Technical Debt – A Heavy Cross to Bear?
What is technical debt? Also known as tech debt or code debt in software development, it is the outcome of preferring expediting delivery above flawless code quality to ensure a faster short-term solution with long-term consequences. So what’s the catch? It accrues interest in the form of more work required to solve future development challenges (similar to financial debt).
In the financial realm, a loan can be used to pay for something to return it with interest. Similarly, taking on technical debt might provide a corporation with a short-term advantage such as a quicker product time-to-market.
Problems arise when there is no acknowledgment, understanding, and no goal of repaying it in the future. So, any custom software development project will require more effort into code maintenance, software architecture, and software maintenance - a bit too much. But there’s a way around it with Agile methodology, code refactoring, and more due to its core focus on quality.
Conversely, it can be efficiently handled if it is acknowledged and accepted consciously. It is mandatory to understand the concept of technical debt and how to prepare for it. So, let’s take it one step at a time with technical debt in this piece and learn how to strategize it for efficient project management.
Technical Debt - Definition
Technical debt is a phrase used in software development that has gained popularity as a research topic in recent years. The term is not new and has existed since the beginning.
Since its original formulation by Ward Cunninghman, its meaning has changed slightly in project management. It is defined differently and referred to in isolated analogies and metaphors.
Technical debt refers to labor that is "owed" to an IT system. It is inevitable, and an adverse effect of software engineering that brings up major development challenges.
Teams "borrow" from quality by making compromises, adopting shortcuts, or employing workarounds to achieve deadlines for delivery. These compromises eventually force the software to stray from its intended nonfunctional criteria, which can have a long-term detrimental effect on the system's performance, scalability, resilience, and other features. When teams fail to execute regular system and code maintenance, they accrue technical debt. It can eventually reach an untenable magnitude, causing software architecture instability and consumer discontent. Delays in software maintenance can also lead to much greater support expenses when the program or its infrastructure hits expiration.
Instances That Highlight Technical Debt
Now this is the inception point of technical debt you should acutely pay attention to. Its common instance would be in the commercial side of software development, especially for products still in development and aren't quite ready yet. And there's massive pressure to get it out there. Due to time constraints, it is possible to incur technical debt by deciding to deploy a product without completing its entire testing cycle with a lack of software quality assurance using Agile methodology. This risk is a constant in commercial software development.
The long-term effects you might encounter are as follows:
- repair costs of problems that occur in the field
- additional work required (the ‘interest’) to remedy quality issues with a shipped product
- more development and project management challenges in the form of code maintenance, software architecture, software maintenance, and more.
- repayment becomes unmanageable and unsustainable
This causes a potential backfire where you would be majorly challenged in balancing other software projects and their requirements. So, you don’t want that kind of catch by being unaware of it and choosing to disregard it. It is never pretty.
The Many Forms of Tech Debt
Technical debt continues to have a growing influence on software businesses, and it's essential to understand how to handle it effectively.
So, understanding technical debt is important. Simply knowing what it is allows you to begin altering your perspective and making decisions that consider the consequences of amassing technical debt. You can use the below explanation by Martin Fowler, an acclaimed software development author and speaker, to classify your technical debt:
Prudent and Deliberate: The team understands that they are stacking up interests. Yet, they prefer to ship and deal with any repercussions after that. This choice is permissible if the stakes are low enough or the benefit for an early release exceeds the expenses of technical debt.
Reckless and Deliberate: The team may be aware of the risks and take precautions to prevent them, yet it continues to value speed over quality.
Prudent and Inadvertent: Following the implementation, the team discovers how the solution may have been implemented better.
Reckless and Inadvertent: The team lacks experience and blindly adopts the solution. Everyone is unaware that they are creating a huge disaster.
Technical debt may take many different shapes. Let's go over the common categories encountered by most software companies.
Requirements: The difference between what was recorded as product requirements and what was actually executed.
Versioning: Issues that occur from not employing a clear versioning system or having a disorganized repository.
Build: Issues in the development process that make it sophisticated or difficult.
Test: Any testing shortcuts or a lack thereof.
Defect: Any software defects or failures identified.
Design: Technical shortcuts used throughout the design phase.
Architectural: Decisions that jeopardize quality and maintainability.
Documentation: Refers to project documentation that is outdated, incomplete, or lacking code base comments.
Code: Refers to code that is poorly written and does not adhere to standard coding principles.
Infrastructure: Using suboptimal tools, technologies, or configurations for the software solution.
And this is how you can go about reducing technical debt:
- Identify debt warning signs, calculate the amount of time required to pay it off, and devise a strategy
- Establish coding standards and schedule payoff periods
- Set priorities for your tasks
- Exercise code refactoring, code maintenance, and writing automated tests
Branching the codebase may be beneficial in certain scenarios
- For the future, cultivate a culture of code reviews and automated testing
The Benefit of Agile Methodology in Tech Debt
Technical debt is frequently mentioned in conjunction with the Agile methodology. The proper implementation of the same is one of the most important means to successfully handle it.
Agile can assist with backlogs - a list of tasks to be finished by a software team.
Maintaining a backlog allows management to schedule tasks that address technical debt. Backlogs might contain tasks that contribute to mitigating technical debt, such as scheduling time for code restructuring or enhancing test coverage.
Incorporating a suitable management strategy into software development teams can be a highly efficient way to address technical debt over time.
Strategies to Tackle Tech Debt
1. Establish coding Standards
Set processes and schedules in motion to avoid accumulating technical debt. Schedule pay-off times to minimize debt by allocating days or hours when the team is cleaning up. Instead of attempting to pay off the entire debt at once, it is common practice to pay it off in installments.
2. Implement Code/Design/Test Reviews
Testing and code reviews are another method for dealing with technical debt. A code review culture is just as important to the software development process as testing. Regardless of how often or how rigorously you test, an independent fresh look can help you uncover overlooked typos, errors, edge cases, and so on.
3. Leverage Automated Testing
Automated testing plays an important role in this process. All engineers believe this is the most effective technique to avoid bugs. Automated testing is essentially a collection of separate tests written as automated scripts to double-check the code and validate the overall system.
4. Code Refactoring
Writing a few lines of code here and there to correct a bug or introduce an unanticipated feature is a typical practice. It then accumulates, causing your codebase to become chaotic and you will ultimately have to rewrite the code to make it more orderly.
Code refactoring is the only approach to decrease technical debt. It can help speed things up, but like with any large piece of code, there is always a time and place for refactoring; the trick is to do it well.
Moment of Truth
Technical debt, when not handled wisely, can raise development costs. It can lead to a decline in customers and an increased vulnerability to hackers. However, you can start lowering it right away and safeguard your products for the future when you partner with an acclaimed, Agile-practicing custom software development company.