Technical Debt: What to Do and How to Manage?

Elkhan Shabanov

June 23, 2022

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Imagine you’re a young professional working diligently at a start-up – long hours and weekend meetings are a part of your life. During this time, you grab fast food that’s quick and cheap to help you get back to work faster. Although you get ahead in the short term, your body feels slowed down due to all the greasy meals, and you start feeling sluggish after a few months.

The quick fix you chose has cost you.

Like poor diet habits, technical debt starts with good intentions but can result in frustrating system failures and bugs. Certain short-term fixes help developers iterate quickly, but it causes the software to accrue technical debt. When it is left unaddressed, it crashes software, bogs down systems, increases the cost of development and can even cause months of delay in product launches.

What is Technical Debt?

Technical debt, also known as tech debt or code debt, is a term that conceptualizes the trade-off software developers or companies make between the short-term benefits of rapid delivery and the long-term value of building a software system that’s easy to modify, repair, and sustain. Technical debt definition is when development teams act to expedite the delivery of a project or functionality that later needs rework or refactoring. In simple terms, tech debt definition is the result of prioritizing speedy delivery over a perfect code or a better solution.

To better understand technical debt meaning, let’s look at it with the same two components as financial debt:

The principal is the work developers must do to modernize the technology stack. It includes deferred maintenance, upgrades below the app layer or software customizations.

The interest is the complexity tax that the project pays. It comes from the need to work from fragile batch data integrations or create workarounds to cut risks. The frictional losses result in lower ROI, harm budgets, and inhibit long-term velocity and productivity. 

The Impact of Technical Debt 

According to McKinsey’s report, tech debt principal accounts for 40% of IT balance sheets, while most companies pay over 10% interest on projects. A company that spends over 50% of its budget on fixing legacy systems or integrations may get caught in a tech debt spiral that’s constantly paying interest. On the contrary, companies that operate on modern IT stacks and have little or no software technology debt can direct their tech investments to new offerings. 

In a survey “The State of Technical Debt 2021, 52% of engineers believed technical debt negatively impacts their team’s morale. 66% of engineers feel that the team would ship 100% faster if they had a set process for technical debt. Unfortunately, although most engineers are convinced about the negative impacts of technical debt, 58% of companies don’t have any process to manage it. 

Why is it Important to Measure Technical Debt?

  1. It Decreases Productivity – The cost of technical debt is an ongoing tax wherein engineers spend more time circumventing the debt than focusing on innovations. Engineers spend 33% of their time handling technical debt. As a result, it lowers productivity at work.
  2. It Grows if Left Unchecked – If you’re not dedicated to technical debt management, it keeps growing. Over time, companies achieve fewer outcomes for the same amount of time.
  3. It Limits the Implementation of New Business Models – If you’re in high technical debt, it can hamper your company’s ability to embrace new business models or technologies. For instance, Photoshop offered a license-based model wherein they sold the software for $800-$4000. However, when SaaS became vogue in the market, Photoshop started lagging as their model required selling the software. Incidentally, Photoshop redid its software and could switch to the Pay-Per-Use model, minimizing its technical debt and maintaining its position in the market.

How to Measure Technical Debt in an Organization?

Although there’s no single metric for measuring technical debt, you can look at the cost of technical debt on other business metrics.

Cycle Time – It’s the time taken to complete a specific task. For instance, in programming, the time between the developer’s first commit in a section of code to the deployment of the code is the cycle time. A shorter cycle time represents an optimized process with lower technical debt, while the opposite is true for longer cycle times.

Stability – In a situation when a developer must solve a problem and implementing a workaround seems faster compared to making a change and solving the issue for good, you have technical debt. When one change can lead to many more changes unrelated to the system and disrupt the operations, it’s a sign of high technical debt and instability.

Developer’s Happiness Quotient – Developers enjoy working on new ideas and innovations rather than reworking old code or updating systems. Unhappy developers in a particular system are an indicator of high technical debt.

Backlog Size – It’s essential to measure how many items you have in the backlog files and how much time it will take your development team to resolve all the pending backlog items. Often, non-critical features aren’t updated in the software for a long time. Measuring and monitoring the size of your backlog and its age (old items) can help determine your technical debt. If you have a 6-7 developers’ team, and it takes them more than 3-4 sprints or over six months to resolve the backlog, it is a cause for alarm. 

How to address your Technical Debt?

Apart from measuring technical debt, it’s important to address and minimize it for long-term benefits. Some of the strategies for the best technical debt management include:

Monitor the Debt Regularly

Different types of technical debt can affect a business. Regular monitoring can help companies tackle their debt before it overgrows. One of the prominent technical debt examples is when Twitter built the platform’s front-end using Ruby on Rails, a fast solution at the time. However, it became difficult to add new features or improve search performance. After monitoring the debt, the company paid it off by switching to a Java server, leading to a 3-fold decrease in search latency.

Reframe your Software Development Strategy

The presence of technical debt is a red flag that the software development strategy wasn’t designed thoroughly and has missed some points. Use a sprint-by-sprint approach to minimize technical debt and create a strategy with an agile approach. For example, back in 2010, when Instagram launched its iPhone app, the operations were run from a single server in LA. An onslaught of traffic crashed the server, and Instagram had to pivot to an EC2-hosted database in just three days. The co-founder compared this transfer to open-heart surgery and mentioned how the company now addresses technical debt before it leads to catastrophe. 

Refactor the Source Code

One of the most effective technical debt management techniques is to apply the refactoring. It improves the quality of a product’s source code without altering its behavior. If your developers have used low-quality code due to a lack of coding experience or to meet tight deadlines, rewriting the code can be a challenge. With regularly scheduled refactoring, you can make the code more readable, maintainable, and better functioning.

Conduct Unit Tests Regularly

One straightforward way to recover from technical debt is to conduct unit tests that allow developers to eliminate regression bugs. During the tests, engineers can identify the bugs, improve the quality of the code, and make the coding process more agile to automate the testing process.

Maintain Documentation to Make Repayment Easier

Repaying your technical debt requires knowledge and having documentation about the project with the right knowledge base can help engineers resolve challenging situations more effectively.

Advocate Regular Maintenance

Weekly sprints help in paying down technical debt. Engineering teams can spend some time cleaning up data and coding out old assumptions every week. Choose to handle the code that hampers the product’s functionality first. By involving the product managers, they can also understand the scale and cost of technical debt. Regular maintenance with a clean-up team to update code and migrate old data to new systems can help your business reduce technical debt.

Plan Reasonable Workloads

When you choose tight deadlines to get the first-mover’s advantage, there are chances that your developers will choose an inflexible framework. Refactoring the app to a more flexible framework will lead to a high debt payback. Work on reasonable deadlines that don’t compromise the quality of the project.

Move Away from Monolith Architecture

Monolithic architecture is a traditional unified model for the software program’s design wherein monolith means composed all in one piece. It also stands for too large and unable to be changed. If any program needs to be updated, the whole application must be rewritten, leading to more time and money investments. On the contrary, modular architectures are relatively independent.

For instance, monolithic architecture is like a supersized bookcase with every book you possess. It’s simple to set up initially, but it becomes difficult to incorporate more data, functions, and users as your business grows. When you scale, locating specific books and adding to an already full shelf requires ingenuity and effort. The short-term goal of going to market faster sacrifices the long-term quality, security, and compatibility with time.

Just like you should know the risks of skipping your veggies, understanding how the different types of technical debt can paralyze your company is essential. Although you feel like you’ve gained time now, it results in time loss later. Over time, technical debt slows down a company’s effectiveness.

When you reduce technical debt, your development team works smarter and happier. At Digicode, we regularly monitor technical debt and ensure that our software developers are in control with the right metrics and strategies. Digicode helps companies evaluate software and systems for technical debt. As a result, we can minimize and manage technical debt and work towards a healthier future for our business and our clients.