Technology has become an indispensable driver of progress. However, it’s important to acknowledge the potential downsides that come with it. One such drawback is technical debt, a consequence of early subpar technological choices. If left unaddressed, technical debt can lead to higher development costs, longer time-to-market, and reduced productivity. Managing technical debt should be a top priority for CTOs and software developers, considering the significant impact it can have.
In this article, we will explore the concept of technical debt and address crucial questions surrounding it. We will define technical debt, examine its causes and impacts, and provide insight into common types of technical debt. Additionally, we will specifically discuss its implications within the Salesforce ecosystem.
What is Technical Debt?
Technical debt (TD) is a fundamental concept in software development that arises when shortcuts are taken to achieve short-term goals, often at the expense of long-term efficiency.
In simpler terms, it’s like borrowing from the future to meet an urgent deadline or deliverable. This approach prioritizes speedy delivery over perfect code, resulting in a debt that must be repaid through future reworks.
Ward Cunningham, the author of the Agile Manifesto, coined the term ‘technical debt’ in 1992 to describe the consequences of accumulating tech-related issues. He cleverly likened shipping first-time code to going into debt, highlighting that a small amount of debt can accelerate development if it’s promptly paid back with a rewrite. However, if the debt remains unpaid, every moment spent on suboptimal code becomes an interest payment on that debt. The accumulation of technical debt can even bring entire engineering organizations to a standstill, regardless of whether they adopt object-oriented practices or not.
It’s important to note that technical debt itself isn’t necessarily problematic. Similar to how leverage can benefit organizations when used wisely, in software development, a quick solution can expedite time to market. However, technical debt becomes an issue when the software product isn’t properly optimized or when the code becomes excessively dysfunctional.
Types of Technical Debt
When it comes to technical debt, Steve McConnell, Chief Software Engineer at Construx Software, has categorized it into two primary types: intentional and unintentional. Let’s take a closer look at each:
1. Intentional technical debt:
This category of technical debt arises when an organization consciously decides to incur it, fully aware of the associated risks and costs. In such cases, it becomes crucial for the organization to clearly define the compromises they are willing to make. This planned technical debt allows them to prioritize speed or other immediate needs over long-term optimization.
2. Unintentional technical debt:
In contrast, unintentional technical debt stems from a lack of knowledge, accidental mistakes, or even hastily written suboptimal code due to expediency. For instance, an unintentional technical debt may occur when a poor design approach results in a higher likelihood of errors. This type of debt often arises from communication gaps within an organization or among DevOps teams.
Expanding on the topic, academics in 2014 further classified technical debt into 13 distinct types. Here are some notable ones:
- Architecture debt: Refers to compromises made in the overall system architecture that may hinder scalability or maintainability.
- Build debt: Occurs when the build and deployment processes are not properly optimized, leading to inefficiencies or errors.
- Code debt: Arises from suboptimal or poorly structured code that may be harder to maintain or prone to defects.
- Defect debt: Results from unresolved or unaddressed defects in the software, which can accumulate and impact its overall quality.
- Design debt: Involves compromises made in the design phase that may lead to increased complexity or difficulties in making changes.
- Documentation debt: Occurs when documentation is neglected or becomes outdated, making it harder for developers to understand and work with the codebase.
- Infrastructure debt: Relates to issues with the underlying infrastructure, such as outdated hardware or software dependencies, that can impede development or deployment.
- Process debt: Arises from inefficient or outdated development processes that slow down productivity or hinder collaboration.
- Requirement debt: Occurs when essential requirements are not properly defined or documented, leading to confusion or rework.
- Service debt: Refers to shortcuts taken in developing services or APIs that may result in reduced functionality or lack of extensibility.
- Test debt: Arises from inadequate or incomplete testing, leading to undetected defects or reduced overall software quality.
Understanding the different types of technical debt allows organizations to identify and address specific areas that may require attention. By effectively managing and prioritizing the repayment of technical debt, development teams can ensure long-term success and maintain a healthy codebase.
The Technical Quadrant
Technical debt can be classified into four distinct quadrants, originally introduced by Martin Fowler. These quadrants shed light on the underlying causes and intentions behind code issues, providing valuable insights into the nature of technical debt. Let’s explore each quadrant in more detail:
- Prudent and deliberate: In this quadrant, a team makes a calculated decision to accumulate technical debt while fully understanding the potential consequences. They consciously choose to prioritize quick delivery over perfect code, acknowledging that they will have to address the debt later. This approach is commonly employed when the urgency of delivering the project outweighs the long-term risks associated with technical debt.
- Reckless and deliberate: Here, a team knowingly incurs technical debt and disregards the future ramifications. They are fully aware of the consequences but choose to ignore them, often driven by external pressures or unrealistic deadlines. This recklessness can lead to issues and higher costs down the line, as the team sacrifices quality for immediate gains.
- Prudent and inadvertent: In this quadrant, technical debt arises unintentionally due to mistakes made during implementation. The team may have had good intentions, but they discover flaws or suboptimal decisions only after the feature or project has been delivered. It highlights the importance of continuous learning and improvement, as the team realizes that better choices could have been made in hindsight.
- Reckless and inadvertent: This quadrant represents a situation where technical debt accumulates unknowingly due to a lack of knowledge or experience with Agile practices. The team unintentionally generates debt, unaware of the potential consequences. Over time, this debt becomes more difficult to manage, impacting the overall efficiency and stability of the software.
Comprehending these technical debt quadrants allows teams to assess the origins and implications of their code issues. It provides a framework to evaluate whether the technical debt was a deliberate trade-off, an inadvertent mistake, or a combination of both. By gaining such insights, teams can make informed decisions about technical debt management, ensuring they strike a balance between short-term delivery goals and long-term software quality.
Remember, managing technical debt is an ongoing process that requires vigilance and a proactive mindset. By addressing technical debt strategically and making well-informed choices, teams can optimize their development processes and create a more sustainable software ecosystem.
Causes of Technical Debt
Technical debt can accumulate in various ways throughout the lifecycle of a project. Let’s explore some common causes that organizations may encounter:
- Utilizing outdated designs: Sometimes, businesses continue using outdated design approaches even when their needs have evolved. This can result in mismatched solutions and technical debt.
- Leveraging bad coding practices: In cases where configuration options are readily available, resorting to poor coding practices can lead to suboptimal solutions and increased technical debt.
- Poor code quality: Insufficient attention to code quality can lead to failed deployments and application crashes, amplifying technical debt.
- Allowing unresolved tech debt to linger: When technical debt is not addressed promptly, it can accumulate and become more challenging to manage over time.
- Stakeholder pressure for quick releases: Urgency to release an application without making necessary improvements or refinements can lead to the accumulation of technical debt.
- Insufficient testing: Inadequate testing practices can result in quick fixes or band-aid solutions that fail to address underlying issues, further adding to technical debt.
- Lack of documentation: Coding without proper documentation makes it harder for developers to understand and maintain the codebase, contributing to technical debt.
- Inadequate technological leadership: A lack of strong leadership in guiding technological decisions and best practices can contribute to the accumulation of technical debt.
- Last-minute specification changes: Unexpected changes to project specifications can introduce additional complexity and technical debt if not properly managed.
- Lack of expertise and skill gaps: Insufficient knowledge or skill gaps within the development team can lead to suboptimal solutions and increased technical debt.
- Misalignment of funding and strategy: When funding decisions and strategic goals are not aligned, it can result in compromised development practices and the accumulation of technical debt.
- Lack of flexibility: Inflexible systems or architectures that are challenging to adapt or modify can result in technical debt when changes are needed.
- Parallel development projects: Running multiple development projects simultaneously can create extra work when merging changes into a single source, potentially increasing technical debt.
- Ignoring industry standards: Neglecting to adhere to established industry standards and best practices can contribute to technical debt over time.
- Lack of collaboration: Insufficient collaboration between team members and stakeholders can lead to miscommunication, inefficiencies, and ultimately, the accumulation of technical debt.
By understanding these common causes, organizations can take proactive steps to mitigate technical debt and prioritize long-term code quality and maintainability.
The Implications of Technical Debt
The impact of technical debt on an organization is far-reaching and can have significant consequences. While technical debt can be beneficial in certain situations, such as rapid MVP development for market validation, it also comes with its downsides. Let’s explore the impact of technical debt:
- Lowered team productivity: Technical debt has an exponential impact on productivity, hindering a team’s ability to innovate and execute new ideas. The team becomes burdened with fixing the accumulated debt, diverting valuable time and effort away from delivering value to the customer. Hours or even days are spent wrangling with quick-and-dirty code to ensure future modifications won’t cause issues or system crashes. This decreased productivity leads to longer “Time to market” and hampers the team’s overall efficiency.
- Negative impact on customer experience: Technical debt can have a detrimental effect on the quality of a system, resulting in system downtimes, poor user interface, and lower overall system performance. These factors directly impact customer satisfaction and can damage the organization’s reputation. When customers face subpar experiences due to technical debt-related issues, it erodes their trust and loyalty.
- Impact on transparency within the organization: Technical debt creates hidden costs that hinder efficiency and impede predictability in product development. It becomes a challenge for both the development team and product managers to accurately estimate the time and effort required for building new features, creating release plans, and establishing product roadmaps. Inaccurate estimates reduce transparency and make it difficult to manage stakeholders’ expectations, affecting the overall progress and success of projects.
- Lowered morale of developers: Technical debt affects the entire organization, but it particularly impacts developers. 52% of engineers believe technical debt negatively impacts their team’s morale, according to the “States of Technical Debt 2021”. The accumulation of technical debt leads to more bugs, lower system performance, system downtimes, and slower delivery, creating unnecessary pressure on developers. This can result in questions about their productivity and skillset, ultimately demotivating employees and hindering their ability to work on innovative projects.
- Increased Total Cost of Ownership (TCO): Technical debt has a significant impact on the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) and the return on investment (ROI) for organizations. As technical debt accumulates, systems become more complex with overlapping processes and customizations. This complexity drives up the costs associated with maintaining the product over time. Organizations end up spending more time, money, and resources fixing problems rather than focusing on closing sales and acquiring new customers.
The detrimental effects of technical debt are evident, with studies estimating that it consumes 40% of development time and costs over $1 million on average per business application. Managing and mitigating technical debt becomes crucial to avoid these long-term negative consequences and ensure the sustainability and success of software projects.
How does Salesforce Measure Technical debt?
Technical debt in Salesforce goes beyond traditional code-based shortcuts and extends into the realm of low-code platforms. With Salesforce, technical debt is incurred not just through coding but also through configuration choices made by clicks.
In the Salesforce ecosystem, technical debt encompasses more than just suboptimal code. It includes issues such as overlapping processes, excessive custom fields, redundant clutter, and disjointed configurations. This type of debt arises when decisions are driven by time, budget, and simplicity, rather than aligning with the strategic needs of the entire organization.
Let’s explore some examples of technical debt commonly encountered in Salesforce environments:
- Hard-coded references: Hard-coded values that should be flexible and easily configurable create technical debt. These references become difficult to modify or update when business requirements change.
- Unused validation rules: When validation rules are no longer relevant or necessary, they add unnecessary complexity and maintenance overhead to the system.
- Row lock errors: Inadequate handling of row lock errors can lead to data integrity issues and system errors, impacting the overall performance and user experience.
- Outdated reports and dashboards: Reports and dashboards that are no longer used or provide outdated information contribute to technical debt. They clutter the system and make it harder for users to find relevant insights.
- Inactive workflows: Workflows that are no longer in use but still exist in the system add unnecessary complexity and overhead. They can cause confusion and hinder the agility of the platform.
- Legacy applications: Outdated legacy applications integrated with Salesforce can also create technical debt. These applications may have limited compatibility and require extra effort to maintain and support.
Managing technical debt in Salesforce is a challenge faced by many organizations. As the complexity of Salesforce implementations grows over time, technical debt can result in decreased performance, slower adoption, reduced agility, administrative turnover, and failed development projects. The cost of technical debt in such cases can be exceedingly high.
According to a report, approximately 20% to 40% of an organization’s technology estate can be attributed to technical debt. Large organizations often find themselves owing millions of dollars in unpaid technical debt.
While a small amount of technical debt is generally acceptable in Salesforce, a substantial accumulation of debt can significantly impact the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). The more technical debt accumulates, the lower the return on investment (ROI) organizations can expect from their Salesforce implementation.
By actively managing and addressing technical debt, organizations can ensure a more efficient and sustainable Salesforce environment, maximizing the benefits and value derived from their investment.
Turn Your Debt into Investment
Striking the right balance between speed and quality is crucial when it comes to managing technical debt. It’s important to recognize that aiming for zero technical debt is an unrealistic goal. However, it’s equally important to understand that allowing technical debt to accumulate unchecked can cripple your organization in the long run. Finding the right approach and implementing effective strategies can help you address and pay off your debt more efficiently.
If you want to enhance the performance, stability, and maintainability of your projects, then reach out to our experts for a free strategic consultation. At Unthinkable, we specialize in helping organizations reduce technical debt and optimize their Salesforce platform. Our experts understand the importance of clean data and efficient Salesforce utilization to maximize the value you derive from the platform.