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Technical Debt

By Dan Collins

Updated: May 3rd, 2024

Reviewed by: Dan Collins

Fact checked by: Megan Saker

What is Technical Debt?

Technical Debt, or Tech Debt, refers to the extra work that needs to be done in the future due to taking shortcuts or compromising on code quality in the present. It occurs when development teams prioritize immediate results at the expense of the long-term effectiveness and maintainability of their code base.

This can result in the accumulation of bad code, legacy systems, outdated systems, and a variety of other issues. It can then hinder software quality and productivity in the long run. It is similar to financial debt, where borrowing money in the present imposes additional costs and obligations in the future.

The true cost of Tech Debt is often realized over time as maintenance costs increase, delivery deadlines become tighter, and the system becomes more difficult to modify or enhance. Inexperienced developers, legacy code, lack of collaboration, and a lack of focus on code quality can all contribute to the accumulation of Technical Debt.

Therefore, it is essential for software development teams to strike a balance between speedy delivery and optimal solutions. This helps to minimize the negative impact of Tech Debt on application performance, development time, and the system’s overall quality.

The definitive collection of prioritization frameworks

What is the origin of Technical Debt?

The concept of “Technical Debt” was first defined by software engineer Ward Cunningham in the 1990s. Cunningham drew an analogy between Technical Debt and financial debt to help explain its impact to his boss at WyCash.

Cunningham described it as a result of making intentional trade-offs in the software development process. Just as taking on monetary debt allows individuals or businesses to acquire necessary resources or meet immediate goals, Tech Debt allows development teams to deliver software within tight timelines or meet urgent business pressures. However, similar to financial debt, technical debt also incurs interest in the form of rework, maintenance, and potential risks.

“With borrowed money, you can do something sooner than you might otherwise, but then until you pay back that money you’ll be paying interest. I thought borrowing money was a good idea, I thought that rushing software out the door to get some experience with it was a good idea, but that of course, you would eventually go back, and as you learned things about that software you would repay that loan by refactoring the program to reflect your experience as you acquired it.”

Ward Cunningham, Debt Metaphor (YouTube 2009)

Over time, the concept has evolved to encompass various operations within software development. It extends beyond just coding and includes all aspects of software creation, such as design, testing, and documentation.

What are the causes of Technical Debt?

Technical Debt can arise from various sources and situations throughout the software development lifecycle. Some common origins of technical debt include:

  • Deadline pressure: When developers are under strict time constraints, they may choose to take shortcuts or employ quick fixes to meet the deadline. These shortcuts can result in suboptimal code that accumulates Tech Debt.
  • Insufficient documentation: Inadequate or outdated documentation can make it challenging for new software developers to understand and maintain the codebase effectively. This lack of understanding can lead to the introduction of Technical Debt during subsequent development.
  • Inexperienced developers: Junior or inexperienced developers may unintentionally introduce technical debt due to limited knowledge of best practices and code quality standards. They may not be aware of the long-term consequences of their choices.
  • Legacy systems: Older systems built on outdated technologies or architectural patterns may have inherent limitations and deficiencies. Working with such systems often involves dealing with technical debt inherited from previous development efforts.
The quadrants of Tech Debt.

What are the Technical Debt Quadrants?

There are four different types of Technical Debt, based on the Technical Debt Quadrant, which is split into the following categories:

  1. Reckless and deliberate debt: This occurs when developers knowingly take shortcuts or make poor decisions without consideration of the long-term consequences. This can be due to time constraints, a lack of awareness, or a disregard for best practices. Addressing this type of debt is crucial as it poses high risks to the codebase and should be a top priority for repayment.
  2. Prudent and deliberate debt: Developers make conscious decisions to take on debt based on specific business goals or deadlines. They understand the trade-offs involved and prioritize short-term gains over long-term concerns. Prudent debt is more manageable and you can repay it strategically when resources and time allow.
  3. Reckless and inadvertent debt: Occurs due to factors such as lack of knowledge, inexperience, or unforeseen circumstances. Developers may inadvertently introduce debt through rushed changes, poor collaboration, or inadequate documentation. It is important to address this type of debt by improving practices, fostering knowledge sharing, and enhancing collaboration to prevent its accumulation.
  4. Prudent and inadvertent debt: Arises from situations where developers unknowingly introduce debt due to limited knowledge or unforeseen complexities. Despite their best intentions, they inadvertently create debt through honest mistakes or unforeseen challenges. Addressing this type of debt involves improving processes, providing training and mentorship, and fostering a learning culture to minimize its occurrence.

It’s important to note that not all types of technical debt are equal. Some types are worse than others and can have more severe consequences. For example, reckless and deliberate debt in particular can pose significant risks to the stability, reliability, and overall performance of the software system.

By understanding the different types of technical debt, development teams can make informed decisions about when and how to manage it. This includes determining which types of debt are acceptable for short-term gains and which should be prioritized for repayment to ensure long-term sustainability and maintainability of the software.

How do you identify Tech Debt?

Identifying technical debt is crucial for managing and mitigating its impact. There are several warning signs and red flags that serve as indicators of the presence of technical debt in a project.

Some of the common signs of Technical Debt include:

  • Code smells: Characteristics in code that suggest deeper problems. These could include duplicated code, long methods, or poor naming conventions. Code smells often signify areas where the code might require refactoring to improve maintainability and extensibility.
  • Code complexity: Excessively complex code that is difficult to understand or modify is a strong indicator. This can include convoluted logic, excessive dependencies, or poor organization.
  • Frequent bugs and issues: If a codebase consistently experiences many bugs and issues, it may suggest the presence of Tech Debt. Quick fixes and workarounds can introduce new problems, making the system more fragile.
  • Obsolete dependencies: Outdated libraries, frameworks, or components that are no longer actively maintained can become a source of Tech Debt. These dependencies may lack crucial security patches, bug fixes, or compatibility updates.
  • Lack of automated tests: Insufficient or missing automated tests increase the likelihood of regression bugs and make it difficult to confidently refactor or enhance the codebase. The absence of a comprehensive test suite often indicates Technical Debt.
  • High code churn: Frequent code changes, patches, or hotfixes in specific modules or components can indicate unstable or poorly designed areas that accumulate Technical Debt over time.

By being vigilant and attentive to these warning signs, development teams can identify Technical Debt early on and take proactive measures to mitigate its impact on the software project. Regular code reviews, refactoring efforts, and prioritizing quality assurance can help address these indicators and reduce the long-term consequences.

What are the types of Technical Debt?

Technical debt can manifest in different forms depending on its nature and impact. Some common types of technical debt include:

  • Code debt: Refers to poor code quality resulting from inadequate design, lack of adherence to coding standards, or shortcuts taken during development. It includes complex and unreadable code, duplicated code, and inconsistent naming conventions.
  • Design debt: This occurs when the architecture or design of a system does not align with the evolving requirements or industry best practices. It can result in scalability limitations, poor performance, or difficulties in adding new features.
  • Documentation debt: Inadequate or outdated documentation leads to knowledge gaps and hinders developers’ ability to understand and maintain the codebase efficiently. It includes missing or incomplete comments, a lack of architectural diagrams, and outdated API documentation.
  • Infrastructure debt: Refers to issues with the underlying infrastructure or technology stack used to support the software system. It can involve outdated servers, unsupported databases, or inefficient deployment processes.
  • Testing debt: Arises when there is a lack of comprehensive test coverage or insufficient automated tests. It includes inadequate unit testing, limited integration testing, or the absence of a proper regression testing suite.

What is the best way to get on top of your Technical Debt?

The best way to manage technical debt is to incorporate it into the scrum/sprint process, track and prioritize it, reward maintenance work, set quality standards, and avoid sudden schedule changes.

This ensures that it is not ignored or neglected. You should discuss and address it during sprint planning, backlog refinement, and sprint review meetings. This allows your development teams to allocate time and resources for ongoing maintenance and addressing Tech Debt alongside new feature development.

Tracking and prioritizing Technical Debt is crucial to effectively manage it. Development teams should have a clear understanding of the level of debt in their codebase and carefully prioritize which areas to address first. By using tools or metrics to measure debt levels, teams can systematically work on reducing technical debt over time.

Maintenance work should be recognized and rewarded just like feature development. Teams should allocate time and resources specifically for bug fixes, refactoring, and addressing the debt. By acknowledging the importance of maintenance work, teams can ensure that Tech Debt is actively managed and not continuously accumulating.

Setting quality standards is paramount to managing future debt. Teams should establish coding guidelines, best practices, and code review processes to maintain code quality and prevent the accumulation of further debt. Regularly reviewing and refactoring code helps prevent the exponential growth of Tech Debt.

Finally, try to avoid sudden schedule changes as they can force teams to accumulate more debt. Unrealistic deadlines or constantly changing priorities can lead to rushed development cycles, resulting in poor code quality and increased technical debt. Consistency and stability in the development process are key to effectively managing technical debt.

Tips for managing Tech Debt

Managing technical debt requires a proactive approach to ensure its impact is minimized over time. Here are some effective strategies for managing your product’s technical debt:

  • Prioritize debt reduction: Evaluate the technical debt in your codebase and prioritize its reduction based on its impact and criticality. Identify areas where the debt incurs the highest cost or poses the greatest risk, and allocate resources accordingly.
  • Refactoring and code improvements: Regularly allocate time and resources for refactoring and improving the codebase. Refactoring helps eliminate code smells, reduce complexity, and enhance maintainability.
  • Automated testing and continuous integration: Invest in building a robust automated testing suite that covers critical functionalities. Adopt continuous integration practices to catch regressions early and ensure code changes don’t introduce new issues.
  • Code reviews and knowledge sharing: Encourage a culture of code reviews to maintain code quality standards and identify potential debt. Foster knowledge sharing among developers to spread awareness of best practices and mitigate the introduction of new debt.
  • Strategic planning and architecture: Invest in sound architectural practices and strategic planning to avoid incurring unnecessary technical debt. Regularly reassess the architecture and align it with evolving business needs to reduce the accumulation of new debt.
  • Collaboration and communication: Facilitate teamwork and communication between development teams and stakeholders. Ensure that technical debt is acknowledged and included in discussions around project timelines, resource allocation, and decision-making processes.

By actively managing technical debt, software development teams can maintain a healthy and maintainable codebase, improve development velocity, and reduce the risks associated with long-term technical debt accumulation.