How to Reduce Technical Debt: A Comprehensive Guide

How to reduce technical debt - A comprehensive guide

What exactly is technical debt and how can we reduce technical debt? And how can it be managed easily and efficiently?

Debt is a term that almost everyone is familiar with today, usually in regards to financial debt. As many of us know, financial debt occurs when we need something now, but don’t have the necessary cash to pay for it. So we usually find a less optimal form of payment, often a type of loan or credit card, resulting in debt. Technical debt is very similar. Technical debt is the result of coding or programming decisions made in the short term, often in the name of speed or simplicity, in order to get the product or service into production sooner.

In almost every software environment, some technical debt is bound to occur, but, like financial debt, technical debt must be managed and reduced before it piles up and becomes too much to bear. 

Why Does Technical Debt Happen?

Technical debt often happens when software design and implementation decisions come into conflict with business goals and deadlines, and this is why it’s nearly inevitable in every company. If your software or project was not deployed until every line of code was perfect, your project may never get launched and your company will probably be very short-lived. 

Software development and engineering teams must often meet strict deadlines. Many a developer has taken a shortcut when it comes to writing clean code, creating concise documentation, and building clean data sources, in order to meet these deadlines. From a business perspective, this can make sense, as often resources and budgets are limited, information is incomplete, and speed-to-market is vital. 

Developers, product owners, and other members of the development team must remember, though, that tech debt, just like monetary debt, must be paid eventually before it surpasses acceptable levels and becomes a major problem. If business teams put too much emphasis on deadlines, and the software development team continues to search for a shortcut, the tech debt will destroy productivity.    

Taming Your Team’s Debt

An agile development team may accept that some design debt, code debt, or another form of technical debt is going to happen, but it doesn’t have to overtake your software development process. With some planning and foresight, tech debt can be treated at a manageable level. 

First, it is important to acknowledge that some unavoidable debts will happen. If you are constantly trying to reduce debt to zero, then you may not be delivering as much value to your clients, who may be more interested in using your code to solve their own problems. 

Second, while there will always be some tradeoff in development projects between business needs and design and development goals, this cannot morph into lazy technical design. Each developer must continue to maintain a high level in his or her development practices. When your team environment is focused on well-designed solutions and requirements, you’ll be less likely to face the impact of poor decisions downstream or in post-deployment. 

Next in your approach, remember that, if some bad code is unavoidable in development cycles, then it can be planned for. By creating a strategy for debt, engineering teams can dedicate a certain amount of time to paying off their debt. For an agile development team, this might mean refactor sprints or creating a maintenance release in which the team focuses on debt.

Another way to tame your team’s debt is to ensure that each group has the time and necessary resources they need in order to take on the debt. Each member of your software engineering team, from junior developers and up, needs to be empowered to utilize tech debt in the best way possible, while also being given the ability to pay down debt over time. In terms of time, if team members are constantly feeling the pressure to create new features and products, they may never feel they have permission to address their past tradeoffs. All developers must be given the time and opportunity to improve upon their code and pay off any debt. 

Additionally, it is important to remember that while most developers are very familiar with the idea of technical debt, each company and team’s definition will vary. This means that team leaders and product owners must educate each member of the group as to what exactly constitutes technical debt and how it is applied and recouped within that team’s framework. 

Automate the Bugs Away

Manual testing for any software system is often ineffective when it comes to the amount of time that must be spent as it applies to the quality of results produced. In this way, automated testing can be much more helpful and efficient. Automated testing is much more meticulous and accurate and helps to create results that are more likely to be replicated. While the initial setup of automated testing can take time, the benefits in learning how to reduce technical debt for the future more than make up for it. In the end, this will reduce costs, save time, and create an overall much more enjoyable experience for everyone involved.

Is Technical Debt Ever Unintentional? 

Most often, technical debt occurs as a result of time pressures. Coders and developers are feeling the crunch of an upcoming deadline and must make choices that will increase speed at the cost of potential efficiency down the road. But there are also other kinds of debt, most notably, unintentional technical debt. 

Unintentional technical debt –sometimes called accidental, outdated, passive, or inadvertent technical debt– occurs when the quality of the code deteriorates over time. This could happen as a result of poor, or unknowing, production or just that the code becomes outdated over time.

All good programmers and developers are constantly learning, and unintentional technical debt can be treated as a learning opportunity for everyone involved. Often, after a release occurs, the team may come to the conclusion that a better solution is possible. Agile teams may want to take time to review their process after each release in order to plan for the next project or sprint, as well as to update any legacy code. Legacy systems will eventually be out of date. Like all debt, unintentional technical debt is bound to occur. Teams cannot repeatedly troubleshoot and continue to fix debt, lest they end up in a black hole of adjusting code and refactoring. Instead, learn from it, make updates as needed, and continue forward.  

Can Microservices Help to Reduce Technical Debt?

Another potential way to institute some technical debt control is through the use of microservices. By breaking down a larger application and utilizing the power of API, microservices allow you to pay down your debt by refactoring services individually. An API-led approach may allow you to pay down your debt quickly, but there are some challenges that come along with microservice architecture. 

Microservices can be difficult to test. Given that a large amount of technical debt comes from time pressure and taking technical shortcuts, a team may feel just as inclined to skip over any complex microservice tests. It is also not always clear exactly what a microservice is. Modern API offers many advantages, but for many developers or house engineering teams, API microservices may be uncharted territory. This in turn can lead to poor builds, which will only lead to more debt. Finally, when you have several smaller services that you must build, test, and deploy, these services can, in themselves, become large and unruly, costing you even more time and overhead than perhaps the original application. 

What Exactly Are the Costs of Technical Debt? Are They Real?

Just as monetary debt has costs in the form of interest, technical debt has costs as well, both in the form of cash costs and soft costs. 

Technical debt has very real cash costs, though it may not be as obvious as a simple interest payment. With a large tech debt, more personnel will be necessary to maintain systems, and developers will have to spend more time to either correct the debt or work around the inefficient code. This increase in employees results in much higher costs. 

Additionally, this increase in personnel will lead to an increase in overhead. You may need a larger workspace and more resources for these new employees. If the debt results in security problems, you may have to pay fines or other penalties. 

More time spent correcting code can lead to fewer sales. Faulty software can lead to angry customers and increased requirements can greatly affect working capital. 

Along with the bottom-line cash costs, too much debt can result in soft costs that can have just as great an effect on your business’ results.

Technical debt can greatly lower your team’s productivity. System outages can lead to a stressed engineering workforce and a less productive staff that spend too much time extracting data rather than analyzing it. And if a security breach does occur, this will not only shift everyone’s time and focus away from the product and on to the systems, but it will also be a major blow for your team and company’s reputation. The true cost of technical debt can be very high indeed, and that is why learning how to reduce technical debt is crucial. 

How to Measure Technical Debt

Once you’re aware of what technical debt is and its costs, you will need to measure it in order to discover just how much debt you have and if you have been effective in reducing it. 

First, you’ll need to discover your technical debt ratio (TDR). TDR is the cost to repair the software system measured against the cost of the build. Generally, a low technical debt ratio is preferred. The higher your TDR, the worse shape your code is most likely in. Many app developers and other agile practitioners generally aim for a TDR of five percent or less.

Once you know your status in relation to your debt, your product team and business leaders should start to determine when it is time to pay the debt back. Is all debt bad? Not necessarily, but your organization will have to determine the amount of debt that is appropriate for you. You will need to take into account your limited resources, time, and goals in order to determine the capacity that you have to apply to your debt until your metrics start to produce the results your business requires. 

After you’ve determined the proper time to start paying back debt, you must then determine which debt is your top priority. You should aim to remove debt that is inhibiting productivity, quality, and flow time. 

How Sider Scan Can Find Potential Bugs and Help Reduce Technical Debt

Today, with so much emphasis on deadlines and other business pressures, many development teams are forced into looking for a code shortcut, which leads to greater and greater debt. By taking a technological approach and using software like Sider Scan, your team has the chance to move quickly and still create quality code. 

With Sider Scan, an advanced duplicate code detection tool, you can easily find duplicate blocks of code and then group these duplicates together. Once you have your pairs of duplicates, Sider Scan will create a diff library and begin pattern analyses to discover where any bugs or problems may exist. Once this list of bugs is created, Sider Scan then presents detail and suggestions to you for your review. Sider Scan will find inconsistent string patterns, number sequences, and much more. 

Just like traditional debt, technical debt is often unavoidable. In order to meet predictable release schedules and other business needs, a technical shortcut must occasionally be taken. But, at the same time, organizations cannot ignore the warning signs of debt nor its adverse effects. Technical debt must be paid down before it becomes unmanageable. 

By being knowledgeable of debt and knowing how to measure it, as well as by using software solutions like Sider Scan, each member of your team can become more productive, writing better code and still meeting business solutions. A short-sighted approach will not serve anyone. In order to be competitive in the marketplace, you must reduce technical debt where possible and pay it back. 

Aki Asahara

CEO of Sider. Aki joined Fixstars in 2008 and served major clients such as the US Airforce, MIT, USC, Toyota, and Hitachi High-technologies. After his successful tenure, he was appointed CEO of US operations in 2012. He was appointed CEO of Sider in 2019. He holds a Ph.D. in Astrophysics from Kyoto University and is a Certified Scrum Master.

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