Debt and interest compounding can be significant pain points for IT teams regarding software development. Rushing software development is a common cause of Tech Debt, but it is not the only one. For example, the Stack Overflow careers login page required an update in design, but the redesign process needed to be simplified due to technical debt. The login page was composed of two separate apps, StackOverflow careers and CareersAuth, poorly integrated. In its early days, StackOverflow decided to build its OpenID app, CareersAuth, instead of relying on an external provider.
However, this resulted in split architecture, which caused issues when users created an account or changed their password on the StackOverflow careers page. To reduce technical debt, the best approach was to decommission CareersAuth and reframe the architecture. Identifying the causes of technical debt and devising a plan to address it is crucial. A comprehensive guide can help manage Tech Debt effectively.
What Is Tech Debt?
Technical debt, a metaphor coined by Ward Cunningham, refers to “cruft”, according to Martin Fowler. Cruft refers to program elements, systems, or products that are either useless or poorly designed, ultimately reducing the return on investment. In the software development process, complex tasks are inevitable, but when these tasks become cruft, they require more time, effort, and resources to make necessary changes, resulting in inefficiency.
Top 5 Causes Of Tech Debt
Technical debt often arises when organisations make design decisions based on deadlines rather than performance. The pressure to speed up the development process leads to changes in the future, ultimately costing more than what was initially invested. However, there are other reasons for technical debt than rushing the development process. Here are some common causes:
Budget Constraints: Organisations may reduce costs and expedite development to increase return on investment. However, this approach often leads to the opposite outcome. Initially, using minimal resources, technologies, and development time may save money, but it costs more to make changes in the long run. Research also shows that refactoring costs are closely related to architecture smells (design decisions that negatively impact flexibility, testability, and reusability).
Technology Evolution: The constantly evolving technology landscape can also contribute to technical debt. For example, the containerisation approach has become popular, and organisations using virtual machines may consider or migrate to containers. However, this requires careful consideration, as some technologies become obsolete, resulting in technical debt. For example, government advisory may require using newer security protocols and requiring companies to update older versions, leading to technical debt.
Skill Gap and Developer Shortage: The rapidly changing technological landscape has led to a shortage of skilled professionals in the market. Companies need help finding a workforce with the right skill sets to bridge the gap between user requirements and technical assistance. This can lead to technical debt, as organisations may need more resources to complete projects. To mitigate this, companies should conduct a skill-based analysis of the project and hire dedicated development teams with a pool of talent.
Lack of Quality Testing: Testing software is essential, but many organisations cut corners for faster time to market or lack QA support. This can compromise software quality and ultimately lead to technical debt. Adopting a DevOps culture ensures that software development and testing are streamlined and efficient.
Insufficient Documentation: Proper documentation of the development, testing, deployment, and maintenance phases are crucial for business continuity. However, many organisations need more comprehensive documentation, leading to technical debt. Automating documentation through a DevOps culture can ensure that each stage is adequately documented for future reference.
Martin Fowler's Debt Quadrant: Reckless/Prudent Vs Deliberate/Inadvertent
In his article on technical debt, Martin Fowler discusses four types of debt, each of which acts as a metaphor. The debt quadrant categorises these debts based on intent and context.
Deliberate and reckless debts: These debts occur when organisations make specific decisions that result in technical debt but prioritise speed over quality. Startups, for example, may prioritise time to market over quality to raise funds or prove their concept.
Deliberate and prudent debts: These are when organisations know that prioritising speed can lead to technical debt but make a conscious decision to proceed after carefully analysing the consequences and creating a plan to minimise risk.
Inadvertent and reckless debts: This type of debt occurs when teams implement a solution without enough knowledge or experience, resulting in technical debt. This can happen when organisations need more skilled professionals and inexperienced developers working on software development.
Inadvertent and prudent debts: This type of debt occurs when developers are knowledgeable and apply best practices in software development but inadvertently cause technical debt due to evolving technologies and techniques. Teams can rectify the mistakes later through learning and innovation to pay off the technical debt.
Types Of Tech Debt
As discussed, technical debt has four types: prudent, reckless, deliberate, and careless. However, a deeper analysis is necessary to implement best practices.
Maintenance debt: This type of debt is long-term debt that accumulates over time due to inefficiencies. Maintenance debt occurs when organisations delay changes, leading to an inflexion point where adding new features becomes difficult. Examples of long-term obligations include obsolescence, incidental complexity, and software entropy.
Developer efficiency debt: Technical debt can negatively impact developers’ efficiency and productivity by taking up a significant amount of their time on debugging, refactoring, and maintenance tasks. Reducing time spent on technical debt is essential to allow developers to focus on innovation.
Stability debt: Technical debt can disrupt software stability, which is crucial for user experience. Measuring the software stability and impact of technical debt is essential. Stability scores can be used to estimate software stability, considering factors such as availability, the time between crashes, and feature responsiveness.
Security debt: Technical debt can also negatively impact software security, making digital assets and services vulnerable to cyberattacks. Organisations with rushed development processes may need more attention to safety, leading to long-term productivity and IT team burden.
Decision debt: This type of debt occurs when an organisation decides the present that negatively impacts the future or when an actionable event is untended. Decision debt is the most significant as it affects all technical obligations.
How To Manage Tech Debt?
Managing technical debt is crucial to avoid disruptions, lower productivity, and increased costs. Here are some best practices for reducing technical debt:
Track your Tech Debt: It’s essential to measure specific metrics to understand the extent of technical debt and how it’s increasing. These metrics include the defect ratio, code quality, technical debt ratio, and cognitive complexity.
Rethink the software development strategy: A software development approach should be tailored to an organisation’s specific needs. Agile development is a promising approach as it allows for small iterations, each integrating feedback from earlier versions, thus reducing the aggregation of technical debt.
Rely on data analytics: Data-driven decision-making is crucial for reducing technical debt. Organisations should record, analyse, and maintain software performance data, log each flaw and bug, document security breaches and code issues, calculate the cost of each fix, and gather data on each disruption in operations.
Leverage automated testing: Automation can help reduce testing time and resources, allowing teams to focus on quality within deadlines. Automation also reduces errors and technical debt.
Refactor the source code: Refactoring the source code can be a big decision for an organisation, but it can help reduce technical debt. It’s essential to consider refactoring when the cost of maintaining the code is greater than the cost of refactoring it.
Prioritise and manage technical debt: Technical debt can accumulate quickly, so it’s essential to prioritise and manage it. Identify the most critical areas causing the most disruption or affecting productivity and focus on resolving those first. Then, work on fixing the rest of the technical debt logically.
Establish a technical debt management process: A transparent process to manage technical debt can help keep it under control. This process should include regular reviews, documentation, and communication.
Continuously monitor and review: Technical debt can change quickly, so it’s essential to monitor and check it constantly. This will help identify new areas of technical debt and ensure that existing debt is effectively managed.
Foster a culture of continuous improvement: Technical debt can be reduced by fostering a culture of constant improvement. Encourage your team to identify and address issues as they arise and provide them with the necessary resources and support.
Keep communication open: Finally, it’s essential to keep communication available between all stakeholders. Managers, developers, and other teams should know the technical debt and the plan to reduce it. It’s essential to communicate the progress, challenges, and technical debt’s impact on the organisation’s overall performance.
Tech Debt In Agile Development
In agile development, the focus on speed and iteration can sometimes lead to the accumulation of technical debt. However, implementing certain practices can help reduce technical debt in an agile environment.
Test-driven development (TDD): Using the “test-first” approach, developers write tests for failure before programming their feature, which helps catch and correct errors early on.
Mob programming: By putting all developers and scrum masters in the same room to work on tasks, code can be reviewed in real-time, reducing the need for back-and-forth approvals.
CI/CD: Continuous integration and continuous delivery allow feedback from each scrum to be integrated into the next iteration, ensuring no delays in delivery and refactoring errors as they arise.
DevOps: Synchronising the development and operations teams through DevOps practices can increase efficiency and productivity, reducing technical debt for developers.
WTA Studios’s approach to managing technical debt involves data analysis, agile development practices, and expert engineering support. By tracking and analysing data on your codebase, WTA Studios can identify areas of technical debt and provide solutions to reduce it. Our agile development approach ensures that technical debt is addressed in small increments, incorporating feedback and improvements in each iteration. Our team of experts offers operational excellence through microservices architecture and enhanced software engineering techniques. Additionally, we provide complete technical debt consulting services to help organisations make informed decisions about managing and reducing technical debt.
Project Manager at WTA Process oriented tech enthusiast with a key eye on project metrics