What Is Technical Debt?

When you’re designing a new software application, things may not always be perfect on a technical level. Unfortunately, many businesses will take shortcuts when it comes to the technical aspects (more specifically, the coding) of the projects that they are working on in order to save money and/or to complete the project faster. However, when you do this, you’re accumulating technical debt. This technical debt can cause other issues later on and will need to be addressed by additional rework, which can end up taking longer and costing more money.

The phrase “technical debt” was used because of its similarity to financial debt. Financial debt has to be paid off eventually — and the longer it takes to pay off, the bigger the debt grows as a result of accumulating interest, making the initial debt more difficult to pay off. The same applies to technical debt. The longer it takes to address the issues caused by the technical shortcuts you took, the more difficult it will become to fix problems or add new functionality later on.

Types Of Technical Debt

There are three main types of technical debt; however, before you can learn what these three types of technical debt are,  understand that there’s a big difference between acquiring technical debt and writing bad code. If your app is poorly architected or poorly written, that has nothing to do with technical debt–you just have bad software.

Additionally, not all technical debt is bad. Again, this is similar to financial debt. People often take on financial debt as a trade off for long-term success. For example, taking out a student loan in order to obtain a degree that in the long run will help secure a higher paying job. In this same way, you might choose to take on technical debt as a trade off if it can benefit your product in the long run. Keeping that in mind, consider these three types of technical debt that you can accumulate:

Deliberate Technical Debt

Deliberate technical debt can be taken on when you decide to take a shortcut on purpose with the knowledge that this will have to be addressed in the future. This can be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on why the decision was made. For example, pressure from stakeholders who don’t have coding knowledge may force your development team to deliberately take on technical debt knowing that it may cause issues in the future. On the other hand, the development team may decide that taking on technical debt will help meet certain goals and that it will be worth taking on as long as it’s resolved in the near future.

Accidental/Outdated Design Technical Debt

It’s important to try and future proof your design so that it’s easier to refactor as systems evolve and requirements change. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible. Systems and requirements will evolve over time, and your original good design may become outdated, resulting in technical debt. Because you can’t always account for accidental or outdated design issues, set aside time in the future to address potential technical debt that has accrued.


Bit Rot Technical Debt

Bit rot technical debt is slowly accrued over time as a component or system becomes unnecessarily complex due to lots of incremental changes. This bit rot technical debt can be particularly significant if the people working on these incremental changes don’t fully understand the original design. This is more likely to happen if changes are made by different development teams.

This is the one type of technical debt that you can avoid through careful planning. For example, when the design is worked on throughout the future, it’s essential that the development team working on it understands the original design . As they make changes to the design, they should also clean up bad code and make improvements to the design along the way.

What Are Its Common Causes?

Common causes of technical debt, including both intentional and unintentional technical debt, are these:

Intentional Causes

Taking on technical debt intentionally is often the result of the following:

  • Time constraints – You may find yourself in a situation in which a shortcut must be taken to ensure that the product is launched in time. If done the right way, it could result in significant delays. When judging the pros and cons of these choices, you may choose to take on the technical debt as the consequences may not be nearly as serious as long as time is set aside to address the debt following the launch (and the shortcuts that are taken won’t affect the immediate functionality of your product).
  • Source code complexity – The more complex your source code is, the more technical debt you take on. The complexity of your source code is often measured by the path length that it takes to perform an operation. The longer the path, the more complex the code. Complex code is more difficult to refactor in the future, creating technical debt.
  • Poorly-informed business decisions – The development team may not have much say over whether they take on technical debt or not. Stakeholders may make demands that will result in technical debt despite their lack of technical knowledge. For example, they may want to reduce the budget of the project, requiring your team to take shortcuts.

Unintentional Causes

Taking on technical debt accidently can result from these factors:

  • A lack of coding standards and guides – Best practice is to establish a specific set of coding methods and conventions that will be followed over the course of the project. Without coding standards, developers will format code any way they want to any new features implemented throughout the future instead of the way that is commonly accepted for a specific software project. Technical debt just builds up over time when there are no coding standards.
  • The use of junior coders – The quality of the software is reflected by the quality of the development team. If your team is full of junior coders who lack the necessary experience and skill sets, odds are you’re going to end up with a lot of technical debt by the time your software launches. Junior coders are often unaware of why certain practices are bad or how taking shortcuts can result in technical debt because they haven’t dealt with the challenge of solving technical debt before.
  • Poor planning – There are several ways in which poor planning can cause technical debt to build up. Underestimating how long it will take to develop the software will result in the accumulation of bad practices and shortcuts. Not documenting the code will also make it more difficult for future developers to understand the original code to avoid bit rot technical debt. Finally, time should be set aside in the future to address technical debt so it doesn’t grow out of hand.

Technological Change

Whether technical debt is purposefully or accidentally incurred, it’s typically caused by the actions of your development team. However, technical debt can be incurred outside of the control of your development team as well. Technology evolves over time, and your original code may eventually become outdated. While you can address the possibility that change in technology might result in technical debt, it’s not always possible to future proof your project. Plan on refactoring your software in the future to keep it up to date with evolving technology.

Risks Of Incurring Technical Debt

Managing your technical debt is essential. If you don’t manage your technical debt (by addressing it over time), you risk a number of potential consequences. For example, it can become more and more difficult to add functionality to your software if there are issues with the source code that were never addressed. Whenever you want to add a new feature, you’ll find that it will take much longer to do so because you’ll need to address a certain amount of technical debt first in order to implement that feature. As a result, you may end up missing important deadlines. It also means that your development team will have to work much longer than usual in order to implement those new features.

Additionally, technical debt that accumulates as a result of poorly written code can cause all kinds of issues with the software itself, such as crashes, errors, and bugs, all of which cost time and money to fix. This will hurt the functionality of your product and increase customer dissatisfaction. All of this technical debt is likely to make your product become outdated much faster, leading to outdated functionality and potential security risks as well.

Keeping The Debt Effectively Managed

To avoid the consequences of building up too much technical debt, it is best to proactively manage the technical debt you have effectively. The following are a few tips that will help you do just that:

1. Dedicate Capacity

Specifically task your team to work on technical debt over time. This ensures that technical debt isn’t just ignored until it causes serious problems.

Strategies You Can Adapt

Here are a few strategies for getting your team to address technical debt over time:

1 Out of Every 4 Work Items

Odds are your team has plenty of things on their plate. It’s often why addressing technical debt often gets pushed to the backburner. One way to prevent this from happening is to require that out of every four work items that your team completes, one of these items must be fixing technical debt.

1 Day a Week

Another way to make sure your technical debt is addressed is by scheduling one day out of the week during which the only thing your team focuses on is clearing technical debt.

Rotating Role

Assign one of the developers on your team to work solely on technical debt for a specific amount of time. Once that time is up, assign a different developer to the task. Keep rotating through your developers in this manner to ensure that someone is working on your technical debt at all times.

2. Regular Refactoring

Refactoring is a process in which the existing computer code of your software is restructured. Doing so improves the nonfunctional attributes of your software without changing its external behavior. As a result of refactoring your software, you will improve code readability and reduce its complexity.

Time the Refactoring

Refactoring does take time and resources to perform. A lot of businesses mistakenly decide not to refactor their software because it doesn’t add any functionality to their app. This is obviously a mistake as it can cause technical debt to build up much faster if you don’t refactor. As far as how often you should refactor your software, it’s a good idea to schedule refactoring right before you decide to extend or implement a new feature. This ensures that the feature is built on good, up-to-date code.

3. Make The Debt Visible

If you don’t keep track of your technical debt, it’s liable to grow out of hand without you realizing it. As such, one of the important ways to manage your technical debt is to make it visible. You can do this by keeping an explicit list of your technical debt and all of the potential consequences of that debt. This is particularly important when it comes to managing deliberate technical debt.

Tracking accidental technical debt regularly is also important. You can do this by measuring a variety of metrics, such as tracking code quality metrics, data quality metrics, and usability metrics. Running regression tests routinely to detect when defects have been injected into your code is also valuable.

As you manage a list of both deliberate and accidental technical debt, grouping tasks into workable units will make it much easier for your team to address it on a regular basis and to keep it at a manageable level.

4. Microservices Architecture

Using microservices architecture can make it a lot easier to address technical debt through refactoring. Refactoring large applications can be challenging and time-consuming; however, by breaking down the functionality of an application into interconnected microservices, you’ll be able to refactor services on an individual basis, and allow you to tackle technical debt incrementally. The ability to refactor in this manner makes it a lot easier to address accidental technical debt or technical debt that accumulates due to outdated code.

Don’t Let The Debt Build Up

When working on a new software project, limiting the amount of technical debt that you take on by following good coding practices is essential. Unfortunately, you’re likely to take on technical debt no matter what, whether it’s deliberate or on accident. But just ignoring your technical debt will only cause the “interest”  to accumulate, leading to all kinds of problems in the future. Put a plan in place to manage your technical debt and make sure that you tidy up your code and remove cruft (bad or unwanted code) as you go.

Are you in the midst of a technical debt crisis? Consult with our experts today, we’d be glad to help.