms. The company’s outdated software architecture and limited app ecosystem made it less attractive, leading to a decline in market share.
  • Boeing 737 Max: The Boeing 737 MAX aircraft met severe technical debt issues related to its MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) software. The system was designed to address stability concerns with the new aircraft, but insufficient testing and documentation led to two fatal crashes. This led to the global grounding of the plane and substantial reputational damage to Boeing—not to mention the loss of 346 lives.
  • Adobe Flash: Adobe Flash confronted challenges as it became increasingly susceptible to security vulnerabilities and performance issues. With the rise of HTML5 and modern web standards, Flash lost its relevance, leading Adobe to announce its end-of-life and discontinuation by the end of 2020.

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