Technical debt

What is technical debt and how to manage it?

Technical debt sounds like a financial term. It isn’t, though. However, it impacts organizations and their ability to quickly ship digital products to the market and maintain their competitive edge. 

Businesses must understand the origin of technical debt, how it impairs a team’s ability to produce software that delivers great customer experience and find practical ways to eliminate or control it. 

In this blog, you will learn about the fundamentals of technical debt, its types, and 5 powerful ways to keep it from spiraling out of control. 

What is technical debt?

Ward Cunningham coined the term ‘technical debt.’ According to him, a team or a person acquires technical debt the same way a financial debt is acquired and then repaid with interest. In the case of technical debt, the additional work or coding the team needs to do post-product launch is the interest the team pays for taking a tech debt. 

To understand what technical debt is, some experts refer to Martin Fowlers’ technical debt quadrant. 

What is technical debt

Project managers define it differently. But at the end of the day, technical debt is the difference between what you promised to deliver and what you actually delivered. For example, a software development team creates technical debt when it chooses to resort to the least optimal solution or approach rather than the best solution to gain faster time to market. Along the way, the team meets the project deadline but builds a product that is not as scalable and secure as it should be. 

All the development teams or projects comprise some technical debt; however, when it accumulates for a long time and is not identified and addressed effectively, it diminishes team productivity, lowers morale, and badly affects business revenue. However, this is not all; accumulated technical debt leads to profound customer dissatisfaction, customer churn, and missed opportunities to innovate and scale. 

Different types of technical debt 

Experts have classified technical debt in numerous ways. However, one of the most commonly accepted categorizations of technical debt is whether it’s intentional or unintentional. 

  • Intentional technical debt: Software development teams take this technical debt on purpose and use it as a strategic tool. Software engineers are well aware of this debt and document it to tackle it later. 
  • Unintentional technical debt: This kind of technical debt creeps into your code or system without developers realizing its presence. Since it’s unintentional, it will likely impact the development team at a deeper level. Unintentional debt often results from poor quality work or lack of knowledge, leading to poor customer experience and lost business opportunities. 

How to reduce or keep technical debt under control? 

No team can claim to keep their tech debt to zero or under 100% control. Whether you’re an agile team or follow waterfall methodology, you will experience tech debt to a certain extent. So, the best approach is to embed quality control right at the beginning of the project and tame the debt, so it does not spiral out of control. 

Top 5 ways to manage technical debt:

1. Building awareness around technical debt: Educating the product owner and the team on the actual cost of technical debt is essential. When they realize how detrimental unpaid technical debt is to the organization's health, they can start looking for new tools and methodologies, such as Agile and DevOps, to reduce technical debt in their codebase and build better strategies to deal with it.

2. Identify the debt: You can’t effectively deal with the technical debt your organization accumulated in all these years or a particular project. So the first step in your journey toward reducing technical debt is to find ways to identify and acknowledge it. Then, once the team has documented the debt in an organized manner, the next step is to educate and encourage the team.

3. Automated testing: Nothing prevents bugs from appearing in the codebase more than automated testing. So write automated tests. Agile development methodologies emphasize embedding testing at every stage of the software development lifecycle, and together with CI/CD approaches, agile teams find it a lot easier to produce high-quality applications and keep the customer experience a lot better.  

4. Constant refactoring: Refactoring is one of the technical debt reduction strategies and aims to make the codebase cleaner and better. It does not change how the application works but focuses on improving the backend, making it easy for the new engineers to maintain, understand and read the code. By building a culture of constant refactoring, you empower your teams to strategically reduce technical debt, paving the way for greater innovation and agility.

5. Working at the root cause: All the steps we shared with you so far are quite effective in managing tech debt. However, the most important step you can take is to discourage practices that lead to the creation and accumulation of technical debt. Often these practices reside at the organizational level. These practices can vary across organizations and industries, but the most common ones include: 

  • In a chaotic environment where everything is always urgent, this kind of work culture can lead developers to constantly switch contexts and take shortcuts to meet the project delivery deadlines. 
  • The sales team makes wide promises to clients and then pressurizes software development teams to fulfill those promises.  
  • Senior leadership doesn’t let the engineering teams employ modern tools and methodologies like automated testing/code review/source control. 

Final words: Manage technical debt to accelerate innovation and business growth  

Technical debt can be good or bad, depending on why it was created in the first place. However, it must be controlled else your business can experience a range of issues, such as slower development and release, reduced profitability, and increased customer churn. 

We hope this blog helps you better understand technical debt, how it can affect customer experience and revenues, and implement practical ways to manage it. Apply these ideas in the early stages of a new project. However, if you’re in the middle of the project and are saddled with layers of tech debt, we recommend first identifying the sources of the debt and building a plan to address those issues strategically. You can do this in-house or request Kellton’s consulting services to access our in-depth expertise to save time and resources.