How to Reduce Technical Debt: Causes, Types, Best Practices
There are a lot of studies and research on technical debt topics. It is a very common problem in software development, which affects not only the quality of the final product but also the work of the team as a whole. The reasons can be very different, but the negative consequences will be especially noticeable if you don’t solve the problem over time and ignore the issue of the TD accumulation.
In such cases, business leaders' main task is to form the right strategy to reduce software technical debt. As the project grows and scales, it takes more effort. The system becomes less flexible, changes are tough, and the implementation of new features takes more time than usual.
So let's see what the essence of technical debt is, why it accumulates, and how to deal with it. In this article, we will also discuss best practices for reducing TD, improving team performance, and choosing the proper approach to technical debt management.
What Is Technical Debt?
According to Techopedia, technical debt is a concept in programming that reflects the extra development work that arises when code that is easy to implement in the short run is used instead of applying the best overall solution.
As in the case of money debts, the technician can accumulate a particular "interest" until it is fully repaid. This can make it difficult to make further changes and increase costs in the future.
However, sometimes technical debt is not a negative thing. Often, developers need to abandon more efficient but complex solutions to speed up product delivery and get more information to improve the software in the future. So it all depends on the situation and the causes of TD.
It’s pretty simple to identify technical debt. The more time the team ignores it, the more costs and effort it requires to add new features and maintenance. So, at some point, you can realize that product development has become much more expensive, and any changes have become quite challenging. It means that the time to pay off accumulated "interest" has come.
Causes of Technical Debt
It‘s very important to assess the consequences and causes of technical debt properly. So let’s talk about the most common among them.
Business goals and the company's evolving conditions greatly influence the product development process. Sometimes you have to cut deadlines or reduce costs to achieve specific goals. Of course, this can lead to technical debt.
Changing priorities and product strategy, for example, also affect the product development strategy. Sometimes it’s necessary to change technical solutions halfway or abandon selected technologies due to new priority projects, which can create significant technical debt.
Development causes of technical debt are:
- New technologies evolving is too fast, which doesn’t allow a team to switch to their use painlessly and rapidly. Over time, outdated software requires upgrades (legacy software rearchitecting, for example).
- Mistakes in the early stages of development. TD often accumulates if proper research is not conducted at the start and a clear concept of development wasn’t prescribed. In such cases, the team doesn’t have clear goals, and developers are confused about priorities and tasks.
- Changing requirements. In the development process, product requirements, its main features and priority goals may change. Therefore, we must change the technology stack or find new, more suitable solutions. Meanwhile, TD is growing.
Code defects may also be accumulated during the development process. Sometimes it doesn’t require immediate correction but becomes a part of the technical debt.
Human Resource Causes
The issue of team diligence can be a key cause of technical debt formation. And the main reason is not a poor performance of a particular employee. In most cases, TD increase because it’s necessary to scale up the development team due to the lack of experience or specific specialists, and this doesn’t happen in time.
In some situations, developer capabilities are not used efficiently and the workload is distributed incorrectly. Thus, the team simply doesn’t have time to implement more complex and effective solutions, so they sacrifice them in favor of faster product delivery.
The issue of resources, one way or another, is related to the causes of technical debt mentioned above. Sometimes developers don’t have enough time and look for quick ways to complete the task. In other cases, the team doesn’t have enough information resources to find the optimal technical solution. Therefore, temporary replacement allows you to gain some time to find a better approach.
Of course, each product has its own unique features, so the causes of TD may be different. It’s essential to consider it when creating a technical debt reduction plan.
Main Types Of Technical Debt
Depending on how the technical debt occurs, it can be divided into two types: deliberate (or active, intentional) and inadvertent.
In the first case, it occurs when the refusal of a technical solution or delay in solving the problem is a company decision to achieve a certain goal (faster delivery, pre-approval of the MVP, etc.). Inadvertent or unintentional TD occurs accidentally due to lack of resources, wrong development strategy, lack of experience, etc. So it’s essential to take this information into account while creating strategies for technical debt reduction.
There are also four main types of technical debt depending on issue localization.
Architectural Technical Debt
As the name implies, this type of TD applies to the product architecture and the entire system design. It’s growing due to misalignment of software development life cycles (SDLC), misunderstanding of the architecture needs, or lack of expertise in complex system solutions.
Companies often hire dedicated software developers and analysts to address such issues. They can determine the extent of the necessary transformation, find ways to modernize it and deal with systems shortcomings.
Such debt accumulates due to deficiencies in infrastructure and its code, numerous CI/CD pipelines violations, lack of proper analysis of infrastructure capabilities and needs, etc. This usually leads to severe problems with deployment and operation.
DevOps specialists are involved in infrastructure technical debt reduction. They help set up CI/CD pipelines and balance development and testing processes.
Everything is plain and simple: such a TD is all about code. These are not only errors in the source code but also duplicates, long methods, elementary lack of experience, and bugs that arise due to it.
Most often, refactoring is used to address these issues to find the causes of debt and upgrade the system without affecting its infrastructure or functionality. However, the choice of how to solve code debt depends on the specific case and scope of work.
Testing is one of the most important product development stages, but technical debt can accumulate even here. It usually occurs due to a lack of alignment between the actual and test code or ignoring non-critical defects. Also, the reason for the growth of TD, in this case, may be the lack of automation, which could speed up the testing process and make it much more efficient.
Thus, regular and timely testing, process automation, or increased testing coverage help reduce technical debt. Again, each case is quite individual, so it’s better to turn to experienced QA engineers to solve problems.
Best Practices To Reduce Technical Debt
As we've said above, all products are unique, so there is no one-fits-all solution to solve technical debt issues. However, you can always follow the best practices and transform them based on your needs. So let's talk about it.
Measuring Tech Debt
Measuring tech debt is one of the most effective practices for reducing it. The following metrics help to determine the current level of debt:
- code quality and coverage;
- bugs (new ones and closed ones);
- code churn and cycle time.
Code Quality and Coverage
To determine the general code quality, developers calculate cyclomatic complexity and assess the depth of inheritance and class coupling. This metric shows the level of debt.
Also, important to determine the coverage metric, which indicates the amount of executed code while running a testing suite. The more "passive" unused rows, the worse the coverage.
It’s essential to determine the number of new and closed bugs. After comparing, you can understand how effectively bugs are eliminated and find a way to improve the testing process.
Code Churn and Cycle Time
The code churn metrics show how many times code lines have changed since the launch. It’s needed to find the type of errors, where and how often they are repeated, and how quickly the team can deal with them.
Cycle time is the period between deployment and first commit. The lower this metric, the faster the code executes and the lower the technical debt.
Technical Debt Ratio
Based on these metrics, you can determine the technical debt ratio (TDR), i.e., the ratio of the cost of restoring the system to the cost of its development. This way, you can determine how much the future technical debt will cost. It is crucial to understand how much time developers will need to reduce technical debt and how much that will cost.
Communication With Stakeholders
Any effective management is somehow related to proper communication. There is nothing new in technical debt management in this regard: you need to explain the importance of repaying TD to non-IT stakeholders on time.
Therefore, a TD's preliminary assessment will help demonstrate its current size, features, causes, and ways to reduce tech debt.
It is good practice to repay technical debt and align backlog regularly. It’s essential to plan your work with scrum teams to have the resources for regular refactoring and maintenance sprints.
It’s also important to constantly monitor your backlog and understand the specific scale of TD. You can find tools to automatically measure individual metrics to improve this process.
Agile methodology allows you to work with individual iterations and better control tech debts. In this way, teams will be able to gradually address small parts of the TD, reducing long-term interest rates and the impact of the debt on the project as a whole.
Working with CI/CD containers, tasks segmentation, automating processes, including testing, regular weekly sprints – all this helps to manage technical debt better and eventually eliminate it completely. In addition, working with iterations allows you not to accumulate additional debt.
Full Debt Repayment
In сertain cases, it’s necessary to fully repay the technical debt, and this process can not be spread over time. There are many ways to do this, but best practices are code refactoring and waiving features/requirements.
In the first case, the developers fully review the code, remove duplicates, reduce complexity and change the structure. Thus, the program's functions, infrastructure, and behavioral characteristics remain the same, but the quality of the code becomes slightly better, and the technical debt is paid.
The second option is to waive the requirement or feature. Your software may not need such extensive functionality, so you can review the needs and waive the requirements that create technical debt.
If the last two options don’t suit your project, you can completely replace the application. So you can solve the old technical debt completely. However, keep in mind that there will be a new TD, which will have to deal with in the future.
How to Handle With Technical Debt
It’s necessary to create a clear step-by-step plan to deal with tech debt: eliminate it and regularly reduce its scale. The following solutions can help you with this.
Definition and Timeline
Ensure that all the necessary participants in the process know that you have technical debt and are aware of its negative consequences and causes. It will help reach a consensus in a matter of its repaying.
After determining the type and size of the TD, you can schedule a debt settlement timeline. You need to determine all the necessary activities, team members who will do it and count the number of required working hours. The required time should be allocated so that solving the problem does not interfere with the main tasks but gives an effective result and reduces the backlog.
You should also think about resource allocation. Depending on the project and business opportunities, some companies allocate individual employees or create entire departments. To make a decision, you need to understand the scale of the problem, its consequences and the pace of solving. It all depends on the specific product and its characteristics.
Perhaps, you’ll decide to outsource this problem to a more experienced team. Our guide to software development outsourcing could be helpful in this regard.
Code Standards and Regular Reviews
Your team may include developers with different approaches and coding skills. Such a difference can worsen the code and contribute to the accumulation of technical debt.
So, code standardization is a great solution to avoid this. A clear and understandable set of coding rules and guidelines, as well as a list of best practices, will help developers create clean and clear code.
Regular reviews and standardization also help handle technical debt in the long run/ Constant error checking and a unified approach are good for painless changes and team skills improvement.
Recoding and Test Automatization
In addition to writing new code according to standards and unified rules, you need to correct old mistakes. Messed-up code often needs improvements: better structure, duplicate removal, etc.
You can use regular code refactoring and automate the testing process to reduce technical debt. We’ve used these techniques in our projects, so you can read about the results in our courier platform re-development case study. The involvement of automated software minimizes the risk of errors in the future, increases the efficiency of QA engineers, and gives them more time to solve problems that require human intervention.
Implement Agile Software Development Best Practices
Agile’s approach is not a panacea. But, as mentioned above, a gradual technical debt reduction can be an efficient solution for many reasons. The primary one is that Agile's flexible methodology allows you to pay for it little by little with each sprint while consistently ensuring high-quality development results.
Also, this approach makes it easier to prioritize technical debt, segment and control it, and pay it off more efficiently. So feel free to use its tools for better debt management.
The Middle Ground
Adherence to best practices is the right approach, but dealing with technical debt often requires attention to detail. Sometimes you have to look for entirely new ways of problem-solving or combine different practices in order to take the best from them.
Many experienced managers argue that the most effective option is to find the middle ground between what is right and what can be done. Each team has its limits, so sometimes, a constant technical debt in small quantities can be a perfectly adequate solution.
How Ardas Can Help To Manage Tech Debt?
So, in conclusion, we can say that dealing with technical debt is about prioritizing goals, serious work with code and organizing the team's work. The choice of approach depends on the type of debt: architectural, code, test or infrastructure.
In the process of reducing technical debt, it’s essential to understand the reasons for its occurrence, the specific size of the debt and its characteristics. You also need to find a way to communicate about it with key stakeholders and tell them about all crucial points of this issue: causes, long-term and short-term consequences, priorities and costs.
In dealing with tech development debt better to stick with best practices:
- Agile’s methodology implementation;
- recoding and refactoring;
- test automation;
- unified code standards and regular reviews.
But, at some point, you’ll need to find a middle ground between the total modernization and team capabilities. Professional TD analysis on the right metrics helps develop a more detailed plan for debt payment and find shortcomings in the team's work. Some managers delegate dealing with tech debt to particular employees or create a whole new team for this task.
A good practice is to hire a dedicated team and outsource this process to save time and effort for more important goals. We have extension experience in this regard, so feel free to contact us in any convenient way. We’ll be pleased to provide you with professional consultation