What Is Technical Debt in Software Development and How to Manage It?

0 13 min read Business Process Optimization, Mobile App Development, Project Takeover


Tech & Business

Software development is a constantly evolving field. It demands developers to stay in touch with the latest trends and updates. And in software development processes, technical debt is the elephant in the room that nobody is willing to talk about.

Technical debt is the cost required to refactor the code that didn’t meet the desired standard due to constraints.

Managing technical debt is a vital process in software development — because the consequences of technical debt can be significant, especially if you’re running an SME or a startup.

However, it’s almost inevitable for software development companies to have technical debt. And if left unmanaged, this type of debt can lead to issues like poor system performance, lost revenue, customer dissatisfaction, and reputational damage.

In this article, we’ll discuss the definition, causes, and effects of technical debt, the types of technical debt that developers face, and how to manage it. Let’s begin.

What Is Technical Debt?

Software development is a detailed and complicated process requiring several steps. Sometimes, the budget or time assigned for software development is insufficient, so things are often done quickly using shortcuts. This might work for the short term, but it will eventually lead to complications in terms of the additional cost.

These costs are called technical debts. And just like financial debt, this debt can build up over time. And if not managed properly, it can become a burden on the software development team.

So, technical debt should be monitored continuously. In fact, managing technical debt should be a key part of product management and software development. But how can you manage it?

How to Measure Technical Debt?

Measuring technical debt is an essential part of managing it. You have to identify and measure the technical debt first and then effectively reduce it. Here’s how you can measure it:

1. Using Code Analysis Tools

Code analysis tools analyze the codebase and identify the problematic areas, such as code smells, duplicated code, and potential security flaws. These tools help understand how much code needs refactoring and how much technical debt will result. It can also guide your development teams to the blocks of code that require improvement.

technical debt code analysis sonarqube

There are many code analysis tools available on the market, such as:

These tools provide developers with an honest assessment of the quality of their code, which can help them identify areas of technical debt they might have missed before.

2. Conducting User Surveys

Another way to measure technical debt is through surveys and feedback from users. By asking users about their experiences with the software, development teams can better understand areas that may require improvement.

For example, if the users complain about the system lagging, this might indicate inefficient algorithm use.

3. Keeping a Balance Sheet

Expert opinion also plays a vital role in measuring technical debt. According to Martin Fowler, a renowned software developer and author, technical debt can be measured by looking at the time required to implement a feature or fix a bug compared to the time it would take to implement or fix it with high-quality code. This difference in time is the cost of the technical debt.

Fowler also recommends using a metaphorical “balance sheet” to track technical debt. This balance sheet would list the technical debt in the codebase and the estimated cost of addressing it.

By keeping track of technical debt in this way, development teams can prioritize areas for improvement and track their progress in reducing technical debt over time.

4. Tracking Time Spent on Fixing Issues and Writing Code

Another expert in the field, Steve McConnell, suggests measuring technical debt by calculating the hours required to fix all known issues in the codebase. This can be matched with how long it would take to build the same software but with high-quality code.

technical debt time tracking

The difference between these two figures indicates technical debt present in the codebase.

Causes of Technical Debt

There are several causes of technical debt. Some of them are mentioned below:

1. Unclear Project Goals and Objectives

An unclear understanding of the goals and objectives of a software development process can lead to technical debt. When development teams are not adequately briefed about the goals of a project, they make assumptions to fill in the gaps, which leads to inefficient results.

For example, if the team is unclear on a particular app’s number of users, they won’t make it scalable, eventually resulting in technical debt.

2. Miscommunication Among Development Teams

technical debt miscommunication

Software development is a joint effort of different teams, such as product designers, software architects, software developers, software testing engineers, and test automation engineers.

Sometimes, team communication and collaboration can break down, leading to technical debt. For example, if the development team doesn’t convey the exact functionality of the code to the testing team, it might result in bugs and security vulnerabilities.

3. Outdated and Inefficient Technologies

When development teams use outdated technologies or tools, it can lead to technical debt over time.

For instance, if your development team is using a programming language that is outdated and doesn’t have helping material available, it may become difficult to maintain and update the software over time.

Similarly, suppose a software development team starts working with a slow, outdated server to run their website and experiences slow page loading times. They can implement a caching system as a quick fix in that case. This can lead to technical debt as the caching system needs to be maintained and updated, adding to the overall cost of the website.

4. Complex Software Systems

According to research by CAST Software, technical debt can also be caused by the software’s complexity.

If a software system becomes complex, it will also become challenging to maintain and update, leading to technical debt. This is observed in systems originally developed long ago and have gone through many updates since.

5. Poor Documentation

technical debt poor documentation

Poor documentation can lead to technical debt by making it difficult for developers to understand how the software is designed and how it works. As a result, there may be workarounds and hasty fixes that lead to technical debt and are wasteful or ineffective.

Additionally, since new developers could find it difficult to comprehend the existing coding, insufficient software documentation might make it challenging to maintain and improve the software over time.

6. Lack of Testing and Quality Assurance

Lack of testing and quality assurance can lead to technical debt by allowing defects to go undetected during development. This could lead to the release of software that has defects, which would require additional effort from the development team to rectify.

And as the developer team must invest more time and resources in maintaining and updating the software, these problems may compound over time and result in the building of technical debt.

Plus, deploying substandard, challenging-to-maintain software might also result from a lack of testing and quality assurance, causing technical debt.

7. Using Third-party Libraries and Components

Using third-party libraries and components can lead to technical debt by introducing dependencies that may not be updated regularly. If a library or component isn’t updated, it can lead to maintenance and security issues in the software that relies on it.

Plus, third-party libraries may have different licensing terms that can restrict the use or distribution of the software. This can create challenges for the development team, who may need additional time and resources to replace or update the libraries or components, adding to the overall technical debt.

Types of Technical Debt

We have already established that technical debt is an unavoidable reality. However, not all technical debt is created equal. There are different types of technical debt, and each has its own characteristics and effects.

Let’s take a look at common types of technical debt:

1. Martin Fowler’s Technical Debt Quadrant

technical debt martin fowler quadrant

Martin Fowler is a renowned software engineer and author. He gave the most well-known framework for classifying technical debt by dividing it into four categories:

  • Deliberate – It’s incurred intentionally because sometimes you need to prioritize speed or cost savings over quality. For instance, a company might choose to release a product to meet a tight deadline, knowing it has bugs.
  • Inadvertent – It’s incurred unintentionally, often due to poor coding practices or lack of expertise. For example, a developer might have to use a programming language they aren’t proficient in, resulting in difficult-to-understand code.
  • Prudent – It’s incurred intentionally but for a valid reason. For instance, due to certain circumstances, the development team might use outdated technology that is properly developed and tested, even though newer technologies are available.
  • Reckless – It’s incurred unintentionally but as a result of reckless or negligent behavior. For example, if a developer copies and pastes a piece of code from previous projects, it’ll cause bugs and might not even give the desired results.

2. Intentional Technical Debt

Intentional technical debt is incurred when development teams knowingly make trade-offs between speed and quality, such as when they time-to-market the product over code quality or to meet a specified budget.

For example, a development team might use a third-party library they know isn’t well-documented, saving them time in the short term when developing an application.

3. Unintentional Technical Debt

Unintentional technical debt is incurred when development teams make mistakes or oversights, leading to poor code quality. As the name indicates, this technical debt can result from a lack of experience or expertise, inadequate training, or poor communication within the development team.

For example, a developer might not have the skill set to use a particular programming language, creating code that’s difficult to maintain.

4. Environmental Technical Debt

Environmental technical debt mostly occurs in large organizations that have been working on software for too long, and it has become difficult to replace it, or they lack funding to upgrade hardware and software.

For example, a development team might be forced to work with an outdated version of a programming language that’s no longer supported, leading to the creation of code that’s difficult to maintain.

So, by prioritizing technical debt reduction, development teams can improve software quality and reduce the long-term costs of maintaining and updating code.

How to Manage Technical Debt

technical debt management

Managing technical debt is a critical part of software development. You have to make sure that your technical debt hasn’t been piled up to the point where it’s becoming challenging to manage. Here are some ways to manage it:

1. Prioritize Technical Debt Reduction

Development teams should regularly review their code to identify areas of technical debt and prioritize it alongside other development work. This method will most likely help development teams improve the quality of their software and reduce the long-term costs of maintaining and updating code.

For example, If a software program contains security flaws, fixing them initially would be of utmost importance. The development team can lower total technical debt and make the product simpler to maintain and upgrade over time by tackling the most critical issues first.

And to keep the program manageable and effective, preventing technical debt from building further by making it a top priority is crucial.

2. Track Technical Debt

Keeping track of technical debt using tools like SonarQube or CAST can help development teams understand how much debt they have, where it is located, and how it affects their software.

Debt management tools can also provide insights into the code’s quality and help developers identify and mitigate areas where technical debt accumulates.

3. Automate Testing

Automated testing can help development teams identify technical debt and prevent it from accumulating. Teams can use automated testing tools like JUnit, Selenium, and Appium to identify bugs, errors, and other issues in their code.

By catching these issues early on, they can prevent them from becoming larger and more expensive to solve debt problems.

4. Use Code Quality Metrics

Code quality metrics can help development teams identify areas of technical debt and prioritize them for reduction.

Metrics like code coverage, cyclomatic complexity, and maintainability index can provide insight into the quality of code and help teams identify areas where technical debt is accumulating, allowing them to implement policies to reduce it.

5. Use Agile Development Methodologies

business process optimization method kanban

Agile methodologies like Scrum and Kanban can help development teams manage technical debt effectively because they emphasize collaboration, continuous improvement, and rapid iteration.

Using Kanban is beneficial for managing technical debt more promptly because development teams can focus on technical debt reduction alongside other development work. If technical debt somehow accumulates, they have testing and code quality metrics that help manage it.

For example, Facebook manages its technical debt in a very clever way. They have a program called “hack-a-month.” During this program, all the employees are given time to reduce technical debt from their codebase. This technique allows the development team to manage the technical debt efficiently and without any pressure of meeting deadlines, etc.

Strategies for Getting Out of Technical Debt

technical debt strategies

If your company’s technical debt has already piled up, here are some strategies to get you out of it:

1. Prioritize and Categorize Technical Debt

Remember: you can’t think of all technical debt as similar. That’s why it’s important to prioritize and categorize technical debt to manage it effectively.

One approach is to use Martin Fowler’s Technical Debt Quadrant (talked about above) to categorize technical debt into deliberate, inadvertent, prudent, and reckless categories. Once the technical debt has been categorized, it can be prioritized based on its impact on the software and the company.

2. Create a Plan to Pay Down Technical Debt

Planning to pay down the technical debt is an extremely significant step. The plan should include the timelines, goals, and resources the team might need to reduce the technical debt.

As technical debt management involves updating the codebase, it should involve all the parties involved in the software development process, such as the business leaders, stakeholders, project planners, designers, and developers.

3. Focus on Code Quality

Maintaining a good quality code is one of the proactive approaches to having a low technical debt in the long run. The code should be highly readable and have a proper flow of factors.

This practice reduces the chance of having technical debt in the future.

4. Refactor Legacy Code

Legacy code refers to a certain technology or software a company has used for a long time. Technologies develop rapidly; refactoring these codes can significantly reduce complexities, improve output quality, and eventually reduce technical debt. Refactoring the legacy code might require extra time and resources, but it’ll save considerable time and resources in the long run.

Let’s look at a real-world example where refactoring code led to improved performance.

The online retailer Etsy had a legacy codebase causing significant technical debt. The codebase was over ten years old. It was written in an obsolete programming language. As a result, it took more work to maintain and slowed the development of new features.

To address this issue, Etsy began a massive refactoring effort, breaking up large monolithic functions into smaller, more modular ones, removing duplicate code, and introducing modern programming practices like continuous integration and deployment.

The result was a more maintainable and reliable codebase, which made it easier for Etsy’s developers to implement new features and respond to customer needs. The refactoring effort also led to significant improvements in site performance, which improved the overall user experience.

5. Use Automation to Reduce Manual Work

Technical debt can be reduced a lot by automating manual tasks. If tasks such as testing and deployment are being implemented manually, they can become one of the greatest causes of technical debt accumulation.

Automation of tasks will ensure that code quality improves and guarantee a major technical debt reduction.

For instance, Goldman Sachs had technical debt due to manual processes in their bond trading platform. They implemented an automated system that extracted trade details from electronic communications to reduce the risk of errors and streamline their trading process.

This helped them improve efficiency, reduce operational risk, and get out of technical debt, allowing them to remain competitive in the financial services industry.

6. Involve Business Leaders in Technical Debt Management

Technical debt isn’t just a technical problem; it’s also a business problem. However, all the stakeholders and business leaders must be involved in technical debt management to understand the risks and trade-offs involved.

This includes understanding certain concepts like the cost of technical debt reduction in terms of lost revenue, decreased customer satisfaction, and increased support costs.

7. Continuously Monitor and Address Technical Debt

Technical debt doesn’t arise overnight. It forms continuously over time. Therefore, it should be regularly monitored. Codebase should be reviewed continuously, and the parts that can give rise to technical debt should be identified.

This also includes regularly analyzing the technical debt reduction plan and changing it as necessary. Amazon implements this strategy, and it enables them to maintain their technical debt by keeping their codebase efficient and error-free.

The Takeaway

Technical debt is the most common problem in every software development company. It affects the security and functionality of software solutions. But if the appropriate strategy is used, technical debt can be reduced to a negligible value.

It should be properly identified and prioritized first. After this, a suitable strategy should be laid out by the development team that gradually pays off the technical debt in a way that the areas that have the most impact on product quality, performance, and security are managed first.

Effective communication and collaboration is the key to managing technical debt. The identification and prioritization of the debt management as well as the reduction plan should be made after collaborating with each team so that each team has given their input and knows what is to be done now.

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