The Importance of Keeping on Top of Technical Debt
The Importance of Keeping on Top of Technical Debt
Technical debt makes life easy for a moment, but slows down development and innovation later. See why it's so important to keep tech debt under control.
Join the DZone community and get the full member experience.Join For Free
Today, we live in a highly digitized world where it’s all about innovation, never-ending build cycles, deployment, and rapid releases. This approach is important for businesses because it’s the only way to maintain high quality and business continuity.
The race to finish line, however, is often plagued with mistakes that result from taking too many shortcuts. Research and development concepts like technical reviews and technical designs are also often brushed aside, and this leads to massive codebases that are usually held together with band-aids.
The term technical debt was first coined way back in 1992 by computer scientist Ward Cunningham. He came up with the term to describe the deferred costs of making sub-optimal design decisions to deliver software and applications quickly.
This practice leads to the increase of costly corrective maintenance in future releases that can also slow down the development speed of technological innovations like adding new functionality (which represents an opportunity cost).
It’s a popular metaphor as it helps IT departments express the cost of application quality in financial terms. It also helps them calculate operational risk in a manner that can be easily understood by business leaders.
The most common characteristics of technical debt are inefficient code, non-scalable code, and redundant code.
How Can Technical Debt Hurt Your Business?
When code becomes overly complex, it will demand more developer time to understand and address it. If you’re working with a small development team, this process can quickly become overwhelming and impact your bottom line.
According to research, the cost of managing code debt in large software enterprises can by as much as 25% of the whole development time. You will also incur additional expenses as complex software with unnecessary code will require extensive testing (to eliminate unintended side-effects).
Sometimes, when developers try to simplify overly complex code, they also run the risk of adding more defects. As a result, code debt can quickly lead to applications becoming unscalable to meet business goals.
When developers take too long to release new functionality, it can also make your business less competitive. Finally, when the quality of the code is weak, not only do you do risk performance and reliability, but also risk opening the doors to a significant security breach.
Whenever that happens in the digital age, it can have a massive impact on your brand reputation and value. If you’re conducting business in a highly competitive environment, technical debt can rapidly make your business irrelevant.
So it’s critical for enterprises to actively “pay it back” and find ways of reducing technical debt during each iteration. This means that minimizing code debt will require a cultural shift not only within software teams but the organization as a whole.
While eliminating code debt will be near impossible, a robust plan to pay it back quickly can be the difference that makes the overall product and business a success.
As a product owner/manager, you’ll have to ask yourself the following questions:
Do we need to fix this application or replace it?
Which applications will demand the most remediation resources?
What are the potential maintenance costs?
How much will it cost to reduce the operational risk of mission-critical applications?
What can we do to improve the speed of delivery of new functionality while paying off our technical debt?
How do we enhance scalability?
How Do You Manage Technical Debt?
As a rule, don’t blindly go into debt. Instead, make sure that technical debt is always a conscious decision that can be managed efficiently. Staying on top of code debt and managing it comes down to people, processes, and technology.
Going forward, it will be critical to foster a culture of responsibility and accountability across departments (namely, product, development, and IT teams). It will also be essential to develop the organizational awareness that addresses why you’re in technical debt, where it exists, and how it’s going to be paid back.
It should also become a standard process to immediately add all incomplete tasks to the backlog. These tasks can be anything from automation to documentation. By making these processes highly visible, your team will be able to prioritize and complete these tasks in a disciplined manner.
Although automating all application lifecycle management processes end-to-end can make a significant difference, it doesn’t mean that you can buy new tools and just drop them in the development pipeline.
This is because programmers tend to blame their tools rather than address the deficiencies in the development process. The best way to respond to this is to consistently reinforce best practices using agile principles to enhance your chances of improving first-time quality and reduce the regression rate.
However, technology does have a role in paying back technical debt. In fact, it will help to leverage technology and implement tools that can enhance visibility and control to effectively manage code debt. These tools can take the form of reporting systems that highlight code coverage, test coverage, and technical debt-related tasks.
While elevating their coding and testing skills, DevOps teams should also be encouraged to improve communication within the group. One way to do this is to develop a component architecture that’s enabled to deploy multiple components.
To actively reduce technical debt during the development cycle, it will also help if companies invested in regular activities like two-day hackathons. This approach can do wonders for team morale, product maintainability, and stability as you’ll be giving everyone time to reduce code debt without unnecessary pressure.
To have a better chance of reducing and eliminating technical debt, this practice must be enforced through executive policy. This is because the demand to for adding new functionality will always trump the need to remediate the codebase.
One way to do this is to make removing technical debt a part of the stories in each sprint or release. On the other hand, you can also make it a regularly scheduled remediation release. When you don’t do this, code debt will add up with each release, accelerating the product’s decline into legacy code.
While technical debt is a natural part of the development process, if ignored, it will ultimately go against your business goals. As a result, effectively managing technical debt should be at the core of IT compliance and governance.
How does your organization stay on top of technical debt? Please share your thoughts and experience in the comments section below.
Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.