When & How to Tackle Your Technical Debt

Suppose that a startup has discovered a customer pain point but hasn’t found a product-market fit. In many cases, it’s much more important to get a functional product in the hands of customers than to build a high-performance, scalable and bug-free application. The team can learn if they’re building the right thing before investing a lot of time and resources.

The trade-off between speed and quality results in technical debt. While often used as a pejorative term, there are plenty of valid reasons to incur technical debt—just as there are plenty of valid reasons to incur financial debt. The key to success is knowing how to use the debt to your advantage rather than being crushed by it.

Let’s take a look at when and how to tackle technical debt in order to keep it at an optimal level for your project over the long term.

Technical debt is a necessary part of software development that’s not always a bad thing—as long as it doesn’t spiral out of control. Click To Tweet

What is Technical Debt?

Technical debt is the implied cost of future work caused by choosing an easy solution now rather than using a better approach that would take longer. While there are many legitimate reasons to accept technical debt, software businesses should be wary of taking on excessive levels of technical debt without repaying it (e.g., refactoring) on a regular basis.

Technical Debt

The vicious cycle of technical debt. Source: Design Smells

As with financial debt, technical debt accumulates interest over time in the form of entropy. Software projects grow more complex over time and poor design choices made earlier during the project can quickly spiral out of control. The increase in complexity makes it harder to develop new features, increases the frequency of bugs and degrades performance.

There are several reasons to take on technical debt:

Good Reasons

  • Stakeholders need to free up developer time to launch a high-value feature for a big customer.
  • A startup wants to quickly test a prototype that doesn’t necessarily need to be stable and scalable.
  • A merger requires a temporary solution to keep the lights on while a permanent solution is developed.

Bad Reasons

  • Stakeholders want to move quickly regardless of the quality and without a plan to pay down technical debt.
  • Stakeholders want to cut development costs as much as possible in the near term.
  • A developer is lazy and doesn’t want to spend the extra effort to simplify and future-proof a piece of code.

Conducting a Code Audit

Technical debt isn’t easily measured or tracked, so it can be a challenge to identify when the level of debt is becoming a problem. Rather than waiting for problems to arise, software businesses should proactively audit their code base to identify problem areas and plan to fix these issues before they become a much bigger problem down the road.

Download our Checklist of Common Technical Debt Examples to learn about some common problem areas.

Start by asking your development team some basic questions:

  • What parts of the code base are difficult to change?
  • Is there any code that they don’t understand?
  • Where are the scariest parts of the code base?

Most developers will be familiar with anti-patterns that could cause issues. For instance, a MVC application with business logic in the view layer could easily lead to problems down the road. Developers will also have a good pulse on the state of dependencies in the application, which may need to be updated or replaced if deprecated.

The application’s test suite also tells an important story. Test coverage typically reduces technical debt since developers can better understand the code and ensure that new commits don’t impact it with a simple test execution. On the other hand, parts of the code base that lack test coverage can be a wildcard and a potential source of technical debt.

How to Prioritize Fixes

Technical debt is often compared to financial debt as a metaphor. When paying off financial debt, most financial advisors would recommend starting with small high-interest debt (e.g., a credit card) before moving on to large low-interest debt (e.g., a mortgage). When addressing technical debt, it similarly makes sense to target the biggest, fastest-growing problems.

The best way to prioritize technical debt fixes is to look at both the complexity and the frequency of change. For example, an extremely complex piece of code that never changes or a simple piece of code that always changes may not be good candidates. However, a complex piece of code that’s frequently updated will quickly become a problem.

Ideally, development teams can pay off technical debts when developing features by taking the time to clean up any messy code. For example, they may notice the same piece of code in two places—violating the Don’t Repeat Yourself (DRY) principle—and extract the duplicated code into a separate class or function to reduce complexity.

Of course, there are times when development teams will come across a large chunk of technical debt that may require its own sprint or even team. A common example would be a major language or framework upgrade that requires a substantial rewrite of the existing code base or the replacement of a major dependency that has been deprecated.

Hiring Outside Help

There are many instances where it makes sense to hire an outside team to help reduce technical debt. For example, you may want to increase test coverage without having to pull primary developers off of feature development or you may want to make a major upgrade that requires more manpower than the existing team has to complete in a timely manner.

Don’t forget to download our Checklist of Common Technical Debt Examples to learn about some common problem areas.

Our Team Augmentation services make it easy to enhance your existing team swiftly, seamlessly and strategically in order to provide a short-term boost, complete a refactor or even cover staff absences like parental leave. With senior-level engineers, we quickly get up-to-speed for short-term projects and provide consistent support for long-term projects.

Contact us today to discuss your needs!

The Bottom Line

Technical debt is a common problem in the world of software development. It’s a natural trade-off between speed and quality but keeping it in check requires consistent effort. Regular code audits and built-in time to improve code quality can go a long way in keeping technical debt at manageable levels while quickly developing and launching new features.

Contact us today to learn how we can help finish your project on-time and on-budget.

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