Technical Debt: Understanding & Overcoming the Silent Threat
Technical debt, a term coined by Ward Cunningham, one of the authors of the Agile Manifesto, likens problems with code to financial debt. It’s OK to borrow against the future, as long as you pay it off. Technical debt has both visible and invisible elements. While businesses often monitor bugs, the invisible element can have a significant impact, potentially leading to products destined for the scrap heap.
Understanding and effectively managing technical debt is crucial for maintaining business agility, and ensuring product quality, performance, and the long-term viability of your offerings. Join us as we delve into the intricacies of technical debt and discover strategies to mitigate its adverse effects, securing a promising future for your products.
Table of Contents
What is Technical Debt?
Technical debt refers to the compromises made in software development that may expedite delivery in the short term but create additional work and complexity in the future. It’s akin to financial debt, where borrowing now requires interest payments later.
What Causes Technical Debt?
The causes of technical debt are multifaceted and often stem from various factors in the development process. Some common causes include:
- Rushed Development: When teams are under pressure to meet tight deadlines, they may take shortcuts, leading to suboptimal code quality.
- Lack of Collaboration: Inadequate communication between developers, testers, and other stakeholders can lead to misunderstandings and poor design decisions.
- Inconsistent Coding Standards: Without clear and consistent coding standards, the codebase can become messy and difficult to maintain.
- Obsolete Technologies: Using outdated technologies or libraries can make the codebase rigid and challenging to update.
- Insufficient Testing: Lack of thorough testing can leave hidden defects that turn into technical debt over time.
- Ignoring Refactoring: Failing to refactor or improve the code regularly can lead to a buildup of inefficient and tangled code.
- Business Priorities: Sometimes, business needs may prioritize new features over code quality, leading to compromises that result in technical debt.
- Inadequate Skillset: If the development team lacks the necessary skills or expertise, they may produce code that is not up to the standard, contributing to technical debt.
- Ignoring Feedback: Not taking into account feedback from code reviews or ignoring
Types of Technical Debt
Understanding the different types of technical debt can help in identifying and addressing the specific challenges your organization may be facing. Here are some common types:
- Deliberate Technical Debt: This is incurred intentionally, often to meet a deadline or specific business need. It’s like taking a calculated risk, with the understanding that it will be paid back later.
- Accidental Technical Debt: This occurs unintentionally due to a lack of knowledge, oversight, or unforeseen complexities. It might include coding errors, suboptimal design choices, or outdated documentation.
- Outdated Technical Debt: As technology evolves, certain parts of the codebase may become obsolete or incompatible with newer technologies. This type of debt requires updates to stay current and maintainable.
- Testing Debt: Skipping or skimping on testing can lead to hidden defects and vulnerabilities. This debt can be costly to fix later, especially if it leads to customer-facing issues.
- Design Debt: This involves compromises in the system’s architecture or design, leading to a lack of scalability, maintainability, or performance. It often requires significant refactoring to resolve.
- Documentation Debt: Incomplete or outdated documentation can hinder future development efforts, making it difficult for new team members to understand the codebase and contribute effectively.
- Tooling Debt: Using outdated or inefficient tools can slow down development, testing, and deployment processes. Investing in modern tooling can pay off by increasing efficiency and quality.
By recognizing and categorizing technical debt, teams can prioritize their efforts and apply targeted strategies to reduce and manage it effectively.
What are the Impacts of Technical Debt?
Let’s first have a look at the cost of change from a technical perspective. The assumption here is that the red waterfall curve is using BDUF (Big Design Up Front) where the design is perfected before construction. This is highly unrealistic in the high novelty complex adaptive domain of software delivery. In software, delivery design is only validated through working (releasable) software.
Technical debt can have profound effects on the development process, product quality, and overall business success. Let’s explore some of the key impacts:
Unreasonable Cost of Ownership
It should come as no surprise that the most common scenario we see today is a growing cost of ownership. At first, the impact is low but soon starts to build momentum. The ability to maintain, support, and add new features to the product becomes more complex and more expensive over time. This leads to a higher cumulative cost of ownership.
For example, if we built feature A in month 1 and the same feature A in month 18 with a good level of quality where the development teams are maintaining a sustainable pace, then the cost of developing that feature would be comparable.
With high technical debt where the development teams are fighting against the design, the costs will grow rapidly over time. This means:
- The cost (or difficulty) of change increases, eventually to the point of unmaintainability.
- The ability to respond to the needs of customers decreases, making them extremely unhappy.
- The predictability of results decreases. Estimating effort and complexity becomes more difficult. This decreases transparency and can impact trust.
Signs of Unhealthy Products with Technical Debt
Recognizing the signs of technical debt is the first step in addressing the problem. Let’s have a look at a few behaviours you may recognize:
- Weak Definition of “Done”: Where it’s not well-defined and represents quality for the product. Understanding what constitutes a “done” state is crucial for maintaining quality and avoiding technical debt. Learn more about why Product Owners want a perfect Definition of Done.
- Slowing Rate of Productivity: Increased cycle times to add similar-sized new features.
- Stressful Releases: Development teams go into crunch mode, working through lengthy change windows, executing scripts, manually deploying and configuring components, investigating incidents, and fixing defects.
- Untouchable Applications: Aging libraries and unnecessary dependencies make applications we are scared to touch.
- Increasing Time for Incident Investigations: More time spent dealing with incident investigations and fixing defects.
- Low Automated Testing: Lack of an extensive test suite forces repetitive, slow, and error-prone manual testing.
- Fragile and Tightly Coupled Components: Violation of good design principles, duplicated code, tangled architecture, and unnecessarily complex dependencies.
- Lack of Automation: Missing test, build, and deployment automation, plus anything else that could be automated but is done manually today.
- Long Feedback Loops from Continuous Integration: Build, Test, Deploy.
- Slow, Ineffective Tools: Tools that hinder rather than help the development process.
- Long-Lived Branches: Causing merging hell and increased delivery risk through late integration.
- Missing or Outdated Technical Documentation: Important documentation that is either missing or out-of-date.
- Unnecessary Technical Documentation: Maintaining documentation that is no longer needed.
- Insufficient Test Environments: Missing or not enough test environments causing delays in delivery and/or reduction in quality.
- Defects or Bugs Trending Up: Great scrum teams fix bugs as they are found and don’t let them accumulate. If the number of open or escaped defects is trending up over time, it’s an indicator of lower quality and technical debt. In the cumulative flow diagram, we can see over time that the average number of open defects (vertical) is growing over time and the average time to fix (horizontal) is increasing.
Who Suffers in this Vicious Circle of Deceit?
The consequences of technical debt are far-reaching and affect various stakeholders in the organization. The impact includes:
- Customers face defects, missing features, and poor service resulting in lower satisfaction.
- 1st line support teams create more incidents, increasing demand on operational support teams.
- Products with poor design are more complex than needed, have more dependencies, and require more infrastructure, more development time, and more support time to run.
- The organization, teams, and leadership get bad publicity due to defects, delays, security issues, or outages.
- Development teams must deal with the bad work of other developers, causing attrition and loss of talent.
- As it gets worse, customers complain about slow delivery, increasing pressure to take more shortcuts, which increases technical debt.
Options for Dealing with Technical Debt
Unfortunately, by the time organizations are paying attention, none of the options are good. However, recognizing the problem and making it transparent can lead to improvement:
- Do Nothing: And it gets worse.
- Re-Place/Re-Write the Software: Expensive, high risk, doesn’t address the root cause problem. Rinse and repeat in around 2 years’ time. Some organizations have successfully replaced legacy systems by adopting Agile methodologies and focusing on continuous improvement.
- Stop Creating More Technical Debt: Systematically invest in incremental improvement. This approach requires a commitment to quality and may involve investing in training, tools, and processes that support best practices.
- Make Technical Debt Transparent: Utilize tools like SonarQube, Test Coverage, Dependency Graph & Analysis Tools, Static Analysis Tools, etc., to make the debt visible and manageable. (More on this in an upcoming blog)
For a comprehensive approach to managing technical debt and improving efficiency, our blog on Value Stream Mapping: Your Answer offers valuable insights.
Empower Your Teams to Stop Your Product Hitting the Scrap Heap
Technical debt can be a significant barrier to delivering value and achieving business agility. Empowering your teams with the right knowledge, tools, and support is crucial to overcoming this challenge. Here are some options on how you can equip your teams to tackle technical debt effectively:
Knowledge through Training
- Professional Scrum Master (PSM): Educate Scrum Masters and Leadership teams on the impacts of Technical Debt and how to manage it. Learn more
- Applying Professional Scrum for Software Development (APS-SD): Experience delivering quality software with Scrum and DevOps practices, enhancing collaboration and continuous improvement. Learn more
- Professional Agile Leadership-Evidence-Based Management Training (PAL-EBM): Teaches how to use empiricism to set and achieve strategic goals, manage unknowns and complexity through experimentation, and focus on customer-centricity. EBM emphasizes the importance of evidence-based decision-making and focuses on outcomes rather than outputs. By measuring Key Value Metrics (KVM) in Key Value Areas (KVA) of organisation capability, like Time to Market (T2M) and Ability to Innovate (A2I), leadership can align efforts with business goals. Learn more
- Professional Scrum Product Owner (PSPO): Help product owners understand the importance of technical debt and its impact on delivering value, and maximizing product success. Learn more
Support through Coaching, Mentoring and Internal Practices
- Internal Support Actions: Foster a culture of continuous improvement through practices like Community of Practice, coding dojos, pair programming, and mob programming. These practices encourage collaboration, knowledge sharing, and skill development, essential for managing and reducing technical debt.
- External Support: We understand that reducing technical debt requires more than just training. Our specialized coaching services at b-agile, including workshops, pairing, coding dojos, and mentoring, are designed to help teams learn and incorporate technical practices into their daily work. We draw from extensive experience to provide a hands-on, customizable program tailored to your team’s needs. This approach fosters a culture of quality and innovation, making technical debt transparent, manageable, and continuously reduced. Learn more here about how we can help or contact us for more information.
By investing in both education and support, you can create an environment where technical debt is transparent, manageable, and continuously reduced, ensuring the long-term success of your products.
Technical debt is a complex and multifaceted challenge that can have far-reaching impacts on product development, quality, and long-term success. It’s not just a development issue; it affects customers, support teams, the organization, and even the reputation of the product.
From understanding the causes and types of technical debt to recognizing the signs and dealing with it effectively, this blog has explored various dimensions of this critical subject. Here are some key takeaways:
- Recognize the Signs Early: Awareness of the symptoms of technical debt allows for timely intervention and prevention of further accumulation.
- Understand the Impact: Technical debt can slow down development, increase costs, and jeopardize product quality. It’s not just a code issue; it affects the entire business agility.
- Strategize and Act: Options for dealing with technical debt range from doing nothing (and watching it get worse) to systematic investment in improvement. Making technical debt transparent and using tools like SonarQube, test coverage, and dependency complexity analysis can be part of a comprehensive strategy.
- Invest in Continuous Improvement: Regular refactoring, adherence to coding standards, collaboration, and the use of modern tools can keep technical debt in check.
- Leverage Professional Support: Technical Agile coaches, like those at b-agile, can provide the expertise and support needed to reduce technical debt and enable business agility.
Technical debt is not necessarily evil; sometimes, it’s a strategic choice. But like financial debt, it must be managed wisely. Ignoring or mishandling technical debt can lead to a product destined for the scrap heap. On the other hand, understanding, transparency, and proactive management can turn it into an opportunity for continuous growth and improvement.
For a deeper dive into dealing with technical debt in organizations, stay tuned for our upcoming blog on making technical debt transparent and how to approach improvement. To ensure you don’t miss out on this valuable content and more, sign up for our newsletter below.