Technical debt is an everyday concept in software development. But how your team addresses and manages each type of tech debt, determines how it will affect your software product’s outcome.
While some technical debt are intentional, other types are entirely avoidable. Is your development team making the necessary steps to identify, monitor, and manage your technical debt?
This article focuses on the definition of technical debt, the different types, causes, consequences, technical debt in agile, and technical debt examples. Check it out and have all the necessary knowledge on how to avoid technical obligations.
What is Technical Debt?
Technical debt is a concept in software development that reflects, the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing an easy(limited) solution instead of using a better approach that would take longer.
As with monetary debt, if technical debt isn’t repaid, it can accumulate interest making it harder to implement the charges. Unaddressed technical debt is not necessarily a bad thing, and sometimes proof of concept is required to move projects forward.
Technical debt tends to minimize the impact, which results in insufficient prioritization of the necessary work to correct it. Technical debt is not all-encompassing. An important distinction is that technical debt does not include any features or functions you intentionally didn’t build.
Instead, when IT chooses to delay better coding and building internal pieces, the debt should be there for various reasons. While technical debt can refer to any part of software development, it is commonly associated with extreme programming, particularly code refactoring. Refactoring is the restructuring of existing code as part of the development process without changing its external behavior code whose modules are named weirdly.
Technical Debt Definition
Technical debt, also known as tech debt or code debt, describes the results after a development team, takes action to expedite the delivery of a piece of functionality, or a project which later needs to be refactored. In simple terms, it’s the result of prioritizing speedy delivery over perfect code.
Technical debt is a catchall that covers everything from bugs to legacy code to missing documentation. The technical debt concept is that the “debt” represents the extra development work that arises when mediocre code is implemented in the short run, despite it not being the best quality overall solution.
Technical Debt in Agile and Scrum
Agile relies on reducing the scope of a release to ensure quality work instead of promoting many functions in a release. There is a technical debt that is passively created, when the scrum team learns more about the problem it is trying to solve.
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According to the scrum guide:
- The product owner is responsible for maximizing the value and work of the development team
- The product backlog represents the only asset of requirements, the development team will work on and shall comprise of everything the product required to be available
- During sprint planning, the product owner discusses the product backlog items suitable to achieve the sprint goal
A company can prevent technical debt in agile by:
- spreading awareness-the more developers and clients are aware of the effect of technical debt, the higher priority it can take
- following acceptable architectural coding practices
- maintaining a high percentage of code coverage
- using issue trackers to stay organized
Given that solving a problem in a complex environment always creates new insight and learnings along the way. That will make past decisions look ill-informed, creating a technical debt is inevitable. Handling technical debt therefore requires a tradeoff.
The long-term goal of achieving technical agility cannot be reached as a feature factory churning out new features. At the same time, an application in a perfect technical condition without customers is of no value either.
Consequently, dealing with technical debt in scrum is a responsibility for the Scrum team as a whole and, as such, an excellent example of scrum inbuilt in checks and balances.
Types of Technical Debt
While categorizing technical debt won’t magically make it easy to handle. It can enable more productive conversation and strengthen the team-teach debt will, and should always exist in systems.
It’s vital that you try to understand how the technical debt is slowing down your team. Then balance efforts of delivering features in the short term with increasing overall productivity in the mid-long term.
The three main types of technical debt include:
- Deliberate technical debt
In engineers’ case, they know there’s the right way to do something and the quick way to do it. However, at times, a team intentionally does something the wrong way because they need to quickly deliver products to the market. Hence technical debt.
- Accidental /outdated design tech debt
When designing a software system, a team tries to balance thinking ahead and future-proofing their design with simplicity and delivery. As the system evolves and requirements change, they might realize that their strategy is flawed or that the new functionality has become difficult and slow to implement.
- Bit rot technical debt
Bit rot tech debt happens overtime. A component or system slowly devolves into unnecessary complexity through many incremental changes, often when worked upon by several people who might not fully understand the original design.
Causes of Technical Debt
Technical debt fundamentally occurs when software design and implementation decisions collide with business goals and deeds.
Moreover, according to Scott Ambler, VP and chief scientist of discipline agile at project management institute, “the technical debt occurs when IT teams needs to forgo certain development work. This includes writing clean code, writing concise documentation and building clean data resources.”
“Technical debt is inevitable and can sometimes make sound business sense, such as when speed to market is critical, and the resources are limited or information is incomplete,” says Scott Ambler
Additionally, technical debts may be caused by:
- Time pressures
- Overly complex technical design
- Poor alignment to standards
- Lack of skills
- Suboptimal code
- Delayed refactoring
- Insufficient testing
Over time, these factors result in the accumulation of technical inefficiencies that need to be serviced in the future. Unchecked technical debt may make the software more expensive to change than to re-implement.
Consequences of Technical Debt
A technical debt that is ignored by any organization may incur problems to the organization such as:
- Reduced forward motion
When a technical debt gets out of control and developments. The teams spend most of their time paying off the “interest payment” from the first project. Instead of working on new features or critical new updates. The technical debt must eventually be paid, which comes at the cost of adding new features or working on other updates that move the product forward. Progress becomes stagnant.
- Poorly designed code
In taking the quick and dirty route to reach the deadline, developers could skip the traditional protocol of writing clean, organized code. Thus, the code structure would be messy and with potentially low readability – the technical debt. Associated with poor design can be a backlog of items related to cleaning up the code.
- Volatile performance
The technical debt related to a product displaying volatile performance. Is related to fixing bugs, system crashes, and engineering bandwidth. Bugs in the coding mode might surface after releasing a fast production, thus incurring technical debt to fix them.
- Drained productivity
Technical debt drains a company’s productivity leading to slower outputs. Poorly designed code requires more of the team’s time and effort to manage it. Technical debt leads to the team slowing their build times, and a slowing of the overall production test release cycle.
- Testing strain
With an impending launch deadline, the QA code testing team is forced to speed up their process. They may possibly miss tests or swear to take them later. A technical debt is incurred to go back and carry out the skipped tests eventually.
Incurring technical debt may sometimes be the optimal decision. Too much technical debt can reduce a team’s agility, produce low-quality code, strain your testing team and eventually reduce a company’s overall productivity. Think of technical debt as a tool with the power to make or break the product release cycle, understand it, use it, and manage it with a long-term view.
Managing Technical Debt
Just as a smart financial debt can help a company reach major life goals faster, not all technical debt is bad. Managing it well can yield tremendous benefit for a company. This is particularly true for rapidly growing companies. Who have a critical need to ship products early and often to determine product/market fit, meet customer needs, and seize emerging opportunities?
But just like financial debt, you have to be wise about incurring tech debts. Over the long term, accumulated debt can slow a company’s shipping speeds, cause developer moral issues, or even sink a business entirely. Below are the different technical debts and how to manage them
- Deliberate technical debt
An organization can manage deliberate technical debt by tracking this type of debt in the backlog. When deliberately deferring work that needs to be completed. If an organization can’t follow it precisely, it’s unlikely to be repaid and will turn into accidental design debt overtime.
This kind of debt is incurred from business decisions. Therefore, stakeholders and product owners should be held accountable for the accrual.
- Accidental /outdated design tech debt
How to significantly refactor a system is a huge task. But, naturally, this needs to happen now and then (every other year or so when the system is in a steady-state). Otherwise, a company might over-engineer the system in the first place and incur unnecessary slowdowns all along.
Teams/tech leads and product owners should be accountable for ensuring time is set aside to resolve this type of tech debt incurred by design decisions and frequently changing requirements.
- Bit rot technical debt
Bit rot technical debt is perhaps the only tech debt that a company should try to avoid at all costs. According to Dag’s team, “strong teams take time to understand the design of a system they are working on (even if they didn’t design it initially). Incrementally improve the design and clean up wrong code along the way. The development team should be accountable for avoiding bit rot tech debt as individual developers incur it.”
Technical Debt Examples
There are a wide range of technical debt depending on an organization. Below are examples of technical debt categorized by where they appear.
- Technical debt in the code itself
Sometimes a project developer may write a modular code, code whose modules aren’t cohesive, code whose modules are named weirdly and not according to what they are supposed to do.
Nonetheless, the developer may write ugly code, or with long methods, and lots of temp variables.
- Technical debt in documentation
One of the most significant sources of technical debt is insufficient or out-of-date documentation. Usually, technical debt in the documentation comes from coders merely moving too fast and taking shortcuts.
Ideally, developers document why they made their choices and what they intended when they made them, or why they grouped their entities into modules, etc. It’s also a best practice for developers to update documentation as they refactor and add to their code.
- Changing system design without changing the organization structure
Engineering teams are constrained to designing systems that copy the communication structure of their organization. Hence changing the design of the system without also changing the organization structure leads to a technical debt.
- Too few or too many automated tests
Not having enough test coverage is a classic problem. Complex code is hard to change or refactor, and issues are tougher to identify, and fix without automated test coverage up from the integration level. The code becomes resistant to change hence technical debt.
However, having too many fragile tests that break on every change and require more maintenance than the application code itself is a form of technical debt.
- Outgrowing database models
Growth means more entropy in the codebase, which in turn implies more technical debt. It is harrowing, as the rest of the system often relies on the model’s structure. Changing the foundation of the database model has a ripple effect across the entire system, and tackling this is rarely just about refactoring models.
Technical debt can be avoided or minimized by not taking shortcuts, using simple designs, and refactoring continuously. When there’s technical debt, the team should make the items visible by registering entries in the product releases backlog, where the matters will be evaluated and prioritized for resolution.