Technical debt (TD) is a broad concept that encompasses many of the decisions made and shortcuts taken during the software development cycle. It happens when teams are working through set tasks, updating features, and dealing with bugs – and it sometimes comes with negative consequences.
Negative outcomes caused by technical debt typically take the form of badly designed code, deterioration of productivity, additional unplanned costs, delivery delays, and degradation in the quality of the product.
Understanding technical and non-technical causes of debt
To understand how to recover from technical debt, and prevent future debt, it’s necessary to figure out why it occurs. Because so many circumstances can lead to the accumulation of technical debt, it's easier to divide them into technical and non-technical causes.
[ Before you discuss tech debt with your bosses, customers, or partners, learn how to explain technical debt in plain English.]
For instance, a pressing deadline or time constraint reason is one of the most common technical causes of TD. An urgent deadline can force software engineers to opt for hard coding to speed up the development process – or opt for any other approach as a temporary replacement for a more appropriate solution.
Another popular technical cause is related to an excessive amount of regression bugs. It’s a common misconception that TD can be brought about by newly added features that displace others in a backlog. On the contrary, bugs found during regression testing can be counted as the actual cause of the TD, since fixing the bugs becomes a higher priority than the development of new functionality. Finally, insufficient testing and postponed code refactoring are the most widespread technical causes of TD.
Non-technical causes of TD mostly revolve around inefficient management and poorly designed strategy. They may include the following factors: inappropriate planning, ineffectively apportioned budget, lack of technological leadership, low-quality coordination in terms of project management, etc.
How to address your technical debt
All these may eventually lead to missed deadlines and incorrect prioritization of tasks. When you identify the actual cause of your TD, it becomes significantly easier to figure out the corresponding solution.
Based on our work with clients, we suggest five efficient ways to recover from technical debt:
1. Reframe software development strategy
In most cases, the emergence of technical debt is a red flag, signifying that the software development strategy wasn’t designed thoroughly and certain points were missed. Thus, the best way to deal with TD once it’s already there is to review the initial development strategy, identify the weak points that forced your team to take on technical debt, and fill in the gaps.
The solution may include more frequent meetings with stakeholders and developers, the establishment of new code standards, or the creation of an efficient TD tracking system, to name a few fixes.
In addition, it’s possible to reframe the existing strategy by adopting an agile approach. The first way to minimize technical debt is to use a sprint-by-sprint approach, which will allow the team to reduce TD gradually with every consequent sprint. Another way is to use a dedicated sprint to address a large amount of technical debt instantly instead of doing it step by step. The choice will depend on the type of TD, complexity, allocated budget, and time. Both a scrum master and product owner should be involved in the creation of a strategy to the implementation of an agile approach.
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2. Integrate metrics into your strategy
Another way to recover from technical debt is to quantify it with the help of metrics. The aim is to convert the abstract notion of technical debt into something measurable, so that teams can monitor and analyze its “repayment.” Teams can use different types of metrics depending on the requirements. For instance, code coverage metrics are used to identify the percentage of code covered with unit tests and fill in any gaps as necessary. Bug count is another helpful tool for monitoring the existing bugs, prioritizing them, and measuring their closure rate.
Overall, metrics will help teams keep track of technical debt more precisely and save time on its elimination. However, keep in mind that incorrect usage of metrics can result in a misleading determination of tasks and objectives. Metrics should be used solely for monitoring the overall performance – not as the ultimate goal to achieve seemingly perfect figures.
3. Don't forget about unit tests
One simple way to recover from technical debt is to write and conduct unit tests more frequently to eliminate the problem of regression bugs, which we discussed above. Unit tests can help the software engineer identify bugs more efficiently, improve the quality of the code, make the process of coding agile, and automate the testing process.
4. Maintain a knowledge base
It’s critically important to maintain documentation during the develpopment process to make the “repayment” of technical debt easier. Such digital documentation is known as a knowledge base that encompasses various types of content (roadmaps, code documentation, checklists, attached files, etc.) that team members can exchange. One of the major benefits of maintaining a knowledge base is that at any stage of the development, software engineers can easily access any information related to the project and solve challenging situations more effectively.
5. Refactor your code
One of the most efficient ways to deal with existing technical debt is to apply refactoring, which improves the internal quality of a product’s source code without altering its external behavior. This helpful practice is frequently ignored during development since it neither adds new functionality nor fixes bugs. However, the purpose of refactoring is to transform poorly written code, also called dirty code, which is one of the causes of TD. This type of coding may be the result of the incompetence or inexperience of developers, or their need to apply a quick workaround.
By performing refactoring in regularly-scheduled intervals, you can both reduce existing TD and make your code more maintainable, readable, and better-functioning.
Tech debt is not always bad
Finally, it’s important to understand that technical debt is not always a bad thing – especially if the development backlog consists of various types of improvements, not bugs that need to be fixed. Technical debt can also be taken on to improve the product in the long term and help teams more easily implement solutions under pressing deadlines.
However, it’s better to minimize the consequences of technical debt by keeping in mind its causes and corresponding preventive measures. These ideas and solutions can help your team address technical debt and improve your development processes.
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