We’re all familiar with the concept of financial debt. Borrowing money means you can accomplish more now, but at a higher cost later. To use a common example, let’s say you want to break into the housing market. Chances are you don’t have the cash to purchase property outright, but prices in your area are rising and you want to buy a home before it becomes too expensive. Taking out a mortgage would make it possible for you to do so, but you’re going to pay for that privilege later, in the form of interest on your loan. When we talk about technical debt or tech debt, we’re applying that concept to software development.
In this guide, we’ll go in-depth on what technical debt is, what causes it, and how to deal with it.
What is technical debt?
Instead of borrowing money, taking on technical debt means taking a shortcut by prioritizing speed when coding. This empowers development teams to launch their project as quickly as possible. But just like with financial debt, these shortcuts come at a cost. The equivalent to interest payments for financial debt is the time and effort it will take for developers to rework that hasty coding.
In software development, messy programming incurs a deferred cost — time to rework that section when adding new features to the product later. This is what’s referred to as technical debt.
But what makes coding sloppy or confusing? Why should imperfect programming be present in your software at all?
It often comes down to excess complexity. Ideally, code is usually concise, consistent, and cohesive, so that it will be easier for developers to work with when the software needs to be expanded or updated later.
But perfect code is rare in the real world, especially when multiple developers work on the same project over a long period. Messy code may take dozens of lines of programming to accomplish something that could have been done in less. Or, it could be full of quick-fix patches for bugs and errors, when a more elegant solution would have rewritten the problematic section from scratch.
This kind of coding is often the result of prioritizing speed over perfect work, but in general, code tends to deviate farther and farther from a perfect state over time. Programmers all have their own ways of working, which leads code to grow in complexity as different people work on it.
Why is technical debt so prominent?
By this point, technical debt probably sounds like something to be avoided — but in practice, it’s not that simple. Just like financial, technical debt can be a powerful tool when used wisely.
Taking out a mortgage is a good idea only if the benefits outweigh the interest payments. For example, the value of the property you purchased could eventually outstrip the cost of your loan. Because you paid a little extra to take a shortcut, you came out ahead in the end.
Technical debt can offer similar advantages. One of the most significant is the ability to get products to market more quickly. That can mean getting ahead of the competition and gathering data on user behavior to improve the product.
In the highly competitive software industry, getting to market faster can be incredibly valuable. Especially at startups, there is often tremendous pressure to launch quickly, which leaves developers pushing up against the limits of how fast they can code. This means the shortcuts that create technical debt are very common when developing and shipping new software.
Technical debt is nothing to be afraid of if it’s taken on judiciously and managed well.
Types of technical debt and how to deal with them
There are a few different types of technical debt, and the exact meaning of the term is debatable. However, they all take extra time and effort to deal with so we’ll discuss them here, along with strategies to combat them.
Planned or deliberate technical debt
This kind of tech debt comes from a conscious decision to get coding done quickly, knowing it will need to be fixed later. It’s important to take on this kind of debt carefully, even if your development team is facing immense pressure to get the project completed. That’s not to say planned tech debt is necessarily bad; remember that it’s a powerful tool that can give your software a competitive edge if it’s handled wisely.
Make sure a plan is in place for dealing with this tech debt and that everyone on your team is aware of its implications. Explain the shortcuts that were taken clearly to all staff before launch. Some teams might not have the technical knowledge to understand the exact nature of the debt. However, they should still be aware of its effects, like the time investment required to pay it off and what that could mean for productivity.
Ensure the debt is carefully recorded, and consider blocking out time to pay it off in the future. If it’s forgotten and not dealt with, it will have a domino effect on agility down the line.
Accidental technical debt
Accidental tech debt refers to the time and energy required to clean up poorly executed code. It’s up for debate whether this can be considered technical debt at all — some developers feel that tech debt is always taken on purposefully for short-term gain. However, bad code takes effort to fix whether it’s the result of an intentional shortcut or weak technical skills, so it may be helpful to regard it as tech debt.
Avoiding this type of tech debt is important. Since it accrues by accident, it’s likely to go unnoticed and cause problems later. Accidental tech debt could be seen as an equivalent to financial debt resulting from poor decisions, like buying unnecessary products on a credit card you can’t pay off.
To prevent accidental technical debt, focus on quality, and hire experienced professional developers. Listen to your development team and trust their expertise when they tell you what’s possible within your project’s constraints. Don’t automatically assume they’re proficient in new languages and coding techniques, and don’t commit them to a tight launch schedule without checking in on whether it’s feasible.
Your organization should also have well-established processes in place to prevent accidental tech debt, like a rigorous code-review process and automatic error-checking tools.
Unavoidable technical debt
This slow, gradual buildup of tech debt is usually the result of many developers working on one project, especially if they weren’t the ones to create it. Collaboration among multiple developers, all with their own approach and style, causes incremental changes even if they’re all experienced and capable. Over time, this leads to overly complex and inefficient coding that can impede future agility and usability.
This type of tech debt is the best handled the same way it builds up — gradually, over time. Make sure to block out time on a semi-regular basis to pay it off. Doing so will save you major headaches when the project needs to be expanded in the future.
The key to dealing with any type of technical debt is to not ignore it. Much like financial debt, the cost of tackling tech debt becomes higher and higher the longer you wait. As your team works on a piece of software, build in small blocks of time to clean up code. Working in this way also has the advantage of focusing your development team’s time on high-activity areas that need to be as clean as possible.
This slow, regular approach can prevent technical debt from causing major problems with your software that can interrupt regular operations and impact revenue.
Making debt management a priority
When creating a strategy to manage technical debt long-term, keep the comparison to financial debt in mind.
You shouldn’t take out loans without a good reason, and you shouldn’t ignore debt you’d already taken on. That’s a good way to approach technical debt, too. Tech debt is a useful tool to get where you’re going, but it takes diligence and planning to use it responsibly.
The good news is that if technical debt is managed efficiently, it can greatly benefit your organization. By establishing processes that make managing it part of regular operations, you can make sure technical debt never becomes a problem.
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