When it comes to software development, technical debt is the idea that certain necessary work gets delayed during the development of a software project so that a deliverable or deadline could be met at that time. Technical debt is the coding you must do tomorrow because you took a shortcut in order to deliver the software today. Over the last several years, there has been a growing recognition that technical debt has become a major issue for organizations and is now further compounded as the pace of digitalization and modernization accelerates.
Learn how to effectively tackle technical debt by better understanding the causes and ways to manage it with a proactive approach.
What Causes Technical Debt
There are two major causes of technical debt:
- Deliberate or intentional technical debt: This occurs when developers make short-term design and implementation decisions because they need to quickly deliver a product to the market. This can happen for good reasons in Agile sprints with the idea that it will be fixed in subsequent sprints.
- Bit Rot: This term is used to describe an aging code base that is either ignored or incrementally modified over time but not kept up to newer standards. An analogy would be your home, if you do nothing around maintenance and upkeep, you are compounding problems into the future.
Why You Shouldn’t Ignore It
The reality is that every organization operates with some degree of technical debt. Millions of lines of existing computing code undergird most operations, and sooner or later, all code is technical debt. It is not inherently avoidable and ignoring the accumulation of it does not bring any business value. In the long run, code will be difficult to change and will result in a higher maintenance cost and expensive and labor-intensive release cycles. A study by McKinsey highlights that things are not improving: 60 percent of the CIOs surveyed felt their organization’s tech debt had risen perceptibly over the past three years.
Where Does Technical Debt Typically Persist
Traditionally conservative and regulated industries, such as financial services and insurance, tend to carry a higher technical debt load as much of their processing systems are decades old and many still run on mainframes. To keep pace in the market, they have spent years building out surrounding functionality to reduce the core system to simply a transaction processing application; however, the surrounding applications, no matter how well-intentioned, are also now aged and considered legacy.
How to Proactively Manage Technical Debt
Like financial debt, you must be wise about incurring and managing technical debt. Over the long term, accumulated debt can slow your time to market, create developer morale issues, or cause major product performance challenges. The best performing organizations employ a structured approach to manage their technical debt.
- Have a measurement process in place to help provide an assessment of the current state. This can include attributes such as level of automation employed, cyclomatic complexity, dead code or least used code, number of defects, and a time to release metric (i.e., how long does it take to churn out new features). It’s also important to evaluate these trends over time. Another measurement gaining traction is technical debt ratio (TDR). This calculation compares the amount of time it will take to remediate technical debt to the amount of time it took to build the system initially. Tools such as SonarQube and Coverity can help you measure technical debt and determine your TDR.
- Have a strategy around your application portfolio towards your investment posture by application. A simple three-category strategy of invest, hold, or exit can guide decisions. Invest applications are those where you actively spending to build out new features or capabilities to satisfy market opportunities. Hold are applications that are business-critical but for which you need to do required maintenance to keep the application up to date. Exit systems are those you have identified as end-of-life.
- Have an embedded process to regularly pay down technical debt for those applications in the Invest or Hold category. This can include tactics such as adding technical debt to the product backlog for every sprint or release or having separate teams that work exclusively on technical debt issues.
Why Focusing on Time to Market and Capacity is Important
Just as easy as it is to sacrifice a little quality to meet a deadline, organizations can easily get caught up in measuring the wrong success metrics when it comes to mitigating technical debt. The most common failed attempts at managing technical debt are those that focus too closely on cost reduction, application elimination, or retiring old technology and replacing it with new. The real goal is to be able to measurably reduce your time to market by freeing up organizational capacity to accelerate delivery of new products and capabilities by spending less time on maintaining the old legacy version.
Best practices on how you can accomplish this:
- Employ sound architecture coding practices like abstraction
- Avoid tight coupling and leverage an API-driven microservices architecture
- Automate regression testing
- Maintain a high percentage of code coverage
Without proper attention, technical debt will continue to compound and consume more and more of your IT budget. This will harm your ability to innovate and remain competitive. This is the time to evaluate your modernization options and move forward with a strategy that enables growth.
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