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Tackling Technical Debt Redux: a Deeper Dive

Understanding Technical Debt

What is Technical Debt?

Software development teams rarely, if ever, have unlimited time to design, code, and deliver the perfect solution. First, there’s almost always a deadline–whether set by internal leadership or the need to beat or catch up to external forces like competition. Second, as users adopt software, they’re likely to uncover new use cases, requirements, and bugs that the dev team couldn’t have anticipated with the information available prior to development.

This post is Part 2 of our Technical Debt series; get the rest of the picture by starting with Part 1.

To meet these deadlines and external demands, dev teams make choices to speed up the delivery of applications and features. These choices trade immediate speed for refactoring efforts in the future. The future efforts are “owed” to the software project and are commonly called “technical debt.”

Technical debt must eventually be repaid, and the payments come in the form of time spent refactoring, redesigning, and fixing past work. Budgeting time for technical debt work means the developer working on it isn’t developing new features during that time, reducing productivity.

Even if the dev team had plenty of time to create their software project, the tools or languages they use will eventually become outdated or unsupported. What’s good enough, best practices, or even cutting edge today, can become a liability in the future.

How does Tech Debt accumulate?

The intentional shortcuts and trade-offs that enable faster delivery today, combined with unforeseen technical debt, add up over time. Setting aside time to pay down technical debt takes resources away from working on the next customer-facing feature or capability, so getting management buy-in to dedicate time and people to paying down technical debt can be difficult.

Reasons Technical Debt Can Accumulate

  • Immediate Business Needs: To meet deadlines or outpace competitors, dev teams might opt for quicker or temporary solutions that need to be revisited later.
  • Evolving Requirements: As users engage with software, new use cases, and bugs emerge that were not initially anticipated, necessitating further modification of the code.
  • Technological Advancements: Tools and languages used in the development process may become outdated, turning today’s best practices into tomorrow’s liabilities.

Categories of Technical Debt

  • Code Debt: Code debt is the original “technical debt.” When code is rushed, it may not be optimized or tested thoroughly, or features may be missing in the initial releases.Other reasons for code debt include a dependency becoming obsolete and needing to be upgraded or replaced, a programming language no longer meeting the application’s needs and the code needing to be rewritten in a different language, or home-grown workarounds needing to be replaced with commercially available options to reduce maintenance work.
  • Design Debt
    Like code debt, design debt occurs when the project is rushed through, or there aren’t enough resources dedicated to user experience and user interface design. This can manifest in inconsistent design details, poor menu navigation, or compromises in an MVP that are not updated in the released product.Poor or dated design choices can add up over time, impacting user experience and brand perception. Users may associate poor visual design with poor product quality.
  • Test Debt
    When testing teams spend too much effort maintaining and fixing existing automated tests, test debt may be to blame.Test debt can accumulate because the application changes and breaks existing tests without an underlying bug, testing tools become obsolete or inefficient, or the team reaches its capacity to understand and analyze test results from an ever-increasing number of automated tests.

Ignoring Technical Debt is a Dangerous Path

According to Gartner, all those choices and sacrifices that created technical debt “eventually cause the software to deviate from its prescribed nonfunctional requirements, and in the long-term, they can impact performance, scalability, resilience or similar characteristics of the system.”

In some cases, not addressing technical debt can create security vulnerabilities, exposing an organization to hefty financial losses and damaging customer trust.

Incurring technical debt is inevitable, but recognizing the importance of paying down technical debt and scheduling regular maintenance can help organizations keep the balance of technical debt and new work in their favor.

ReleaseTEAM has been in the business for over 20 years and partners with industry leaders in tools and technologies; we can help with all of your DevOps needs. Contact us to discuss your next DevOps project.

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