What is Technical Debt and How to Eliminate it?

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If you are in the software development industry, you must have come across the term “Technical Debt” quite frequently, especially when working on designs or system architecture. Technical debt is often synonymous to design debt or code debt and covers everything, right from minute bugs, to legacy codes, to missing documentation.

The term, ‘Technical Debt’ was coined by a software developer, Ward Cunningham who first used the metaphor to explain why ‘resources needed to be budgeted for refactoring’ to non-technical stakeholders at the WyCash.

The new buzzword led companies to dive straight down in tons of research, study, pilot models, and a part of numerous debates and panel discussions.

Let’s have a look at the various aspects associated with Technical Debt and understand how can it affect your business.

What is Technical Debt?
“Technical debt is created when design decisions are taken more conveniently than intelligently – cutting costs to meet budget ends that increase future maintenance costs.”

In simpler words, Technical debt is the lack of work in the initial phase of a product or its first version due to budget constraints or cost-cutting, which later results in a critical bug that needs to be fixed or a drawback that needs to be covered with an upgraded version.

It is the additional work required to complete the software development. For example, a module is written in legacy technology, that holds back the project from including new functionality that is an integral part of the software development.

In this case, the technical debt can be calculated as the amount of time and money needed for refactoring this module and migrating it to new technology altogether.

What are the causes of Technical Debt?
In a software development process, design decisions that systematically favor short-term gains over long-term achievements cause technical debts. Every company works with a set target of timeline in which they need to deliver the application or the software, as it solves a particular problem that is relevant to that time period.

However, the teams working on the project tend to make poor decisions to deliver an application faster. Instead of creating quality-driven software, which efficiently solves the problem of the user, the developers, designers, and testers often fail to analyze the application properly before its deployment.

Now, there are several causes of technical debt which might severely impact your product, and eventually your business.

1. Poor decision practices

2. Technology gap

3. Poor scheduling

4. Expedient models over efficient architectures

5. Inadequate testing procedures

6. Missing documentation

7. Extremely interdependent architectures

For smaller software systems, technical debt might not come as a major issue, but with increasing software complexity and growing system, the costs can be substantial enough to harm your business in the long run.

Types of Technical Debt:
Now that we understand the basics of technical debt, let’s delve deeper and understand the types of technical debt and how they can be tackled.

Lack of Modularity
It is the result of poor code design that leads to the same code serving different business logic. Dividing the code into modular units helps in reducing the coordination costs involved in system development and facilitating changes to modules without affecting other parts of the code design. It becomes hard to manage the software that has logics spread all over the codes and has parts of codes handling several logics.

Expedient Code Decisions
More often than not, engineers know what they’re getting into and how to deal with it. Nonetheless, to avoid any unforeseen complications on their way to developing a certain application or getting it done “quickly,” they tend to make expedient code decisions that are safer, faster, and easier. These convenient decisions cause the application to run successfully only for a short while after its deployment.

Improper Documentation
The design documentation team should ensure that the “design document” covers all the aspects of the project systematically. The understanding gap between the designers and the developers often leads to product failure.

Stringent Budget Requirements
Limited budget often makes the backend of the software suffer. Choosing a cheaper version of a security firewall to safeguard the application or decreasing the number of skilled professionals and hiring averagely experienced coders at half the salary can kill your final product.

Outdated Design Debt
When designing software systems, it is imperative to analyze the technological gap between the time of the product’s launch and its expected lifeline in the market. With evolving technology and new requirements showing up every day, a developer might find flaws in the code design in the future. However, in contrast to a code developed with lesser research, the intelligent original code is easier to refactor.

Bit Rot Technical Debt
Bit Rot technical debt happens over time when the complexity in the same code increases due to a lot of incremental changes. These modifications are often done by different developers who might not understand the original code entirely and include copy-paste and cargo-cult programming.

How to Measure Technical Debt?
Technical debt can be measured in the following ways:

1. Use tools like Coverity, SonarQube, etc. to get estimates
2. Application Portfolio Management (APM)

APM is used to assess coding objectives and business alignment, functional performance, cost-to-maintain, cloud, technical health, modernization readiness, and potential security vulnerabilities for each application in the enterprise. APM can also be used to evaluate the impact of possible fixes on overall performance.

How to Eliminate Technical Debt?
Many ways can help avoid losses occurred due to technical debts, including:

Technology Update
It is critical to update your software application to the latest versions of frameworks, databases, application servers, etc.

Refactoring codes and reviewing the software architecture often can help in producing codes that are more modular in nature and avoid repetitive coding.

Explicit Architecture Owner
Having an expert in the domain who can be an architecture owner gives an added benefit to the entire team. A disciplined agile team led by an AO can perform better as compared to other teams without an AO who helps them with design skills, implementation, and developing codes efficiently.

Regression Testing
Regression testing is the most effective method to avoid technical debt. It is a part of the agile technology which enables quality analysts to determine errors and bugs before the code actually deploys in real-time. With the growing importance of testing products and checking their credibility for the end-users, companies have now started expanding their testing teams which are further divided into automating testing team, unit testing team, system testing team, and many more covering both, black box and white box functionalities.

Facing a technical debt at some point in the software development cycle is quite common. However, managing a technical debt should be given high priority as it can get accumulated over time and pose severe threats to the entire application if not resolved promptly.

It is necessary to include a good approach to estimate the technical debt and address the issues that can be solved before the application is released. Due to the ever-shifting nature of codes and technology, it is impossible to evaluate every aspect of the future code changes, but with the right tools, one can minimize the amount of technical debt.


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