Technical debt can have a huge impact on the long-term success and sustainability of applications. Today's digital landscape is evolving faster than ever: technologies continue to advance and companies strive to deliver more innovative and competitive software products. Amid these conditions, technical debt can accumulate fast, impeding operational agility, scalability, and overall software quality. The pandemic, which accelerated the digital transformation in many companies, has further exacerbated these detrimental effects.
A survey conducted by McKinsey indicated that about 30% of companies allocate over 20% of their budgets to combat the effects of technical debt. This not only hampers their ability to focus on further product development, new features and enhancements, but also diminishes a company's ability to remain innovative and competitive in a fast-paced market.
This doesn’t have to be the case, however. According to Gartner, those companies that approach technical debt management in a systematic and active way can deliver results up to 50% faster. In this article, we share the tried-and-tested tips for managing technical debt to maintain software quality, improve development efficiency and, ultimately, deliver robust and reliable software products that stand the test of time.
What is technical debt?
Technical debt is a metaphorical concept that describes the consequences of choosing suboptimal solutions at the expense of long-term code quality and maintainability. It represents the cumulative effect of design or implementation decisions that may be detrimental to future development efforts, increase the likelihood of bugs, or impede system performance. In the simplest terms, it refers to outdated code that won’t stand the test of time.
Technical debt entails compromises made during the development process, often dictated by deadlines or the need for quick solutions, which result in less-than-optimal code or architectural design choices. Similar to financial debt, technical debt accumulates interest over time, manifesting in the form of increased maintenance costs and reduced development speed. Just as financial debt can hinder an individual's financial freedom, lack of technical debt management can limit an organization's ability to adapt and innovate, impeding its growth and competitiveness.
Examples of technical debt
A lot of tech debt issues result from the lack of knowledge and experience of the developers. Here are the most common examples of technical debt:
- Code smells: this term is used to describe poorly structured or convoluted code that is difficult to read, understand, or modify.
- Duplicate code: refers to the instances of repeated code blocks or even entire functionalities, which may lead to maintenance challenges and increase the likelihood of errors.
- Lack of documentation: if the documentation isn’t maintained on a regular basis it will eventually become outdated or simply insufficient, which can make it challenging for developers to understand and maintain the codebase.
- Inadequate testing: insufficient or inadequate testing coverage creates a greater risk of undetected bugs or regressions, which contribute to technical debt.
- Deferred refactoring: postponing necessary code refactoring or clean-up activities will ultimately increase complexity and reduce maintainability of code.
Other examples of tech debt include:
- Outdated dependencies: failure to update or manage external dependencies will leave the system vulnerable to security breaches or can create compatibility issues. This is a very common example of technical debt .
- Performance bottlenecks: ignoring performance optimizations can result in slow or inefficient system behavior. Such bottlenecks are likely to exacerbate the problems in the future.
- Workarounds and hacks: quick fixes or temporary solutions that deviate from established best practices may introduce complexities or create issues as you scale up or embark on introducing new features.
- Implementation savings: intentional compromises on code quality oriented at meeting other priorities. This is a very common example of technical debt that has been incurred strategically.
Causes of tech debt
There are several factors that can contribute to the accumulation of technical debt. Consider the following:
One of the primary drivers of technical debt is the pressure to meet tight deadlines. When faced with time constraints, development teams often resort to quick-fix solutions or take shortcuts to deliver functionalities within the timeframe. These shortcuts, although expedient in the short term, can lead to suboptimal architectural choices and code quality that ultimately result in technical debt.
Lack of knowledge
Technical debt may also arise due to a lack of knowledge or understanding of best practices, industry standards, or long-term consequences of certain development decisions. Developers may also be unaware of more efficient approaches or lack the necessary expertise to implement them, which also creates technical debt.
This kind of debt is impossible to avoid. As new tools, frameworks, and libraries emerge, they may simply render parts of the code as outdated. Or, developers may be tempted to adopt those new solutions without fully understanding them or how to ensure they’re compatible with existing systems. This can result in poor integrations, code dependencies, and increased maintenance efforts, which all lead to technical debt.
Evolving project requirements
Requirements often evolve throughout the project lifecycle. These changes can introduce new complexities that necessitate rework or modifications to the existing code. When these changes are not effectively accounted for (they involve implementing suboptimal patches or workarounds), they can lead to technical debt that can potentially compromise the overall quality of the software.
Chaotic project management
Poor project management practices can also contribute to the accumulation of technical debt. Inadequate communication, lack of coordination, insufficient planning, and shifting priorities can create an environment where development teams are forced to make trade-offs and compromises that result in technical debt.
Building applications using off-the-shelf components may incur technical debt if the development team doesn’t have sufficient knowledge about the solution or doesn’t have adequate skills to work with it. We outline a number of best practices that will help you manage tech debt in such a scenario further below.
Deliberate tech debt
For instance, when the customer:
- wants to cut costs and use a cheaper solution to a problem, or
- prioritizes fast release at the expense of a better code (which in turn would take longer to implement), or
- simply needs to meet a deadline,
it doesn’t mean the technical debt incurred will be a bad thing. If taken deliberately, and strategically so that it helps you meet the desired timeframe AND you can pay it off quickly, it’s not exactly a problem. You can compare this type of debt to a short-term financial loan: as long as it gives you the leverage you require and you can even out quickly, it won’t do any harm.
Overall, there are two types of technical debt.
Do note that not all technical debt is inherently negative. When accounted for strategically, it can provide short-term benefits, such as meeting urgent business needs or quickly building MVPs. With technical debt, it’s crucial to manage it effectively, i.e. in a way that prevents it from accumulating over time and impeding maintainability, scalability and the overall long-term success of the software.
Why is zero technical debt not a good goal?
Every digital business accumulates different types of technical debt, for the reasons we described above. Striving to eliminate technical debt whatsoever is not a realistic approach, for the following reasons:
- Reducing technical debt requires time and resource investment which may cause significant delay and make timely delivery impossible.
- Development teams must prioritize delivering business value. If project requirements change, they must follow suit.
- Not all technical debt carries the same level of risk; some tech debt may not be as harmful as another, so trying to eliminate a low-impact technical debt may be a waste of time and resources.
- Time allocated solely to eliminating technical debt may take away from other important activities, such as developing new features or addressing critical bugs.
- It can stifle experimentation and innovation.
Now, let’s take a look at the practices that will help you manage technical debt, shall we? Note that if you’re working with legacy components when building your new application, you will have to take extra steps to manage technical debt effectively. We outline best practices you should follow in this scenario in a separate section.
11 best practices for effective technical debt management (when building from scratch)
How to manage technical debt when working with off-the shelf components? It’s critical to remember about the extra measures you should take to prevent it from accumulating before it drains your budget.
1. Code quality and cleanliness
Ensuring a clean, high-quality code that is easy to maintain is a fundamental practice that helps to reduce technical debt. This isn’t just about the adherence to coding standards and best practices, which will often be dictated by the technology in use, but also about agreeing on specific standards the development team should follow in the given project. It includes code formatting rules (e.g. number of characters in a line of code) and adhering to those standards.
There are several linting tools available to help developers maintain code cleanliness through static code analysis. No matter what programming language you use, you will be able to find tools that can help you ease the process.
2. Code reviews and pair programming
Ensuring high-quality code can be achieved through pair programming and code reviews. When programming in pairs, developers check each other’s code of quality, however, we like to think about the reviewer not necessarily as a person responsible solely for checking the code quality, but as a person oriented, as raising the bar for the quality. Make sure code reviews and pear programming are part of the development process.
At RST, we make sure code reviews aren’t solely oriented at spotting typos or other mistakes, but about trying to find better ways to code. As such, code reviewers are oriented at raising the bar when it comes to code quality. Additionally, having the code reviewed by a senior developer is a great exercise and a lesson for our less experienced devs, just like pair programming. Duos can exchange ideas and consult each other's work, helping them boost their skills.
3. Incremental refactoring
The practice of incremental refactoring involves dealing with technical debt as part of the product development process instead of postponing it for the future. This practice is often overlooked by CEOs, who prioritize fast release of their products or new functionalities. However, it leads to a cumulation of technical debt which grows exponentially.
That’s why businesses should account for and plan refactoring as part of the development process rather than leaving it in the hands of the developers, who will always have more pressing priorities to focus on. CEOs should strategize refactoring in cooperation with architects or tech leads who will make sure developers deal with it as required.
4. Technical debt management backlog
To succeed at incremental refactoring, development teams must keep an up-to-date technical debt backlog. It serves as a register of identified tech debt items or aspects of the project that require improvements, making sure that these items won’t remain unaddressed. The backlog itself is an invaluable planning tool tool for project managers that helps them to prioritize technical debt items based on their impact severity and potential risks.
The backlog offers a comprehensive overview into tech debt items, helping teams to estimate the overall cost of the debt, both in short and long-term and allocate the payoff as required. It’s vital to incorporate it into planning the project timelines: refactoring, bug fixing, code cleanup and appropriate resource allocation should all be part of the daily project management.
Maintaining a technical debt management backlog also helps to reduce the payoff costs. Just like financial debt increases over time, technical debt increases too: the more outdated, the greater costs will be incurred on the payoff. It’s thus critical that businesses pay an active role in assessing the backlog and prioritizing items to be paid off rather than leaving technical debt to be dealt with by the development team on their own (they will always have other pressing priorities to address).
5. Automated testing
Implementing a robust automated testing strategy, including unit tests, integration tests, and regression tests will help you manage technical debt effectively. This is hugely important when building applications that you intend to scale or that might see a lot of modifications or additions in the future. Companies often skip this practice because it may incur significant costs at the outset. However, in the long run they simplify the product development process and make it easier and more efficient.
Automated testing allows you to automatically detect issues should they occur while we implement new functionality or introduce any modifications to the existing application. Without automated testing you risk working with undetected bugs. To avoid them, you’d have to rely on manual testing which will consume a lot of the product budget and the development time. Automated testing is a very effective mechanism that checks whether we haven’t broken the existing components of an app as we are introducing new ones. Above all, technical debt management without automated testing may incur even more technical debt.
6. Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment (CI/CD)
CI/CD practices are crucial for reducing technical debt because they enable early issue detection, faster feedback loops, code quality enforcement and iterative development. Above all, CI/CD emphasizes frequent and automated integration, testing, and deployment of code changes. Incorporate CI/CD into the development process to establish a robust framework for addressing technical debt proactively - it will help you ensure higher code quality, faster delivery, and more efficient development practices.
Maintaining up-to-date documentation is an extremely important part of the entire development process and a powerful communication mechanism for all stakeholders. It’s best to start the documentation before even before the development works begin.
Maintaining accurate and up-to-date documentation that describes the architecture, design decisions, and implementation details will help navigate the project team through the development process and ensure adherence to agreed-upon standards and solutions. Thorough documentation helps to eliminate guesswork and misunderstandings.
Without up-to-date documentation developers risk creating solutions that aren’t fully aligned with the project requirements, which may eventually lead to technical debt. Similarly when product requirements change and technical debt is discovered, the documentation should be updated as soon as possible.
8. Open communication
It’s critical that all developers are on the same page when it comes to programming at every stage of the product development process. We have witnessed situations in which several team members engaged in side communication to make critical coding decisions.
Whether this happens out of anxiety to communicate publicly or a simple lack of awareness of the importance of open communication, it has to be eliminated at all cost. If team members aren’t on the same page with regards to the programming process, they may create technical debt.
To avoid such situations, making sure the organizational culture emphasizes the importance of open, non-violent communication and trains employees in giving constructive feedback. It’s the best way to build healthy communication practices. Team should also make use of preferred communication tools to help keep everyone updated.
9. Adopting design patterns and best practices
Design patterns provide well-established templates and guidelines for structuring code and designing software architecture. They promote maintainability, scalability, and code reusability, greatly contributing to better technical debt management.
Following these established guidelines allows development teams to communicate more effectively, mitigate the risks associated with technical debt and deliver more robust and sustainable digital solutions. They also offer guidance for teams during incremental refactoring.
10. Monitoring and metrics
Implementing monitoring and logging mechanisms is crucial for obtaining insights into the performance, stability, and usage patterns of your application. Metrics e.g. for code complexity, coverage, bug tracking, duplication or technical debt ratio will help you gain awareness of the state of the technical debt – its impact, scope and severity.
Moreover, implementing metrics will allow you to assess the risks associated with specific technical debt items. They allow you to identify areas of the system that require immediate attention based on the severity of the debt, as well as its impact on performance and user experience. They can be vital in finding the balance between the need for new features and the necessity to pay down debt.
As such, metrics are necessary to facilitate communication and informed decision-making between stakeholders as to prioritizing items for refactoring, allocating resources or developing new features. They allow for enhanced collaboration on addressing the most critical debt items, allowing teams to proactively approach these tasks.
11. Continual learning and skill development
Since technical debt can be a result of insufficient knowledge or lack of experience of the development team, it’s important to ensure continual learning of your staff so that they keep up with evolving technologies and continually deepen their understanding of modern software development practices. It’s vital to boosting their problem-solving skills and increasing their ability to adapt to changing project requirements.
At RST, we build a culture of encouraging continual learning within our team through knowledge sharing, collaboration and individual development. The HR department plays an active role in the process; we also support the development of our developers by sustaining active tech communities, creating diverse opportunities for hard skill development and streamlining their growth paths. Investing in learning about technical debt ensures our team understands it better and knows that mitigating it is a continual effort and a shared responsibility of the entire team.
10 best practices for effective technical debt management when using off-the-shelf components
The practices outlined above can help you better manage technical debt in all circumstances. It’s a different scenario, however, when you’re using ready-to-use components to build your tool. Below, we outline the best practices you should pay attention to when using such components in your software development projects (tactics outlined in the previous section will still apply in these scenarios!).
1. Know your priorities
Understanding the requirements as well as the overall context of the product development life cycle is necessary to help you pick the right component (or validate your choice, if you’ve made it already). In the past, we’ve witnessed cases where, for instance, the client decided to completely change the authentication method for the tool under development. It was problematic, because the external solution that had already been selected didn’t support that specific method.
While changing requirements cannot always be predicted or accounted for, knowing that you may need greater flexibility of a specific functionality in the future can help you choose a solution that can best accommodate that need. Consulting these requirements with an experienced team will also help you understand the technical debt that can be incurred if you resort to using one solution in favor of another. A trusted partner will also be able to point out the potential risks and estimate payoff costs.
2. Thoroughly investigate the component
Thoroughly understanding the component you work with is critical from the business perspective. Knowing the intricacies of the specific tool will help you understand or assess the possibility of pivoting in the short-term and long-term. Read the available documentation, understand the features and identify any limitations of the tool that may cause issues.
If you choose a solution that doesn’t offer much flexibility in a given area, opting to change in the future may incur hefty bills. Authentication solutions are a great example, as many of them do not permit migration of users and working around this fact is going to consume a considerable proportion of project budget.
3. Assess vendor lock-in risk
Vendor lock-in refers to the reliance on one provider for the different services. If you decide to rely with several functionalities on an external provider, opting to change them in the future may cost you a lot or even prove to be impossible.
With soft vendor lock-in, you will create a degree of dependency on a vendor's products, services, or technologies, but will be able to transition away from them relatively easily. This will be in situations where a similar service(s) is (are) offered by a variety of different providers.
In contrast, hard vendor lock-in represents a high level of dependency on the products, services, or technologies of one vendor, making it difficult and costly to transition away from them, if need be. This may happen e.g. when you opt for a proprietary solution that is offered solely by one provider. If in the future, you decide to opt away from it, or try to introduce workarounds, this may prove to be difficult, leaving you with a lot of technical debt to deal with.
We aren’t saying that vendor lock-in should be avoided by all means, but rather that you should be aware of your priorities and future plans and how they will coincide with working with just one external service provider. You have to thoroughly research what you intend to work with, opting for a solution that will be optimum for achieving your long-term goals and business priorities.
4. Evaluate the value-weighted component's suitability
Once you’ve shortlisted a component, check whether it aligns with your selected tech stack. For instance, if you're building on a server, a serverless component may not necessarily be the optimal choice. Additionally, understand whether the selected technology matches the skills and capabilities of your development team so that they are able to maintain and work with that solution.
If your development team doesn’t have the necessary capabilities to work with a given tool, you’ll likely have to deal with a lot of technical debt in the future. Some products will be easier to work with while others will require a more extensive set of skills and competencies, so choose an off-the-shelf component in accordance with your technical capabilities.
5. Manage versions
When working with off-the-shelf solutions, it’s incredibly important to ensure that the component remains up-to-date at all times. This is crucial for a number of reasons, but security is probably the most vital. Legacy solutions are often a target of cybercrime and hacker attacks. Older component versions may have known vulnerabilities that can expose your project to security risks. By updating components to patched versions in a timely manner, you reduce the potential attack surface and minimize technical debt associated with security vulnerabilities.
Moreover, new component versions are released to address bugs, security vulnerabilities, and introduce new features or enhancements. Regularly updating components to newer versions allows you to leverage these improvements and reduce technical debt associated with known issues or performance bottlenecks. It also helps ensure compatibility with other components, frameworks, or platforms in your project's ecosystem. Therefore, implement a mechanism that will allow you to stay on top of these updates.
6. Ensure abstraction and encapsulation
From the architectural perspective, the off-the-shelf component you intend to work with should be isolated from the rest of the application as much as possible. Ready-to-use solutions consist of libraries that you cannot influence in any way – we are unable to develop them, remove them or modify them.
For this reason, the practice of abstraction is essential for managing technical debt. Abstraction is about ensuring that any dependencies are created in a way that doesn’t define the service provider, so that it can be easily replaced, should need be (it will also help you avoid hard vendor lock-in we’ve mentioned earlier).
If the component is linked to your proprietary architecture, then not only can it create a lot of technical debt, but can also make refactoring work very time-consuming and complicated. Any such connection points must be made visible; teams should never keep them hidden. Following design patterns will also help you ensure abstraction is done the right way.
It’s also important to assess suitability from the perspective of availability of the service and how it may change in the long term. If you’re considering a SaaS component which is available only in one country and you intend to scale in the future, you will have to deal with a lot of technical debt before you do so.
To further reduce the risk of creating technical debt, ensure the component’s encapsulation. This concept is about wrapping or containing the functionality within a well-defined interface or boundary. You’ll have to isolate the complexities and dependencies of the external component from the rest of the application through a simplified interface that will ensure controlled interactions. This will help you ensure that, in case the vendor ceases to provide the service, you will be able to easily replace it with a new one.
7. Customize and add extensions with caution
Both customizing and extending ready-to-use components increases the complexity of the codebase and makes it more challenging to maintain. Both processes typically involve modifying the internal workings of the component, which can lead to issues with debugging and updates and creation of technical debt.
Customization is about introducing modifications to the legacy components to meet specific business requirements or adapt it to a particular use case. It typically involves altering the component's code or configuration. For instance, if a legacy content management system (CMS) does not have a specific feature required by a project, customization may involve adding the missing functionality by modifying the CMS codebase or extending its existing capabilities.
In contrast, extending an off-the-shelf component involves adding new features or capabilities without modifying its core codebase. It’s about providing additional functionality in a way that allows for its reusability across different projects or instances of the same component.
Heavy customization or extension of ready-to-use components seriously limits your ability to manage component versions and introduce updates. It will create potential conflicts or breaking changes, preventing you from leveraging new features, bug fixes, security patches, and performance improvements, leading to technical debt.
What’s more, with customizations and modifications, you lose access to vendor support. When you modify the component beyond its intended usage, the vendor may not be able to provide assistance or guidance for issues related to the customized parts, leading to amplification of problems and issues as you look for solutions on your own.
By avoiding excessive customization or extension of such components, you keep a more maintainable, upgradeable, supported, and integrable codebase. Explore options like creating wrappers, adapters, or separate modules to handle customization. You may also explore the possibility of selecting smaller components that won’t require extensive customization. Ultimately, this approach helps minimize technical debt and promotes a more sustainable and manageable software solution.
8. Test for idempotency
Idempotency refers to the property of a function or operation that produces the same result, regardless of the number of times it is executed with the same inputs. Testing for this phenomenon is vital to effectively managing technical debt because it helps to ensure the reliability and consistency of your software application.
When an operation is idempotent, executing it multiple times should have the same effect as executing it once. This property reduces the likelihood of unintended side effects, inconsistencies, or unexpected behavior. By testing for idempotency, you ensure that operations can be repeated without causing undesirable consequences, minimizing the risk of technical debt resulting from unpredictable system behavior.
To test for idempotency, you should establish comprehensive testing strategies that include unit tests, integration tests, and end-to-end tests for the component integration. You can design test cases that involve executing an operation multiple times with the same inputs and verifying that the results remain consistent and unchanged. By comparing the outputs of repeated operations, you can identify and address any issues that violate the idempotency property.
9. Monitor and handle errors
Monitoring and error handling are yet another practices that will help you manage technical debt resulting from using an off-the-shelf component. Establishing relevant metrics is crucial to detecting errors, failures, or performance issues in real-time. Set up monitoring systems that capture relevant metrics, logs, and performance indicators. Monitor key aspects such as application performance, error rates, system health, and user behavior to proactively identify and address issues. Taking such a proactive approach will help you prevent the accumulation of technical debt management tasks from unresolved issues or unoptimized code.
Similarly, implementing an effective error handling mechanism that captures and handles exceptions and errors gracefully will help you minimize downtime and service disruptions, ensuring that the system remains functional and available to users. Minimizing service disruptions reduces the potential impact on user experience and mitigates the technical debt associated with prolonged downtime or unreliable service.
10. Don't hesitate to be creative
If you discover technical debt that you are unable to pay off by yourself, e.g. due to lack of technical competencies, you may consider delegating the debt or some of its aspects to an external partner. Engaging external companies or specialized consultants to assist with technical debt management isn’t an uncommon practice.
An external partner may contribute their unique expertise and experience that your team is missing and they may also provide an objective perspective on technical debt. They can assess the codebase and architecture without biases, bringing in a fresh perspective that can even uncover hidden debt or identify areas for improvement.
Reducing technical debt with RST Software
As a software development agency supporting innovative companies and startups in delivering ground-breaking solutions, we are oriented at creating future-proof digital tools. Our company has been active on the market for over 20 years and we have established solid processes that leverage all the practices outlined above in every software development project we work on.
At RST, we build a culture of encouraging continual learning within our team through knowledge sharing, collaboration and individual development. The HR department plays an active role in the process; we also support the development of our developers by sustaining active tech communities, creating diverse opportunities for hard skill development and streamlining their growth paths. Investing in learning about technical debt ensures our team understands it better and understands that mitigating it is a continual effort and a shared responsibility of the entire team.
If you’d like to find out more about our processes or services, contact us directly via this quick contact form we’ll be glad to assist you.