What Is Technical Debt? A Complete Overview

Technical Debt, Developer Backlog, Developer Productivity, Software Engineering, Change Failure Rate, MTTR, Lead Time to Deployment, Production, Agile Project Management,

Previously published the reasons why some take on debt — intentional or unintentional — on Propelo.AI

Small risks can sometimes equal big gains, and many consider technical debt a risk that they are willing to embrace in order to get ahead. But what is technical debt, and how risky can it truly be? 

At its core, technical debt is a tradeoff that engineering organizations make in order to deliver software on time, or to stay ahead of the competition. It’s essentially a set of activities, foregone due to time constraints of release schedules and prioritization. 

These activities could range from features that are frequently dropped from release to release, because they don’t appear to have high customer impact. They could also include the necessary changes and upgrades to architecture, code design and even infrastructure to ensure that systems are secure, up to date and not in interference with future iterations — both of which continue being added to a growing backlog and put off in the name of “prioritization,” in order to make allowances for everything else on our checklists. 

There’s not really one way to explain technical debt other than the fact that reducing it is generally better for the product long term. 

Technical debt is not at all organized chaos. If managed correctly, returns can be gained in ways similar to an investment. But if it’s not properly maintained, it could lead to a company’s bankruptcy. 

Ask yourself, is it really risky if it means keeping customers happy, leadership at ease and capital rolling in? Let’s take a deeper look at technical debt — and the answer will reveal itself.

What is technical debt?

The Information and Software Journal defines technical debt as “the consequences of software development actions that intentionally or unintentionally prioritize client value and/or project constraints, such as delivery deadlines, over more technical implementation and design considerations.”

ProductPlan defines technical debt as “the accumulation of work that builds up when developers implement quicker, short-term solutions instead of optimal (but more labor-intensive) solutions.”

Both agree that technical debt is work that gets “left out” from the scope of what is ultimately delivered due to time constraints and to deliver greater value to the customer.   

Depending on how technical debt was accrued, and exactly which type of activities are accrued, one will have a better understanding of which definition best suits their exact situation — and will afford them further understanding into ways this debt can be mitigated while being used to their advantage.

What is deliberate technical debt?

In many instances, leadership will insist on manifesting a product well before it’s ready for delivery. Yet, software developers can only work so hard and so quickly to deliver what they’ve promised. So, product owners and managers will collaborate to create a prototype, or a subset — one that can be demonstrated in front of leadership, clients and other key stakeholders in lieu of their request. 

Features are limited but this offers developers a means of delivering a product way ahead of schedule. In many instances, it’s a way of getting the product to market before the competition and a means of establishing a footprint well beyond saturation. 

Technical debt may not be monetary debt, but it can be looked at in a similar way. For example, when a company borrows money from the bank, they’re borrowing with interest and making a trade-off so that they can benefit in the short-term, worrying about the pay-off at a later date. 

Within software development, there are varying ideas on what is meant by technical debt. Similar to financial debt, a short-term solution will mean falling short through to repayment. But unlike financial debt, we can’t overlook deliberate execution in the form of technical debt, meaning if we plan accordingly, the debt acts as more of an investment than a liability. 

The borrower will make plans for repayment. But if not managed correctly, he or she will find himself underwater and struggling to make ends meet. 

Technical debt takes this same concept and allows developers to take shortcuts when executing a particular project to ward off delays and benefit from early delivery. 

They’ll compromise quality and risk backtracking in the process, But if they can deliver their project right away, they will benefit from near-immediate gains and will still have time to push out updates remotely. 

Just like monetary debt, technical debt is also defined through short-term decision-making. There are many benefits and trade-offs, but there are still so many risks — and an equal amount of consequences, should leadership not be prepared to plan and plan with great deliberation.

Is tech debt bad?

There are differing opinions on whether technical debt is a good thing or a bad thing, if it makes the team lazy or incompetent, or if technical debt is inevitable — and just how much debt a development team should actually take on. 

In one school of thought, technical debt is a game changer when prioritizing client interests and expectations over a more technical implementation — especially within design considerations.

By placing speedy delivery over perfect code, software developers can expedite the delivery of a piece of functional code in an effort to demonstrate new tools, features or product capabilities. It allows development teams to appease stakeholders and executive parties while gathering critical client data, such as feedback and critical misses.

They see it as a tradeoff — delayed delivery vs. manageable technical debt.

Some may even consider technical debt a valuable tool when appealing to upper-level executives or prestigious clientele.

The problem with this theory is that without an actual plan in place, developers could be throwing away essential resources, capital, valuable time and interest that they’ll never get back — consequences that under weigh the benefits and a backlog of discrepancies that need to be mitigated in a short amount of time.

In fact, so much could go wrong if the code is rarely revisited, refactored or refined. If this happens release-after-release, technical debt can build up — and if not taken care of, can face serious consequences — as the product needs to scale and grow. The backlog can balloon out of control, and other underlying changes can spiral to the point where they start impacting both scalability and response times. 

Technical debt can become burdensome when budgets are limited, timelines are concrete, and there’s a shortage of resources. 

Technical, or tech debt, can quickly accumulate when development teams have yet to set a solid plan to catch up on the repayment of existing debt — or when they cut too many corners to expedite a new software or feature release not yet ready for market. But along with cutting features, they may also have to halt working on other outstanding issues such as existing backlog, or planned infrastructure and architecture changes. 

The further away a project deviates from its original scope, the more debt it would have accumulated over time. Moreover, the more complex the deficit becomes, the harder it is to get out of debt once and for all. 

With monetary debt, you will eventually have to make interest payments. Likewise, with technical debt, development teams will make interest payments — only in the form of backlog and refactoring against the expectations of its intended design.

What causes a technical debt?

Technical debt is something often overlooked by engineering teams. It’s the result of issues that were created within the system, those that organically grow, become even more complex and, eventually, harder and harder to maintain.

It starts on “Day 1” of the product cycle, as tasks continue to multiply. Unless they’re otherwise managed, inefficiencies will manifest in the form of quality, performance and security-related events. Individually, they can cause an avalanche of customer escalations over time. As a backlog, they can become the downfall of a project or department. 

Sometimes, just to meet deadlines, developers will take shortcuts, implement workarounds — or simply leave out the small things, altogether. This will cause more issues and more backlog that developers will need to sort through, and the project itself falls further and further behind. 

Eventually, too many things will get pushed into the backlog, but business will still need to be carried out as usual. This will cause even the most minor of inefficiencies to be overlooked, regardless of intention, until there’s way too much pressure and it needs to be taken care of — then and there. 

These inefficiencies can quickly add up and snowball after just a few short iterations. They can create code hotspots — areas of code, or code modules, that consistently contribute to the most defects — and cause developers to spend more time working on these events. This ultimately impacts the velocity of product development, leading to further delays and impact both the quality and security of the finished product. 

Technical debt should be cleared regularly to reduce quality issues. There should also be some sort of test automation put into place. It should be built, specifically, for known hotspots and ensure regular testing upon each and every release. There should also be tools working in the background to widely reduce risk and to maintain the integrity of product development.

By pinpointing code hotspots, teams can prioritize technical debt to increase their investments, especially in the areas of:

  • Code reviews and pull requests
  • Integration and unit testing
  • Design reviews 
  • Test automation

Security Considerations

Security is a critical aspect of every organization. But with rapid development and rapid deployment, security testing protocol is often left for the final steps of release planning. This is an enterprise’s first mistake.

If any security aspects are overlooked, teams may have to start over from the very beginning — missing crucial deadlines which could greatly impact the customer experience and cause stakeholders to lose trust in the organization. 

Security issues can result in further rework and delay if found later on in the SDLC. But many organizations will still “shift left” on security issues, instead of incorporating safeguards much earlier in the development process. At the very least, they should incorporate security tools into their CI/CD pipeline, as it can be very helpful to track vulnerabilities and address best practice violations right away.

How easy is it to identify technical debt?

It’s much easier to identify technical debt when monitoring various metrics and activities across the software development lifecycle (SLDC). 

Keeping a record of changes will allow teams to identify where the project went awry — whether it was from deliberate pressure from leadership to deliver a project early on or if it was unintentional debt acquired as a project fell behind.

Everything must be documented. It helps leadership better identify where the team deviated from the original path. It also allows leadership to solve any unexpected issues or concerns highlighted within a single repository. 

These repositories are generally accessible to all members of the organization. And although granular in nature, they can contain data-rich resources, such as code documentation, project roadmaps, checklists and files associated with the interface.

So, what is an example of technical debt? 

Ward Cunningham is a well-known software developer who was credited with creating the “wiki” and one of 17 authors of the Agile Manifesto.

He once stated, “With borrowed money, you can do something sooner than you might otherwise, but then until you pay back that money, you’ll be paying interest.” He likened rushing software “out the door” to borrowing money, discussing how he once thought it was a good idea — until he changed his mind. He explained that as you learn more about the software you hurried to create, “you would [essentially] repay that loan by refactoring the program.”

And with this, he coined the term “technical debt.”

There are 13 types of technical debt.

When a company takes on technical debt, the debt isn’t always taken in the form of code or programming. Sometimes it will manifest itself in other areas, such as the loss of trust or the inability to hire new developers due to a reputation of falling behind. 

When Cunningham coined the term “technical debt” in 1992, he probably never imagined the impact it would create more than 30 years later. 

In 2014, a group of researchers from the Software Engineering Institute went on to write a paper called “Towards an Ontology of Terms on Technical Debt.” Within this paper, there were 13 distinct examples of technical debt and a set of key indicators and principles for each:

  • Requirement Debt
  • Service Debt
  • Test Automation Debt
  • Test Debt
  • Architecture Debt
  • Build Debt
  • Design Debt
  • Documentation Debt
  • Infrastructure Debt
  • People Debt
  • Process Debt
  • Code Debt
  • Defect Debt

Are there consequences for bad technical debt?

Tradeoffs will only lead companies to a delayed delivery — or the inevitable accrual of the infamous technical debt. It must be managed — no matter how often it’s collected — and 

when accruing technical debt, one must decide whether their actions are intentional — are they deliberate or inadvertent? 

Is there a specific strategy the software engineers and development team have set in place? What do they hope to achieve?

Backtracking and reworking existing code can lead to developer burnout, unhappy teams and decreased productivity. Software engineers may feel drained and their output reduced. The more debt a team takes on, the harder it can be to maintain or control. 

Sure, more can get done at a quicker pace if developers cut corners just to meet deadlines for the day. But, while they may meet a temporary checkpoint or milestone, it will most certainly cost the project unnecessary refactoring and waste.

Shortcuts taken by rushing code without a plan of action can lead to:

  • Process inefficiencies
  • Poor code quality
  • Disruption of the creative process
  • Missing or corrupted documentation 
  • Duplicate or corrupted code
  • Tangled dependencies or interdependencies
  • Gaps in code that need to be filled
  • Missing and insufficient data
  • Loss of synergy between team members
  • Deliverables that need to be reworked
  • Ever-changing goals and timelines
  • Internal changes to infrastructure
  • Master code that’s no longer compatible
  • Insufficient testing metrics
  • Increased costs and wasted resources
  • Decreased productivity among developer teams
  • Security-related problems and decreased usability
  • Dynamically changing software requirements
  • Risks caused by fixed-time projects using new technology

In what ways can we manage technical debt? 

Development teams must keep technical debt agile — as the project matures, flexibility is everything.

But managing technical debt is one of the most crucial steps of software development. When managing technical debt, much credence should be given to the team’s ability to pick up where they left off — or to quickly fix issues where projects fell to the wayside.

Despite it all, companies can reap the consequences of misplaced actions in software development if the debt is not initially handled properly. With all the issues a team can encounter, foresight and prevention can lead to some pretty effective product management.

In an effort to quickly repay technical debt — or to avoid it altogether — it’s never a bad idea to assign certain responsibilities to specific team members. In fact, assigning product ownership almost ensures that any debt that accrues is debt that will be eliminated. 

Accountability will hold certain members of the team to a different level of responsibility — and those members will take action to immediately address difficulties faced along the way. 

Technical debt should be addressed almost daily. In fact, stand-ups are an excellent way for teams to collaborate and find a better way. Engineers should be open to suggestions, and everyone should come together to improve the product. 

In extreme cases and if the tech debt has accrued over time, it might even be worth focusing one whole release cycle purely on addressing those issues and reducing the tech debt.

Whether it be a poor architecture choice or a glitch in the system, weak project management and an equally inadequate quality assurance (QA) strategy are bound to disrupt the process further.

A fresh set of eyes never hurt anyone, and a fresh perspective can mean saving the time and energy wasted on busy work and petty line items that really don’t matter. But unfortunately, those closest to the project often overlook the obvious, most simplistic way to carry out a task. And instead, it becomes one big mess with an ever-growing list of complexities built upon one another. 

This also makes it essential to host regular code reviews and make them part of a routine. As creators, we often think too deeply about whatever it is we’re creating. Data needs to be looked at by someone who didn’t write the code — someone who is qualified to analyze it and provide valuable feedback, whether good or bad, so that changes can be made on a more timely basis.

Metrics for Monitoring Technical Debt

Continuous testing is one of the best ways to avoid technical debt throughout the software development lifecycle (SDLC). In fact, it’s one of the most essential practices in software development. It safeguards developers against future liability that may arise from faulty software or hardware disadvantages.

Standards should be set against all code to be tested, and project leaders should consider investing in automated testing — especially for long-term projects. 

Automated testing will uncover many more issues than manual testing ever will. A deep dive into the nuts and bolts of the algorithm will identify any bugs and errors in the program for improved quality, stability, functionality, speed and efficiency.

It would be wise to maintain a low bug count, regularly testing the code to minimize the number and severity of bugs left unfixed per agile iteration, testing for the following metrics:

  • New bugs vs. Closed bugs 
  • Code coverage percentage 
  • Code coverage per feature
  • Number of failed CI or CD builds
  • Code hotspots

Small debts do add up. So, it’s vital to regularly quantify debt, calculating how much debt is left in the backlog and how serious that debt actually is. 

Implementing an issue tracking system is simply good practice. It’s also one of the best ways to face technical debt head-on. 

Quickly identifying a problem means quickly finding a fix. This saves product management teams from more problematic experiences down the line. 

An issue tracking system is any application that allows teams to record, store and follow every issue encountered until these problems are solved. Tracking and managing these events will enable users to track, realize and modify frequently occurring errors so that they no longer occur. 

In the case of deliberate planning, attention should be given to the key metrics and performance indicators (KPIs), as well as the differentiators that make up a majority of the program that gets left behind.

Through regular change management and ongoing preventative planning, scope can be redefined to create a more dependable program with fewer bugs and code that goes undefined. Next steps can be introduced slowly so as to not impact other parts of the system or to upend any progress already made. 

The final product would be compromised without monitoring and dedication. Performance may not be up to par without backtracking and reworking code debt one gap at a time. It may also mean starting entire portions of the project from scratch. 

Delays will be inevitable, and there’s no guarantee that the project will ever regain its course. But regular monitoring is crucial, and metrics can indicate precisely what a project lacks.

How to Minimize Technical Debt

One fundamental question a software engineer or product owner must ask themselves is “How does the development team effectively reduce technical debt?”

It’s actually not that hard to reduce technical debt. 

Agility decreases as the product matures. But flexibility is imperative to the repayment of debts. When teams are faced with real project constraints, adhering to strict project management principles can really go a long way. 

According to BrainHub, “When a technical debt grows big, it becomes hard to deal with, slows down your speed to market, and just becomes costly.”

But, specific metrics can be tracked to detect a growing list of technical debts on time.

Implementing DevOps strategies can help teams avoid technical debt and dependencies. The culture leaves agile environments conducive to debt avoidance and fully optimized processes from start to finish.

Similarly, it’s hard to ignore building debt through the implementation of continuous development and testing of integrations. 

Agile environments, however, allow decision-makers to optimize the remaining steps. They also allow leadership to redirect program backlogs and refactoring efforts without causing irreparable damage to what’s already been carried out — or, in this case, what’s still left to be done. 

Developers shouldn’t get caught up in not finishing everything between sprints. Accountability is everything, but so are communication and trust. Teams should collaborate to better understand why there are delays. They’ll need to center more effort on what they’re actually delivering instead. 

Flexibility allows for the adjustment of time. As a result, engineers can better identify shortfalls and take action to mitigate concerns on the fly. 

Planning for the inevitable debt may be vital to avoiding major deficits within the code or across the system. Agile developers should plan an upward of 20% leeway in the initial scope in order to make allowances for the following:

  • Delivery and milestone delays
  • Testing and quality assurance tests
  • Fixes and change management
  • System debugging and refactoring of code
  • Backlog removal
  • Unforeseeable Creep

When rewriting and refactoring code, it’s important to keep code libraries up-to-date. One simple change can push the entire script way off course. Therefore, product owners must maintain a clean code, doing away with outdated, legacy code whenever and wherever possible. 

This includes maintaining the department backlog to ensure that no changes to the environment will yield changes to the actual product. 

A coding style guide should also be maintained. By documenting the best coding practices, there will be a sense of unification across the board. Code reviews will begin taking a life of their own — with increased accuracy and no one to debate the proper way to format code. 

Small and consistent contributions like this one will allow for better organization and tracking of debts.

When several code changes are introduced in a partial, unorganized fashion, pull requests can be too complex — and even hard to decipher — when passed off to a reviewer. It’s highly suggested that teams make pull requests manageable. Break these requests down into smaller parts and leave a description as to what each of them is. 

Low-code development platforms shorten and accelerate the software development process. By providing programmers with pre-built pages and modules, they’ll less likely sacrifice quality racing against the clock. It will also limit the need to write long, repetitive lines of code. Developers can then use this free time to repay tech debt without new product development ever taking a hit.

How to Avoid Too Much Technical Debt

Software developers, especially those partial to Waterfall software development methodologies, tend to have a zero-tolerance policy in regards to technical, or code, debt. However, because they are accustomed to a document-driven framework, they simply do not share this same philosophy.

Executives, on the other hand, like to be “in the know” so that they can be a better buffer between stakeholders — and as long as everyone is aware that these tradeoffs are for short-term posterity, it will be easier to overlook that the actual project lacks in features and its true design quality.

Managing technical debt allows software developers to build a minimally viable product to demo to potential investors or customers.

“While the Waterfall method is a thorough and time-tested method of development,” writes Vagisha Arora at Planet Crust, “practices are better suited to saving time and avoiding tech debt. The Agile model hones in on shared solutions, self-organization, and collaboration. It also makes modification and addition of changes easier along the development cycle.”

One way to avoid taking on too much technical debt and to easily manage complex software programs is a building a solid foundation from the ground up. There needs to be a major spotlight on data structure and how it can be simplified. Choosing a flexible architecture is notably crucial for agile and scalability purposes. 

Product owners should always map out their technical debt strategies and benchmark their journey along the way. 

Because many development teams will reserve technical debt for “demo purposes only,” they acknowledge that developing their project piece by piece will release them from unnecessary iterations on an individual level. Instead, they’ll focus on segmentation, designing service layers and creating microservices that can be expanded over time. 

Instead of cutting corners to deliver a semi-finished product at a later date, they’ll deliver key parts of their module so that stakeholders can get a sense of what’s still to come.

Constant testing is key to clean, functional code and organization. Automated testing is even better at spotting code that has literally “stepped out of line.” Automated fixes allow the program to essentially “heal itself,” while developers focus on the more complex functions that keep technical and business goals aligned. 

By incorporating a proper design strategy or style guide, fewer inconsistencies will appear between different version types and program iterations. Suppose an engineer poorly strings together program modules, whether because descriptors were not assigned properly. In that case, a traffic jam of confusion may occur when other codes attempt to access or modify the code.

Why do engineers willingly take on technical debt?

As discussed earlier, there are times when engineers willingly take on massive amounts of technical debt. Although safeguards will be put into place, one reason to take on debt may be to avoid creep. Here, the irony is that they’re indirectly subjecting themselves to more creep by leaving themselves open to feedback from clients and planning ahead to escape the black hole known as technical debt. 

But it’s because of that planning that programmers and engineers are able to avoid the entire overhaul of a worthless project — or flushing out competitors from the marketplace. 

To avoid saturation, companies may just want to establish a presence in a quickly developing market. Or, they just want to be first in the market — especially when breakthrough discoveries have recently been made. 

Startups, in particular, may rush out a product so that they can beat a competitor to market. In the case of new markets and industry trends, beating competitors to the market can be a significant advantage. It can mean market leadership and acknowledgment as a premier brand. 

But this is not always so cut and dry. 

If a product is subpar, what’s stopping a competitor from quickly re-engineering the product with new features and changes necessary to take over the market?

Some businesses will never recover, and this event could impede upon new innovation, a major hit to the bottom line and a possible loss of outside revenue. Developers will be used to nurture a product that’s already been released, and new product lines will certainly dwindle.

Make sure to always provide value.

Technical debt can leak over into non-technical departments, including manufacturing, order fulfillment, sales and customer support.

According to DevOps.org, “Technical debt is also a result of the remote nature of today’s hybrid work environment. During the pandemic, businesses made many concessions to enable remote work and adopted new collaboration and development tools to enable productivity. As a result, 88% reported the pandemic increased their awareness of technical debt. The majority, 83%, also said the pandemic has increased acceptance of technical debt, a sign that many of these changes are here to stay in the new normal of working life.”

During the pandemic, a number of projects were upended and fell behind. 

Because of remote work and the fact that many of these workers were not fully acclimated to working from home, several companies found themselves rethinking technical debt as a whole. 

Eventually, they realized that these workers were more aware and that even though they took on debt, they were usually more thorough. This led to an increase in productivity and, ultimately, an increase in quality assurance. 

In the case of dependencies, technical debt needs to be hashed out as early in the process as humanly possible. 

Programmers should also avoid subpar coding even in the initial stages of development. They should plan for technical debt by focusing on the optimization of key features and functionality. 

They should have a detailed style guide, best practice strategies and product map in place that will allow them to decide which features should be sacrificed in the short-term — if at all — to minimize the changes that need to be made when continuing development to deployment. 

Here, Arora suggests that “Instead of cutting back on good quality code, try to prioritize a faster and more efficient methodology and code structure.”

Code should be refactored or modified on an as-needed basis. In contrast, the renaming of classes, methods and other variables — or re-organizing them — tend to be the more common yet critical theme. Code review and refactoring, implemented on a routine basis, will allow software development teams to benefit from a substantially higher quality of debt — if any. 

Building a feature list will allow the developer to create all necessary features for a prototyped version of the actual design. User interfaces are built, and various components are implemented to maintain design integrity. Then, it’s tested, inspected and delivered to stakeholders in support of the final product build without wasting time.

Summary of Technical Debt

Technical debt can be considered an offensive way to keep projects on track for early delivery while staying on the defensive to protect design integrity against the auspices of inevitable technical debt. Some organizations use well-managed, technical debt to obtain capital from stakeholders, appease client interest and demo work progress to members of the leadership team. 

Smart product owners find ways to ultimately create placeholders for future features and design iterations, minimizing the need to refactor and restructure code at a later date. Accruing some technical debt can help organizations reach crucial deadlines and conquer waste. 

A few things development things should keep in mind:

  • The debt and reason for the debt must be acknowledged upfront by all parties — and the customer MUST be informed that each iteration should be considered a Beta version of the final product so that they aren’t put off by inconsistencies or errors that deviate from the original design.
  • A lack of synergy between team members and poor leadership can be detrimental to communication, planning and, ultimately, collaboration. 
  • All stakeholders, project managers and developers must collaborate on prioritizing tasks to define the future state of early deliveries and establish a schedule to start paying off that debt without interfering with the continued progress of each new event.
  • There should always be a plan to mitigate bottlenecks and/or any other problematic events that could occur — and to avoid a domino effect when and where it may be hard to trace back to the source.

How to quickly remediate frequently occurring issues:

  • Establish an ongoing maintenance plan.
  • Stay on top of updates and eliminate outdated infrastructure.
  • Allocate a budget specifically for fixes and updates.
  • Make necessary changes to technology and programming throughout the SDLC.
  • Pay attention to time management and cut out redundant processes.
  • Find ways to best allocate resources.
  • Don’t be afraid of cross-collaboration.
  • Eliminate as many dependencies as possible.
  • Maintain clean code and repositories.
  • Have a “hands-off” party validate the code.
  • Simplify pull requests in the case of code review.
  • Document everything.

At any cost, companies should avoid releasing volatile, low-quality software to prevent a dip in brand value and trust. A company’s credibility and reputation can hinge on its developers’ reputation. It’s critical for brands to hire the right people to do the job, even if it means outsourcing part of the work. They also need to make sure they have the right leaders and infrastructure in place to keep technical debt at a low — and organization at its finest.

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