How to Reduce Technical Debt: Causes, Types, Best Practices

There are a lot of studies and research on technical debt reduction. It is a very common problem in software development, affecting not only the final product's quality but also the team's work 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 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 the essence of technical debt, why it accumulates, and how to deal with it. This article will also discuss best practices for reducing TD, improving team performance, and choosing the proper approach to technical debt management.

What Is Technical Debt?

Technical debt is like a shortcut in programming where developers choose an easy, quick fix over a better but more complex solution. Think of it as borrowing time now but having to pay back more time and effort later due to the initial shortcut. This "debt" can accumulate "interest," making future changes harder and more expensive.

However, taking on technical debt isn't always bad; sometimes, it's necessary to speed up delivery and learn more about improving the software later. Recognizing technical debt is straightforward: if adding new features or maintaining the software becomes increasingly difficult and costly, it's time to address the debt.

Main 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 Causes

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

Development causes of technical debt are:

  • New technologies evolving 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 initially and a clear development concept isn’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 the poor performance of a particular employee. In most cases, TD increases 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.

Resource Causes

One way or another, the issue of resources 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 unique features, so the causes of TD may differ. It’s essential to consider it when creating a technical debt reduction plan.

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's 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 consider this information while creating strategies for technical debt reduction.

There are also four main types of technical debt depending on issue localization:

  • Code Debt: This type of debt arises from issues within the codebase itself, such as poor coding practices, lack of standardization, duplication of code, or use of outdated or deprecated code. It makes the code hard to maintain and extend.
  • Design Debt: Design debt occurs when the software architecture or design is flawed or outdated. This includes over-engineering, under-engineering, or not following design patterns appropriately. It can lead to problems with scalability, performance, and the ability to add new features.
  • Documentation Debt: Insufficient or outdated documentation can lead to misunderstandings about how the system works or how changes should be implemented, slowing down development and increasing the risk of errors.
  • Testing Debt: This occurs when there is insufficient testing, such as missing tests, inadequate test coverage, or reliance on manual testing. Testing debt increases the risk of defects and bugs going unnoticed until they cause problems in production.
  • Infrastructure Debt: Infrastructure debt arises from outdated or inefficient infrastructure, such as servers, development tools, or deployment practices. It can lead to performance bottlenecks, security vulnerabilities, and increased operational costs.
  • Technical Skills Debt: This type of debt is related to the team's knowledge and expertise. If the team lacks the necessary skills to maintain or extend the current system effectively, it can slow down development and lead to suboptimal decisions.
  • Dependency Debt: Occurs when the software relies on external libraries, frameworks, or services that are outdated, deprecated, or no longer supported. It can lead to security, compatibility, and functionality issues.

Best Practices To Reduce Technical Debt

As mentioned 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

One of the most effective ways to measure and manage technical debt is through the Technical Debt Ratio (TDR). This metric offers a quantitative glimpse into the health of your software development process, highlighting the cost of cutting corners versus investing in a more sustainable, long-term solution.

What is the Technical Debt Ratio?

The Technical Debt Ratio is a metric that compares the cost of fixing coding issues (remediation cost) to the total cost of development (rework cost plus new development cost). In essence, it quantifies the debt in relation to the effort required to develop the software. A higher TDR indicates a larger amount of technical debt relative to the codebase size, signaling potential risks to project timelines and budgets.

Calculating the Technical Debt Ratio

To calculate the TDR, you can use the formula:

TDR= Development Cost/Remediation Cost

  • Remediation Cost: The effort required to fix issues that, if left unaddressed, would hinder future development efforts. This can include refactoring code, addressing known defects, or updating documentation.
  • Development Cost: The total cost of developing the software, including both the remediation of technical debt and the creation of new features.

For example, if the cost to remediate technical debt is $50,000 and the total development cost is $500,000, the TDR would be 10%. This indicates that efforts to address technical debt consume 10% of the project's budget.

Implement Regular Code Reviews

Implementing regular code reviews is a strategic approach to identify, manage, and reduce technical debt by ensuring that new code adheres to quality standards and best practices. Here's how to implement regular code reviews effectively.

1. Establish Clear Code Review Guidelines

  • Define what constitutes high-quality code in your organization, including coding standards, architecture patterns, and performance criteria.
  • Create a checklist for reviewers to follow, ensuring consistency in reviews.

2. Use Code Review Tools

  • Leverage tools and platforms (e.g., GitHub, GitLab, Bitbucket) that facilitate code reviews by allowing comments, suggestions, and discussions within the code context.
  • Automate where possible, using static analysis tools to catch common issues before human review.

3. Integrate Code Reviews into Your Development Process

  • Make code reviews a mandatory part of the development workflow. No code should be merged into the main branch without being reviewed.
  • Incorporate code reviews early and often, ideally reviewing small changes rather than large batches of code to reduce complexity and improve effectiveness.

4. Train Your Team

  • Provide training and resources to both authors and reviewers to understand the code review process and expectations.
  • Encourage a culture of learning and mentorship, where code reviews are seen as opportunities for growth and improvement.

5. Foster a Positive Review Culture

  • Promote a positive, constructive approach to feedback. Reviews should focus on the code, not the individual, to encourage open communication and continuous improvement.
  • Recognize and reward thorough and helpful code reviews to reinforce their value.

6. Set Realistic Timelines and Expectations

  • Allocate specific time for code reviews in your development schedule to ensure they are thorough and not rushed.
  • Be realistic about how much code can be reviewed effectively in a session to avoid reviewer fatigue.

7. Review for Technical Debt Specifically

  • Include technical debt identification as a specific goal of code reviews. Look for code smells, overly complex solutions, hard-coded values, lack of documentation, and anything that deviates from established best practices.
  • Discuss and document any intentional technical debt, including justification and plans for future resolution.

8. Follow Up and Act on Review Feedback

  • Ensure that feedback from code reviews is acted upon. This may involve revising code, creating tasks for technical debt repayment, or adjusting guidelines and practices based on lessons learned.
  • Use code reviews as feedback to continually refine and improve coding standards and review processes.

9. Measure and Analyze Review Outcomes

  • Track metrics related to code reviews, such as time spent, issues found, and technical debt identified, to measure the impact and efficiency of your review process.
  • Adjust your code review practices based on these insights to continuously improve the process and reduce technical debt.

Backlog Control

It is good practice to repay technical debt and align backlog regularly. Planning your work with scrum teams is essential 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 measure individual metrics to improve this process automatically.

Agile Practices

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, and regular weekly sprints – helps 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 certain cases, it’s necessary to repay the technical debt fully, 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 code quality 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.

You can completely replace the application if the last two options don’t suit your project. So you can solve the old technical debt completely. However, remember that there will be a new TD, which will have to deal with in the future.

How to Manage Technical Debt

Creating a clear step-by-step plan to deal with tech debt is necessary: 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 the 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.

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 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 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 a professional consultation.

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