In the world of software development, code is constantly being updated to add new features, providing customers or team members with the exact solutions they need.
But there are different ways to achieve this which have different short and long term impacts for your company, and your ability to deliver features in the future.
It’s important that everyone in the team is on the same page about the tradeoffs of building software in different ways, and the potential negative impact that decisions made now can have in the future.
What is Technical Debt?
Technical debt is the term used to describe the long-term consequences of choosing a quick and easy solution over a more optimal one. This is often done to save time, resources, or meet deadlines.
Accumulation of interest over time
Like financial debt, technical debt accumulates interest over time. In the context of software development, this interest is the additional effort and resources required to maintain and improve the suboptimal code.
By delivering a feature faster, you’re borrowing effort from yourself in the future
Need for eventual repayment
Ignoring technical debt can lead to significant problems down the line. Just as with financial debt, it can sometimes be beneficial to borrow time now and pay it back later, but this needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis. It's essential to not let technical debt build up too much, and to pay it back before it becomes unmanageable.
Causes of Technical Debt
Technical debt can arise when developers are under pressure to deliver features quickly or when there are limited resources available. Short-term solutions are often chosen to meet these demands, which can lead to poorly developed applications that are hard to maintain.
Suboptimal design communication
In some cases, technical debt is the result of inadequate design, which can stem from a lack of understanding of the problem or insufficient planning. If your team lack effective communication skills, it can be easy to overpromise features in the design phase which are impossible to complete during the development timeframe.
Poor documentation can contribute to technical debt by making it difficult for developers to understand and maintain the code. By leaving code undocumented, it can be easy for team members to forget how code works, or leave, making maintenance significantly harder.
Inconsistent coding standards
Inconsistent coding standards across a project can lead to technical debt by making the code harder to read, understand, and maintain.
Older code that is no longer compatible with current technologies or practices can also contribute to technical debt. Technical debt can occur by not maintaining and updating code, so it’s not just about making bad decisions in the moment.
Types of Technical Debt
Deliberate technical debt
This type of debt is intentionally incurred, usually to meet deadlines or other short-term goals.
Accidental technical debt
Accidental debt occurs when suboptimal solutions are implemented without the awareness of their long-term consequences.
Bit rot (code decay)
Bit rot refers to the gradual degradation of software over time due to changes in the environment or technology.
Consequences of Technical Debt
Technical debt can slow down development, as more time and effort are spent on fixing issues and maintaining the code. As more time needs to be spent undoing technical debt, less time can effectively be spent creating new features.
Increased maintenance costs
As technical debt grows, maintenance costs rise due to the increased effort required to manage the codebase. More developers need to be assigned to reduce the technical debt. Plus customers and or team members will run into more issues with lower quality code which will need additional support too.
Lower software quality
Technical debt can lead to lower quality software that is more prone to errors and difficult to maintain. This problematic code may cause problems in multiple areas of the business and the longer technical debt remains, the more likely other code will rely on it causing further problems.
Reduced flexibility for future changes
A codebase burdened by technical debt can be less adaptable to new requirements or technologies. This is because technical debt consumes developers time, slowing their ability to deliver changes and increases the complexity of adding said new features.
Negative impact on team morale
The frustration of dealing with technical debt can negatively affect the morale and productivity of the development team. Developers are often very passionate people, and love working on new features. They want to make big changes and see them go live. Unpicking problems caused by poor decision making can be very frustrating, especially if they are unable to make significant progress. This can be even more frustrating if the problematic processes that cause technical debt are still in place.
How to Manage Technical Debt
Regularly assess how much technical debt you have
Frequent assessments help identify and prioritize areas where technical debt needs to be addressed. By understanding how much technical debt you currently have, you are in a better position to evaluate if you can take on more technical debt, or if you need to start paying it back.
Prioritize technical debt reduction tasks
Tackle high-impact debt first, and allocate time and resources to reduce it. As a general rule, you should always be paying back more technical debt than you are creating.
Allocate time for refactoring and improving code quality
Dedicate a portion of the development schedule to refactoring and improving code quality. This can help prevent technical debt from accumulating and becoming unmanageable.
Implement coding standards and best practices
Establish and enforce coding standards and best practices to ensure consistency and maintainability across the codebase. This will also help prevent technical debt from accumilating.
Encourage a culture of continuous improvement
Promote a mindset of ongoing learning, improvement, and collaboration within the team to help prevent and address technical debt. By understanding the causes of technical debt you can improve your culture around it, implementing techniques like releasing smaller features, allocating enough time to reduce technical debt buildup and understand the full impact of decisions.
How to fix Technical Debt as a non-developer
Not all technical debt is bad but it is often misunderstood, especially by non-technical team members. As a non-development team member it may not be your responsibility to solve the technical debt, but you can help to reduce its long-term impact.
Technical debt is a natural part of software development
While striving to minimize technical debt is essential, it's important to recognize that some amount of debt is inevitable in software development projects. You don’t need to wipe it out completely, but you do need to understand that all decisions will have an impact on the maintainability of your codebase.
Timely identification and management of technical debt is crucial
Addressing technical debt early can help prevent it from growing and becoming a significant burden on the project. As a non-technical team member, it can be hard to identify when technical debt is building up. This is why it’s essential to communicate effectively with your technical team members.
Effective collaboration between teams reduces technical debt
Open communication and collaboration between all team members can facilitate better decision-making and help identify and address technical debt in a timely manner. By building a healthy and trusting relationship between teams, you build the conversation possible to start reducing technical debt.
Understanding technical debt is vital for non-technical stakeholders to make informed decisions and collaborate effectively with the development team.
By working together and maintaining open communication, both technical and non-technical team members can contribute to minimizing and managing technical debt, ultimately leading to more successful software development projects.
By expanding your knowledge of technical debt, you can better understand the challenges faced by software developers and contribute more effectively to the decision-making process. Ultimately, fostering a collaborative environment where both technical and non-technical team members work together to minimize and address technical debt can lead to higher quality software, increased productivity, and improved team morale.