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What is technical debt and how to deal with it

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Issues with software functionality or its imperfections are not uncommon, as unwanted bugs can always sneak into thousands of lines of code. However, shortcomings and errors in the code often have a broader scope and result from intentional or unintentional practices of programmers. This is precisely what technical debt is, as explained below.

What is technical debt and when does it occur?

Technical debt is the presumed cost of additional work resulting from choosing easier, less costly solutions due to a lack of competence or opting for quicker solutions during code development, rather than effective and robust ones.

It typically arises when the team is too small for the tasks at hand, leading to decisions to simplify and skip certain quality and performance processes. The most common cause of technical debt is time pressure imposed by the client while simultaneously cutting the project budget (more on project estimates).

Another factor contributing to the creation of technical debt is assigning the project to individuals who lack the necessary competencies for the assigned tasks, particularly those that are more complex and require careful consideration because they will impact the project's future development. It is also important to have an experienced technical lead overseeing the project, planning its architecture, work flows, mentoring the team, and coordinating all activities.

The third factor in technical debt is the lack of ongoing code refactoring. This is a crucial process that is often overlooked due to additional costs and time involved. Without continuous code refinement, as assumptions change in various functions and workarounds are created instead of refactoring, the code becomes increasingly fragile to future changes and less efficient.

Even though a company saves by implementing a quicker and cheaper solution, it must bear the costs later on. Interest on the accrued debt increases over time, making it harder to pay off because software improvements become more expensive and introduce more problems and errors.

Technical debt can also be unintentionally incurred when the team receives incorrect assumptions about the functionality of a feature, which is later found to be poorly designed.


The Year 2000 Technical Debt

The most famous example of technical debt is the Y2K problem, also known as the Year 2000 problem. It revolved around the practice of representing dates with only the last two digits of the year. This raised concerns that computers would interpret the year 2000 as 1900, potentially causing significant disruptions in the operation of many systems.

The entire problem stemmed from the fact that many software developers in the 1960s and 1970s chose to save on the expensive computer memory of the time by opting for a two-digit date format. These programs remained in use much longer than anticipated. As the turn of the millennium approached, efforts to address this problem were initiated, incurring a cost of approximately 200-300 billion dollars.

Types of Technical Debt:

  • Intentional Debt

    This type of technical debt typically arises when meeting deadlines is a priority. The organization usually includes the cost of repaying it in their budget, but often fails to address it later, and it accumulates over time.

    It often occurs when creating a MVP (Minimum Viable Product), allowing software to be released early to gauge user interest and market viability. If the product doesn't succeed, it can save a significant portion of the capital that would have been spent on a complete and refined software. However, when the product proves successful, the code should be improved or entirely rewritten. If this process is skipped, technical debt accumulates with each subsequent software iteration.

  • Unintentional Debt

    This debt often arises when the development team lacks the experience and skills to recognize when technical debt is being incurred. It can result from errors in fundamental aspects of the software, especially poorly designed architecture, which affects the entire product's development and subsequent layers and components.

    The team may not be aware of "why it doesn't work" due to its non-obvious nature, leading to time-consuming fixes and potentially rewriting a substantial portion of the code.

    Even experienced programmers can incur technical debt when exploring new areas, realizing that certain functionalities could have been coded in a much better way after some time. This is a natural consequence of a learning team's evolution. Therefore, it is crucial to have an experienced Tech Lead overseeing the project and to conduct regular consultations with the team regarding code development and refinement.

  • Documentation Deb

    This type of debt occurs when programmers rush and inadequately document their code. This makes the code hard to understand for other programmers and requires longer analysis by those who need to comprehend its operation. In addition, it significantly complicates onboarding new team members and the continued software development by those who are already familiar with the code. A brief pause in the project can lead to problems even for the person who originally wrote a specific piece of code, as they may struggle to recall its exact functioning and their initial intentions. This often results in simplifications and workarounds, contributing to a decline in code quality over time.

  • Infrastructure Debty

    Infrastructure debt occurs when applications have strong dependencies on specific components of server infrastructure, such as databases, caching tools, or file systems. Without proper documentation of these dependencies, migrating the software to new infrastructure can lead to malfunctions. Regular software updates and infrastructure audits are essential. Neglecting these can result in project stagnation or slowdown in the future, or, even worse, security vulnerabilities that may lead to breaches and other cyberattacks.

  • Environmental Debt

    Environmental debt pertains to properly written and functioning programs that experience issues after deployment due to mismanagement. Over time, changes in the operating environment can lead to incompatibilities with the application. This can occur when the operating system undergoes updates or when external service APIs are modified or no longer supported. If the software is not adapted to environmental changes and not regularly updated, the application may cease to function correctly over time, accumulating technical debt that can ultimately lead to a complete cessation of the application's operation.

don't repeat yourself

Indicators of Technical Debt

Identifying technical debt is easy when it's intentionally incurred. For instance, when creating an MVP, developers document the debt during coding to know which parts will need future improvements. The solution is treated as temporary, and a plan for repaying the debt is in place.

Identifying other types of technical debt is much more challenging. Methods for doing so can include error log analysis and ongoing performance analysis. Key to this is gathering user feedback, as users can point out recurring issues such as a gradual decline in application performance or the improper functioning of certain features.

Code analysis is also essential. Technical debt can manifest as unreadable code with complex logic that is difficult to modify and extend. Often, the application's architecture is poorly thought out, leading to difficulties in further software development. This makes it susceptible to an increasing number of errors and decreased performance.

Signs of technical debt can also include a large amount of dead, unused code, as well as duplicated code, violating the "Don't Repeat Yourself" (DRY) principle. It sometimes happens that certain code segments are simply commented out because it was the easiest way to disable the function, although this leads to overall chaos. It's also important to note an increase in manual testing effort, which may be increasingly omitted or abbreviated over time, directly exposing the application to instability.


Methods of Managing Technical Debt and Preventing Its Accumulation

When technical debt exists or has been intentionally incurred, it is crucial to be aware of it and manage it appropriately. If you want to avoid incurring technical debt, it is advisable to apply methods that can help prevent it:

  • Introduction of Coding Standards and Code Reviews

    A good practice is to establish a set of coding guidelines and best practices. If developers strictly adhere to these standards, it can help prevent the accumulation of technical debt, or any existing debt can be managed proactively through continuous code refactoring.

    One method of reducing errors in code is the technique of pair programming. According to this technique, one programmer is responsible for writing the code, while the other monitors the code and sets strategic goals for building the application. The programmers write the code together, switching roles regularly. This also allows for early detection of errors or simplifications used in the code and prevents them from occurring.

    In addition to continuous code analysis in pairs, another important aspect is the final code review by another programmer or Tech Lead in the team. When a programmer finishes working on a specific functionality, they expose the code for review by another specialist for approval or revisions (for further refinement). This allows for meticulous monitoring of code quality.

  • Adoption of Agile Methodologies

    Agile software development methodologies like Scrum enable the ongoing resolution of technical debt through regular discussions, analyses, and code inspections by team members during daily stand-up meetings and weekly sprint reviews. These meetings serve to address potential project issues in real-time and plan optimal development strategies. All activities are tracked in the project backlog, making it easier to monitor the emergence of technical debt.

  • Code Refactoring (Transforming Code into a More Readable Form)

    Refactoring is an ongoing process of improving code, both in terms of quality and conceptual understanding. Regular refactoring makes the code easier to maintain and understand for other developers. This helps minimize technical debt and keeps the software up to date with changing standards. It's essential to avoid introducing excessive complexity, which can hinder code comprehension. Refactoring should be moderate but continuous.

  • Implementation of Automated Testing

    Automated tests significantly facilitate the detection of bugs and speed up the debugging process. They also reduce the need for manual testing, which is time-consuming, prone to human error, and challenging to repeat accurately.

    Automated tests allow multiple debugging cycles to be executed based on pre-defined scenarios. Manual tests should complement automated ones, providing direct feedback from programmers and testers.

  • Utilization of Project Management Tools

    Project management tools like Jira, Clickup, ActiveCollab, and Trello help plan projects and facilitate team communication. They organize and synchronize work and allow the assignment of tasks to team members. Each task includes a detailed description of the functional and technical aspects of the feature to be implemented. These tools also enable discussions within tasks, addressing certain issues at the task level. Using these tools is an effective way to manage larger projects and teams, providing access to shared documents and calendars.

Technical Debt - a Problem to Solve

Incurring technological "debt" during software development is a common phenomenon. As long as it is intentional, repaying this debt is relatively straightforward if the team decides to do so. However, for this process to be simple, it is essential to thoroughly document the code and plan future improvements in advance. If the code is refined in a timely manner, the risk of technical debt decreases, emphasizing the importance of consistency and continuous quality oversight in code development.

The situation becomes more challenging when developers unintentionally accumulate debt due to haste, the adoption of provisional solutions, or a lack of sufficient experience and knowledge. In such cases, the only option is a painstaking search for errors and code improvements, provided someone recognizes the need for it. Often, unawareness persists for an extended period, ultimately leading to a project hitting a wall that is hard to bypass.

To avoid this, it is crucial to adhere to good software development practices from the beginning. This includes conducting regular tests and maintaining diligence in writing source code. While this may be time-consuming, in the end, it proves significantly less expensive than making later corrections and dealing with the costs of user dissatisfaction with faulty software. It also prevents client frustration due to increasingly challenging and costly project revisions.

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