How to Solve Technical Debt: Best Practices for Keeping Your Codebase Healthy
Technical debt is an inevitable part of technology. Many businesses have it, and yours might too. The question is: does it hinder your company? And if so, how can you solve it?
Although a small amount of technical debt is common and acceptable, most businesses struggle with piles of unfinished solutions. In fact, in 2023, 72% of CIOs admit that they are behind in their digital transformation due to technical debt. To save your business from trouble and to prevent severe damage, you must deal with excessive technical debt immediately using the proper strategy.
Continue reading to discover 5 approaches that will help you overcome technical debt and open up a pool of new business development opportunities.
What Is Technical Debt?
Simply put, technical debt is the number of resources you have to spend in the future to make up for the technical mistakes you made in the past, resulting in a collection of technical solutions that pile up and hinder business processes.
The idea is similar to financial debt. With finance, you loan money and then give it back in the future (the later you do it, the more money you will have to return because of interest). Similarly with technology, debt occurs when you postpone a task or compromise in the short-term for quicker and easier solutions, only to end up having to deal with issues later on (spending more time and budget). In both cases, the longer you wait to solve the debt, the more resources you will have to give back later on.
Some technical debt examples are:
- Poor code quality
- Lack of technical documentation
- Outdated software libraries
- Lack of automation
- Poorly architected systems
Technical debt is not always a bad thing. Having a small amount of it is common and inevitable. Sometimes, you must prioritize time over quality and there is nothing you can do about it. For example, when you need to build an MVP (minimum viable product) as a first step to present an idea to clients urgently. The difference is in intending to reduce technical debt as soon as possible and then actually following through.
What Causes Tech Debt?
There are 2 types of technical debt: intentional and unintentional. Intentional (active) technical debt occurs when developers deliberately delay certain tasks to speed up and release faster. Unintentional (passive) technical debt occurs as a result of time passing and technology getting old, or when the development teams are not aware of the poor quality code they deliver.
Here are some examples of tech debt causes:
- Unrealistic expectations of the time and resources needed for task completion
- Lack of testing, particularly automated tests
- Inefficient communication between managers, developers, and stakeholders
- Skills shortage
- Writing code without supporting documentation
- Lack of planning
- Postponing the implementation of innovations
- Misalignment of available technology with business goals
- Budget restrictions or inefficient budget allocation
- Unmotivated developers
- Vague goals and objectives
- Delaying the code debt refactoring, etc.
The technical debt could also appear because your competitors use newer technologies that better optimize the costs or deliver revenues, even if the software you have now is still in an excellent state.
How Can Technical Debt Impact Your Business?
According to The Accenture Federal Digital Decoupling Study, 81% of companies face disruptions to their core business operations and cannot start working with newer technologies because of their technical debt. It causes a decline in productivity, constant delays, decreased work quality, lousy user experience, weakened security, and budget overruns. On average, 10 – 20% of a company’s technology budget is diverted to repaying tech debt.
By not addressing technical debt, you can lose customers who are unsatisfied with the current state of the software and ultimately deteriorate your product. Your image as a business and an employer may also be ruined, as constantly bugged legacy software can be detrimental for branding.
The longer you wait to begin managing technical debt, the more challenging and more expensive it will be to do so in the future. Just like with financial debt, you need to pay more interest with time. This takes away opportunities you could invest in instead. This is why it is crucial to reduce the problem as soon as possible.
[su_note note_color=”#F0F8FC” radius=”15″]Our client Babypark, the largest children’s goods retail network in Europe, struggled with technical debt that hindered their growth.
Having purchased an ERP (Enterprise resource planning) system in the early 2000s, the company used it successfully for a long time. However, as the business was growing and required new features, the only way to get those was by changing some organizational processes and creating workarounds in the software, which piled up, causing serious problems.
For example, the ERP system didn’t support shipping costs natively. When a customer added shipping to the product, the system added an individual product named “shipping” to the order to calculate the final price. It was hidden from the front end but still caused additional problems.
Opening a new store or expanding internationally with similar issues was almost impossible for Babypark.
To deal with the problem, Maven performed an architecture redesign decreasing technical debt and created a custom POS system. Babypark received x30 order process speed, x24 faster info updates, reduced costs for 3d party services, and eliminated barriers for omnichannel growth. Today we continue cooperation and improvements.[/su_note]
5 Strategies To Solve Your Technical Debt
When it comes to dealing with technical debt, you cannot just choose one perfect strategy and go for it. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages, so the best decision is to use a combination of strategies. Here are the 5 strategies we advise you to consider:
Change Your Software Development Process
First, to solve the technical debt, you need to pay attention to the development process that caused it. Examine all the weak points where your workflow gets stuck and disruptive. The framework you use may not work well enough, or a certain part of the code may slow down the progress. The problem could also be with the platform you use or with outdated hardware.
Analyze and determine the pain points, and make a plan to work on fixing them. Gather every team involved, communicate with them, set new rules for the process, decide who should be responsible for each task, and reframe the initial strategy if need be. This time, make sure that your employees have the resources needed for handling technical debt instead of postponing it in order to ensure that technical debt causes are minimized.
Set strict rules for when the testing should be done. If you want it to be part of the routine and not pile up in the backlog during other development processes, one way to do that is to communicate with the engineering teams that “done” on your sprint board means “done, tested, and with no technical debt.”
[su_quote cite=”Serhii Kopeikin, COO at Maven Solutions” url=”https://www.linkedin.com/in/serhii-kopeikin-b99b60a3″]Ineffective communication and poor planning can actually cause technical debt to occur once again after it was eliminated. We had to deal with a handful of projects that got a fair bit of technical debt right after the brand-new development/modernization effort. That’s always a bitter pill for business – paying twice because of poor planning and development without a regular technical debt health check.[/su_quote]
Another tip is to use automation for developing, testing, and deploying to avoid the possibility of debt occurrence from manual actions. It can also help speed up quality control (QA), reduce the human error risk, and build a quality basis for refactoring or other modernization strategies. Automated unit testing is one of the best practices.
One more way to deal with technical debt is to use a sprint-by-sprint approach, which allows you to address the technical debt iteratively. You could also decide to decrease the existing technical debt all at once, creating a separate sprint for all of it.
Take Up Code Review Techniques
Even if you perform extensive and meticulous testing, having a fresh look at your code can be valuable in identifying any overlooked issues. Accordingly, another way of technical debt management is to constantly review it using specific techniques. Some of these techniques include:
Pair programming: Two developers work together simultaneously; one writes the code and the other works on reviewing and refining it right away
Static code analysis: Automated tools analyze the code for errors and provide feedback to the developer
Code walkthroughs: Developers review the code together and discuss any issues or suggestions for improvement
Peer review: Another developer reviews the code and provides feedback, suggestions, and corrections
Code profiling: The code is analyzed to identify any performance issues, memory leaks, or other problems that could affect its performance
Code reuse: Developers review the code to identify any functions or modules that can be reused in other projects to save time and effort
Code documentation: Developers review the code to ensure that it is properly documented, which helps other developers understand how the code works and how to use it
Track and Improve the Appropriate Metrics
Another way to handle technical debt is to use metrics to quantify it. This will help you make abstract things measurable and allow you to track their performance. You can also become more precise when setting goals, identify where exactly the business is being slowed down by technology, and define the right priorities.
There isn’t a strict list of metrics you should use, as there are a lot of them. You could consider defect escape rate, daily deployments, code coverage metrics, bug count, application crash data, or the number of failed CI/CD. However, consider which one would work best for your individual case.
Establish a Constant Refactoring Culture
Refactoring is a process of changing the code and making its internal structure slightly more optimized, modernized, and compliant with coding standards, all while keeping the external behavior the same. It can be as easy as renaming classes or reorganizing the code’s structure.
The goal is not to make a massive change in how the code works, but rather to make it more efficient and readable, compatible with new features, convenient to work with, and easy to integrate with newer platforms.
Constant refactoring for technology is a similar process to working out and eating healthy. If you think long-term and make maintaining good product health a habit, you can prevent many future issues. This is why it should be prioritized as highly as the new feature development.
For example, when working with clients, we at Maven try to break down the work process into these parts:
This way, while developing new features, we make sure to decrease the existing technical debt while preventing its occurrence in the future.
In some cases, refactoring is not enough to deal with technical debt. Then, you should think about other options for application modernization.
Understand and Treat the Root Cause
This might be the hardest and the most complex strategy, as it requires looking at the big picture and the business organization as a whole. While changing the software development process alone or constantly refactoring already does the work, if you still have problems, you should find out how to solve technical debt by looking for the root cause rather than the symptoms.
Usually, problems emerge because of inappropriate organization. For example, a deliberate technical debt will likely occur when your project managers cannot set a balanced workflow, or developers are reluctant or not motivated enough to adhere to it. Maybe the problem is in sales and marketing employees that promise your clients unrealistic results. The reason could also be a CEO setting inadequate goals and expectations.
You need to look over the whole business structure in general and communicate, find the pain points that hinder the process, and prioritize addressing these issues first. Ensure the development team and stakeholders understand how to manage technical debt and why it is important. Pay attention to the work culture in your company and keep it healthy.
Make communication between engineers and managers more frequent and transparent. Engineers know and understand technical problems deeply as they are the first people who feel the impact on the workflow. Truly taking into account the engineering team’s needs, setting realistic expectations and goals, and fixing technical debt tasks in sprint planning more often.
Technical debt is a common problem that needs to be addressed the moment it starts to hinder business processes. The sooner the debt is eliminated, the fewer issues you will have to deal with in the future.
To address your technical debt correctly, you can change the software development approach, use code review techniques, track and improve the appropriate metrics, constantly refactor, or treat the root cause. Whatever you choose should be based on your business’s specific needs, goals, and priorities.
If you need a solution provider to help you deal with technical debt and prevent its occurrence further, contact Maven.
What are the types of technical debt?
You could differentiate technical debt by code, design, testing, documentation, and infrastructure debt.
What are examples of technical debt?
Some examples of technical debt include using outdated software libraries, having poor or no documentation, poorly architected systems, low-quality code, etc.
How do you track technical debt?
Firstly, identify it. Then, use metrics to quantify, estimate and categorize it. Create a technical debt backlog with a list of items that need to be addressed, and integrate technical debt reduction into development processes, further monitoring the metrics and results.
What is the financial meaning of technical debt?
Financially, technical debt refers to the cost you have to spend in the future on the resources needed to fix your technological mistakes or lack of modernization from the past.