What Is Technical Debt?

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Imagine if each team member could consistently save an hour on certain tasks in each sprint. These hours would quickly add up — and likely save rework that could further hold back your team and increase time to production.

Failing to take advantage of tools, methods, and systems that could help your teams work more quickly and efficiently results in technical debt.

Here’s what you need to know about technical debt, common examples, and how to reduce it in lean software development.

What Is Technical Debt?

A primary principle of lean software development is to minimize waste — and technical debt is a crucial form of waste to be aware of and minimize.

Technical debt is the failure to adopt tools, systems, and methods that would reduce the time to complete tasks.

This doesn’t just include tools, systems, or methods that help your teams initially get tasks done quicker (automation, etc.). This also includes those that minimize the need for work later — ultimately saving your engineers from having to spend those working hours rewriting code down the line.

Simply, technical debt is when teams don’t take advantage of the tools, systems, and methods that would help them most efficiently complete projects.

5 Examples of Technical Debt

Here are some of the top forms of technical debt you may encounter in lean software development.

1. Intentional vs. Unintentional

Technical debt can be either intentional or unintentional on your team. However, it’s important to know what each looks like so you can minimize both kinds.

Intentional technical debt: This is when software developers knowingly do things or make decisions that they know will take their team more time. This can include things like having developers who are quick at tasks work on certain projects but knowing they will likely need to be reworked later on — rather than having the most efficient developer who would write error-free code from the start assigned to that project.

Unintentional technical debt: This occurs when the team does everything in their knowledge to minimize debt but unknowingly takes actions that rack up technical debt. This can include discovering tools or methods that would have saved the team time after a project is complete or realizing if tasks had been prioritized differently in various sprints that it would have required fewer story points.

2. Poor Quality Code

Poor quality code can be a significant contributor to technical debt. If code is not written error-free from the start, it requires rework down the line — potentially contributing to lots of technical debt.

This can affect all kinds of systems, especially if some of the poor-quality code has other features that are dependent on it.

It’s infinitely better to write quality, error-free code from the start — even if it takes a little more time upfront.

3. Neglecting Automation

New tools and plugins are increasingly becoming available that can automate tasks, streamline your software development process, and catch errors as you go.

Failing to adopt these automation features results in time you’ll have to spend manually completing those tasks.

Say a new tool becomes available that would help your developers complete a task in one hour instead of the two hours it typically requires. If you fail to adopt that tool on your team, each time your team completes that task, you incur one hour of overhead from technical debt (sometimes referred to as “interest”).

This is because if you chose to adopt that tool, it would only take your team members an hour to do that task — but instead, it takes two hours.

It’s easy to see how this can quickly add up.

4. Lack of Testing

Failing to test your app or site and take advantage of automation features that streamline this process can quickly rack up technical debt.

Manual testing before each release takes far more time than if the process were automated.

In a survey of executives at 27 different companies, they said automated testing leads to 20x to 40x cycle time improvement.

Relying on manual testing means lots of technical debt that wouldn’t exist if processes were automated.

5. Outdated Code

Failing to update code over time and make fixes to bugs as necessary can lead to lagging systems and a host of other issues. This includes falling behind on versions of third-party dependencies, which can make upgrading extremely costly when you finally decide to do it.

Especially if other features are dependent on previously written code, failing to update it over time and rewrite it as necessary can lead to more bugs and unstable systems.

How To Reduce Technical Debt

After understanding some of the key kinds of technical debt, here are ways to reduce it on your software development team.

1. Adopt New Systems, Tools, and Methods as They Become Available

As mentioned, failing to adopt new systems, tools, and methods as they become available can contribute to lots of technical debt.

Think of it like paying interest — the longer you wait to adopt those systems, the more you’ll suffer from technical debt. You’ll have higher costs as you’re paying for more hours of work that would otherwise be unnecessary if you adopted those systems — similar to accruing interest on a loan.

The longer you avoid adopting those systems and tools to reduce technical debt, the more interest you pay. To avoid paying for unnecessary work, adopt tools, systems, and methods that help your team work more efficiently.

This can include automation tools and other integrations like minware, which track the lifecycle of your code and highlight inefficiencies. Stay up-to-date with the latest software and systems that streamline processes, and implement them as they become available.

However, ensure you implement these tools and systems to simplify processes. Don’t adopt new practices or tools just because everyone else is doing it. And don’t adopt too many at one time. If the changes come all at once, it can complicate processes, confuse your developers, and slow things down.

You want to ensure your team can easily understand and adjust to these changes. Make smaller changes continually so they don’t get overwhelmed and things continue running smoothly.

2. Assign the Most Efficient Developers to Difficult Tasks

Although it may take more time upfront, it’s much better to assign projects related to core systems that will be used the most by others to developers who can write error-free from the start.

Assign more important tasks to senior developers who can write code in fewer lines and with fewer bugs. This can potentially save your team hours of having to rewrite code and all of its dependencies than if a more skilled developer had taken the time and written it error-free.

3. Create a General Roadmap and Share It With Developers

Having a roadmap ensures your team is all on the same page and can visualize the final product.

Failing to give developers an overview of how their day-to-day tasks fit in the overall project — and even within individual sprints — can lead to building systems that are ill-suited to handle future workloads, thus creating technical debt.

However, ensure you don’t give too much detail. Trying to plan out the minute details does not make a big impact on tech debt and leaves no room for adaptation or flexibility for developers, which can also lead to more work.

4. Test Software Early and Often

Failing to test your app or site throughout the software development process is a recipe for disaster. Furthermore, relying on manual testing that you continually have to re-run will require significantly more time than if you were to automate the process.

Do automated test early and often to ensure your app or website runs — and continues to run — the way it should.

Ensuring software runs error-free the way you want it to before putting it into production will help you discover as many problems as possible before users do — keeping your customers satisfied and saving the time it would take to resolve support tickets.

While it may take time to rewrite code as you discover bugs, it will be a huge timesaver if you find them early instead of continuing to build on top of error-riddled code.

5. Perform Updates and Rewrite Code Regularly

As you continue adding new features and updates over time, ensure you’re cleaning up and rewriting old, outdated code.

Establish clear policies for updating dependencies on a regular basis – before they reach end-of-life and are more difficult to upgrade.

Trying to continue building new features on old code can lead to a pileup of bugs and slow systems. So, it’s important to take the time to do checkups, make updates, and rewrite code to keep things running smoothly.

The Bottom Line

Technical debt can sometimes be unavoidable — especially if you discover new tools, systems, or methods that would have made your project quicker from the start.

However, what’s most important is implementing those systems as they become available to save your team time and minimize work down the line.

Keeping up-to-date with the latest systems and tools, automating processes, and performing regular tests are just a few ways every software development team can minimize technical debt on their team.

Technical Debt FAQs

Here are some commonly asked questions about technical debt.

How can you measure technical debt?

Technical debt can be tricky to track — after all, it can accumulate in many different areas across software development.

A few ways how to measure technical debt include:

  • Quality of code over time
  • Defect ratios, monitoring the number of old vs. new defects
  • Time it takes to complete support tickets
  • Amount of code churn and how long rewriting that code takes

Tools like minware can code longevity to help teams identify and reduce technical debt over time.

Is technical debt bad?

While technical debt is not necessarily inherently harmful, it can have significant negative impacts on your software development process and overall costs.

If your team completely neglects to implement any automation, tools, software, or methods that would help developers write error-free code from the start or save on time, this can be bad for your project timeline and bottom line.

You should aim to minimize technical debt where possible and take advantage of tools, methods, and systems that help minimize task times as they become available.

What is technical debt in agile?

In agile, technical debt is extra unnecessary work that has to be done because developers chose a quick solution rather than a more comprehensive and efficient one.

It’s the time developers must spend working systems than if they had invested in systems that save them time — like automation, templates, and so forth — from the start.

What is technical debt in scrum?

In scrum, technical debt is the cost of extra work that wouldn’t be necessary if the tech debt was resolved.

This work is caused by choosing an “easier” approach upfront that results in bugs or other issues farther down the line. This work would be unnecessary if the developer had taken a more difficult approach upfront that did not result in needing to do less efficient, repetitive work later down the line.

Essentially, the time the developer has to take to do extra work later by choosing the “easier” approach up front minus the time saved by the easier approach is cost of the technical debt.

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