Technical debt cover
Best practices Management Agile
18 mins read
April 8, 2024

Eliminate tech chaos with the power of effective debt management

In the ever-evolving landscape of software development, where innovation drives progress, there exists a formidable challenge that you probably keep postponing—technical debt. It's the result of shortcuts, compromises, and postponed decisions that can destroy software projects, hinder growth and suffocate creativity.

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Stefan Gogoll
Nurlan Suleymanov

But fear not, for within this article, a roadmap awaits—one that will empower you to measure technical debt and manage it like never before. In this article, we will embark on a transformative journey and equip you with the knowledge and strategies to conquer technical debt. By the time you reach the end of this article, you will get the insights and tools necessary to take charge, optimise your workflow, and pave the way for seamless progress. You will also see a technical debt example to understand how it lurks beneath the surface and haunts you when gone unnoticed. So let’s start, shall we?

What is technical debt?

Technical debt is the accumulation of inefficient code, design decisions, or development practices in software projects. It results from taking shortcuts or compromises during development to deliver quick solutions or meet immediate deadlines. When you do not deal with it timely, just like financial debt, technical debt gets bigger over time, comes with interest, and charges an extra penalty for being late.

Missed payments on technical debt makeMake future development more challenging, time-consuming, and error-prone. They damage the software’s maintainability, scalability, and overall quality, requiring additional effort to rectify or refactor the code. So managing technical debt involves balancing short-term wins and long-term sustainability to guarantee software projects’ smooth evolution and success.

Benefits of tackling technical debt

So what makes technical debt so essential to deal with? To comprehend the significance of managing technical debt, you should understand its impact on software development projects and the long-term results. Here are the vital aspects: 

  1. Time to Market: Technical debt often occurs when dealing with tight deadlines and faster software delivery. It allows you to release a product or feature faster and gain a competitive edge in the market. However, accumulating too much debt will eventually slow development and make it harder to introduce new features or promptly meet customer needs. A major blocker that locks you out of adding new features or even supporting the rushed functionality is always on the horizon.
  2. Flexibility and Adaptability: Technical debt can limit your system’s flexibility and adaptability. As debt accumulates, the codebase becomes more complex, making modifying or introducing new functionalities harder. This can hinder innovation and the ability to respond to evolving business requirements quickly. 
  3. Maintenance and Bug Fixes: Poorly designed or convoluted code makes it harder for developers to identify and resolve issues efficiently. As a result, maintenance activities become time-consuming, leading to delays, increased costs, and reduced productivity. 
  4. Team Collaboration and Knowledge Sharing: Especially in Agile, technical debt can harm team collaboration. Poorly documented or excessively complex code makes it challenging for team members to understand and work on different parts of the system, hindering knowledge-sharing of code reviews and impeding effective teamwork. 
  5. Quality and Reliability: Finally, accumulated technical debt can compromise the overall quality of software. Workarounds and shortcuts may introduce new bugs or destabilise the system, leading to a higher risk of performance issues and customer dissatisfaction. This is how you take not just a financial hit (remember, interest and penalties) but also a reputational one. Much like a real borrower, you will have a harder time raising further capital

The first step to reduce technical debt is acknowledging that real risks are associated with postponing solutions too much. Balancing the need for speedy development with the long-term health of the software is crucial for productivity, reduced risks, and increased customer satisfaction.

"Left unchecked, technical debt will ensure that the only work that gets done is unplanned work!"

Gene Kim, DevOps expert

Best solution is to avoid tech debt by saying no to unrealistic deadlines and stop taking shortcuts.

What causes technical debt?

Various causes can result in technical debt throughout the software development lifecycle, and here are some common factors that contribute to its accumulation: 

  1. Time pressure and making shortcuts to meet tight deadlines often lead to technical debt accumulation. Developers may resort to temporary solutions to quickly launch the software, sacrificing long-term code quality and maintainability. 
  2. Inadequate planning or incomplete requirements also lead to rushed, suboptimal development decisions. Lack of foresight regarding future changes or scalability needs introduces technical debt for any project that needs changes or expansion. 
  3. Poor documentation can make it difficult for developers to understand the system’s design leading to code that is hard to maintain, modify, or debug. This code may already be flawed in the first place due to the tight schedule, too.
  4. Insufficient testing practices, like skipping unit tests or relying solely on manual testing, can result in technical debt over time as the system becomes more fragile and prone to failures. 
  5. Legacy systems and outdated technologies can introduce technical debt due to inherent limitations or deprecated practices. Upgrading such systems requires additional effort, carries the risk of introducing new issues, may be deemed not worth it financially, or simply not be feasible during live operations. 
  6. Lack of skills or experience may unknowingly introduce technical debt through inefficient coding practices, poor design choices, or inadequate adherence to established coding standards. 
  7. Scope creep or frequent changes in project requirements without proper evaluation of their impact can also cause technical debt. Adding new features or functionalities on top of existing codebases often result in a patchwork of code, increasing complexity and reducing maintainability.
  8. Communication and collaboration issues among team members can lead to misunderstandings, inconsistencies, and, ultimately, the introduction of technical debt in the scrum. Lack of alignment on coding standards, code reviews, or shared knowledge contributes to suboptimal solutions.

If you are looking for a resource to help you through your testing efforts, consider this free testing strategy template by aqua cloud. This comprehensive guide covers all the essential aspects, from defining the scope of testing and determining test levels and types to addressing potential risks and establishing a solid testing methodology. Implementing this test strategy template or getting inspiration from it will give your team a clear roadmap, ensuring efficient and effective testing. You will also be more confident with your new projects and equip your staff with a well-defined framework.

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testing strategy template

Set clear testing objectives with aqua cloud's test strategy template

How to work around technical debt?

As mentioned, working along the technical debt requires a careful balance between short-term gains and long-term consequences. Here are some considerations for effectively servicing your technical debt: 

  1. Make strategic decisions and evaluate the trade-offs to identify when and where to incur technical debt. Consider the project’s priorities, time constraints, and business needs. Use technical debt in your favour to get short-term advantages while considering the potential long-term implications. 
  2. Define a clear debt management strategy by establishing guidelines and frameworks within your company. Define criteria for identifying and categorising different types of tech debt. You should know how and when to address the debt to keep it manageable and under control. 
  3. Document and communicate by keeping a record of technical debt, including its nature, impact, and intended timeframe for resolution. Report this information to fellow developers, QA specialists, project managers, and product owners to ensure transparency and alignment. 
  4. Prioritise and plan for debt resolution based on its severity and potential impact. You should include debt resolution tasks in your project planning and allocate resources accordingly to manage the overall health of the software. 
  5. Refactor and improve the codebase continuously by allocating time and resources on a consistent basis. Encourage developers to address technical debt incrementally and emphasise the importance of clean, maintainable code in development. For example, in aqua, our developers spend up to 20% of their time refactoring, which shows how important maintainable code is. 
  6. Collaborate and share knowledge. Encourage code reviews, pair programming, and mentoring to facilitate the identification and mitigation of technical debt. Collective ownership and shared responsibility for the codebase will help you prevent unnecessary debt and keep it from piling up.
  7. Use automation and code analysis tools to identify and address technical debt. They will help you highlight code quality issues and potential areas of improvement. This way, you can catch regressions and ensure that refactoring efforts don’t introduce new issues.

Is technical debt bad?

The word “debt” immediately creates a negative image of owning something you should not, so there is a general misconception that technical debt is bad. However, technical debt isn’t inherently bad because, when used judiciously, it can offer short-term advantages. For instance, it allows you to meet urgent deadlines and implement quick experiments. It’s like taking a loan—it’s not inherently negative; it’s about how you utilise it. 

This strategic decision-making in managing technical debt becomes vital, as it can facilitate quick responses to market demands or changing priorities. However, the challenge arises when you don’t manage this debt effectively, accumulating interest over time, which may lead to future complications. Therefore, it’s not the debt itself that’s inherently bad, but rather the mismanagement or neglect of it that can lead to adverse effects.

Technical dept metrics: how to measure technical debt?

You should be able to quantify and measure technical debt to understand its impact and prioritise necessary actions for effective management. How? Well, these are the main technical debt metrics you should know about: 

1. Debt Ratio

This tech debt metric helps you compare the effort needed to repay the debt against the total effort you spend on development. It essentially calculates the time or resources required to address existing technical debt in relation to the overall development effort you put in.

2. Technical Debt Index 

Think of this as a credit score for your code. It gives you a number indicating the overall level of technical debt within your project or codebase. It considers factors like code complexity, duplication, and code quality to give you a comprehensive score.

3. Coverage Debt 

This metric assesses the percentage of your code covered by tests. A lower test coverage might point to higher technical debt areas—parts of your code that aren’t adequately tested, potentially leading to more issues and increased effort in maintenance. 

4. Code Smells or Code Quality 

Metrics Identifying and measuring code smells, like complex or duplicated code, helps you evaluate the overall quality of your codebase. Metrics like cyclomatic complexity or duplication rates give you insights into potential areas of technical debt. 

5. Bug Resolution Time 

This metric measures the time you take to resolve bugs or issues within your codebase. A longer resolution time could suggest the presence of underlying technical debt impacting your software’s stability. 

6. Deployment Frequency 

Your deployment frequency matters. A low frequency might indicate technical debt, possibly due to complexities within your codebase or infrastructure, making it challenging to release new features or updates regularly.

These metrics offer a tangible way to quantify technical debt, aiding in informed decision-making for its mitigation. Now, are there specialised tools for this? Or should you carry out the analysis manually? In the next part, we talk exactly about this. 

Technical debt

Types of technical debt

Below are some real-life technical debt examples you can encounter in your software development projects: 

Suppose you have worked on a customer relationship management (CRM) application for several years. As the project progressed, you faced increasing pressure to release new features and updates quickly to meet market demands. In your haste to deliver, you accumulated technical debt in various areas: 

  1. User Interface (UI) debt: The initial version of the application had a simple and functional UI, but it lacked modern design attributes and responsiveness expected by users. This resulted in a poor user experience and limited your application’s appeal and usability for mobile or tablet users. 
  2. Database design debt: In the early stages of development, you made design choices that didn’t fully consider future scalability and data volume. As the user base grew, your database structure became less efficient, making deployment and maintenance more expensive and error-prone than they should have been. 
  3. Testing debt: To meet tight deadlines, you focused mainly on functional testing, resulting in limited test coverage for non-functional aspects, including performance and security tests. This led to performance issues in production and compromised the application’s reliability. 
  4. Codebase complexity: The code became increasingly complex and difficult to maintain due to changing requirements and feature additions. The lack of proper refactoring resulted in redundant code and poor documentation, making introducing new enhancements or fixing bugs time-consuming and error-prone. 
  5. Dependency debt: Over time, your application continued to rely on outdated third-party libraries and frameworks. This technical debt made your application a potential victim of security vulnerability targeting older and/or unsupported libraries. 

Due to this technical debt, you face challenges in delivering new features efficiently, maintaining code quality, and ensuring a seamless user experience. Addressing this debt would require allocating dedicated resources to refactor the UI, redesign the database structure, enhance test coverage, simplify the codebase, and update dependencies to mitigate security risks. All of this could have been handled steadily and likely without a business-ruining reduction in new feature releases.

Technical debt analysis tools

There are several powerful tools available that provide insights and assistance in identifying and addressing technical debt within software projects. Here are some of them: 

1. SonarQube 

SonarQube, an open-source platform, helps you assess code quality and pinpoint areas of technical debt. It conducts static code analysis, identifies code smells, bugs, and tracks code duplication, providing insights for improving your code quality. 

2. Code Climate 

Code Climate is a tool that assesses your code quality, detects issues, and evaluates technical debt in real-time. It offers automated code review, tracking metrics like code complexity, test coverage, and duplication, giving you actionable insights for improvements. 

3. CAST Highlight 

CAST Highlight, a cloud-based software intelligence platform, analyzes your software’s health and pinpoints technical debt. It delivers analytics on code health, cloud readiness, security vulnerabilities, and outlines a roadmap for addressing technical debt within your projects. 

4. JArchitect 

JArchitect, designed primarily for Java projects, aids you in visualising code structure, identifying complex code areas, and tracking technical debt. It generates visual reports, helping you comprehend and make decisions based on your software’s condition.

These tools offer diverse features and functionalities, aiding you in identifying, quantifying, and managing the technical debt within their software projects.

Conclusion

Managing technical debt is a critical software development aspect requiring attention, discipline, and proactive measures. If you understand the causes and impact of technical debt, you will be able to make informed decisions to strike a balance between short-term goals and long-term sustainability. Addressing technical debt through refactoring, improved testing practices and strategic decision-making will improve your code quality, save you time and resources, and help you deliver higher-quality software for your users.

So, are you ready to tackle testing issues and effectively manage your technical debt? aqua cloud is here to help. This AI-powered, modern test management system & bug reporting tool provides a comprehensive suite of features to streamline your testing processes, enhance test coverage, and drive software quality. From test planning and execution to bug tracking and reporting, aqua empowers your team to overcome testing management challenges quickly. With its AI Copilot, you can generate test cases with a few clicks and improve the existing ones, but more importantly, prioritise tests based on risks and past execution history.

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FAQ
What is technical debt in Agile?

Technical debt is the estimation of the effort required to revise or improve a solution due to the choice of a short-term and convenient solution over a more demanding but also more reliable approach.

How do you identify technical debt?

You can identify technical debt by examining code complexity, performing code smells, low test coverage, frequent bug occurrences, and system areas that require frequent maintenance or enhancements.

Is technical debt good or bad?

It is hard to decide whether technical debt is good or bad. Small tech debt indicates that you optimise to the point of delaying new features, which may be required for your project. , Having huge technical debt is generally bad because it represents a lot of compromises in code quality, resulting in long-term challenges, increased development costs, and reduced software maintainability.

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