Technical Debt: Types, Causes, Model, Practices, Measure

What is a Technical Debt and How to Deal with it?

Often people take shortcuts while performing certain tasks due to several reasons. Without a doubt, it saves time and effort, but the repercussions of the same can be catastrophic. Sometimes, the same can happen in software development where developers take the shortcut to release the product early. Rather than thinking long-term, developers plan for short-term success which leads to issues in the future. Its correct term is Technical Debt and is highly common in the software industry. This article will elaborate all about technical debt, its different types, causes, how it impacts a business and the ways to manage it. 

technical debt complete guide

What is a Technical Debt?

Whenever the word ‘debt’ is mentioned, a financial image forms in the mind. In the digital world, the term technical debt is when certain programming or coding decisions are made in the short term to boost the release of the product. In simpler terms, technical debt is the actions where the perfect coding is compromised to ensure rapid delivery of the software. It is often referred to as tech debt, design debt, or code debt.

Though they have minor differences, the core essence is the same as technical debt. The reason why it is called debt is that akin to financial debt where the borrower has to repay the debt along with the interest, the same has to be paid in software as well. 

However, the only difference is that this interest is not paid directly. It may not seem like a major issue in the beginning, but technical debt, when left unmanaged, can bring the power of computing to software. The commonest issue that this debt may bring is bugs in the software.

When there are too many underlying bugs in the software, the number of users will decline in the long run which might hamper the overall image of the program. Soon, the users will switch to other alternatives of the program and hence your software may soon become dead. 

With that in mind, a simple yet unmanaged technical debt could be as worse as making the software unwanted by the users. However, it does not mean that technical debt is all bad and nothing is good about it. When used in a manageable way, the same can help in making rapid changes in the software which can be loved by the users, hence making the software more usable by the users.

It could be said that much like the financial debt, the goodness or badness or a technical debt varies with the way how it is used by the users. 

What are the Types of Technical Debt?

There is no denying the fact that technical debt is an inevitable situation and will happen in every software development. The only difference is the way it is handled and what type of technical debt is existing in the development. Here are the different types of technical debt.

Type #1: Planned Technical Debt:

Sometimes, development teams plan to have a technical debt for certain reasons. In this case, in-depth research is done and all the consequences including the costs and risks are analyzed to minimize the undesirable outcomes. A planned technical debt requires a lot of precision to determine the outcome and the actions that the company has to make to manage the technical debt.

For instance, a company can prefer having a technical debt when they want to release their software within the deadline but are unable to do so if they prefer writing the perfect code. In that case, they may analyze the software and may delay certain features which are insignificant for the release. 

Type #2: Unintentional Technical Debt:

Opposite of the former, unplanned technical debt is the one that happens without any planning on intentions. Circumstances like rollout issues, improper practices, and lack of practice with new coding techniques could lead to an unintentional technical debt.

Sometimes poor quality code can lead to this technical debt type. It is often considered a highly risky situation as the developers may take a while to identify the technical debt and the software quality may hamper during that time. 

Type #3: Unavoidable Technical Debt:

Unavoidable technical debts are those that occur when the new business requirements are established, making the earlier written code outdated. Modifications in the business or changes in an existing technology for the betterment of the organization can lead to this debt.

These alterations are not just limited to the business, but the software as well. For instance, the addition or removal of a new feature or adding support to other platforms could lead to massive changes in the code which may ultimately lead to a technical debt that cannot be avoided. 

Technical Debt Quadrant:

Technical Quadrant is a technical debt model created by Martin Fowler which helps segregate the technical debt into four quadrants based on two different factors; whether the technical debt was deliberate or inadvertent, and was the decision prudent or reckless. 

  1. Deliberate and Reckless: The first section in this model is deliberate and reckless where the technical debt is deliberate but the repercussions of the debt are not understood. Factors like long-term impact, approximate cost or expense, planning, and blast radius are not considered in this part which ultimately makes it fall in the reckless category. This category is mostly found in small-scale companies as they have to obtain rapid results.And, while achieving this goal, they end up being reckless while analyzing technical debt, resulting in poor results. Even though the debt was intentional, the outcome was not studied appropriately which could become an unsuccessful strategy for the software.
  2. Deliberate and Prudent: Deliberate and prudent is the opposite of the former. Here, the technical debt is also intentional, but it is done in a planned way. The decisions made for the debt will be taken after analyzing all the considerations to take careful and effective action. In this section, the developers will consider risk management and create a plan of action to handle the consequences and reduce the damage to a minimum extent.
    The primary action here is to release the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) so that it reaches the customers as soon as possible. Furthermore, understanding their priority features and adding them rather than adding what the developers want in the software is the right course of action.
  3. Inadvertent and Reckless: This is the part in the quadrant where the developers should be aware of the technical debt, but they aren’t. Even though no one can know everything about anything, certain things should be expected from a professional.
    Software developers should be able to understand the fundamentals of development and may identify common bugs in the program. However, recklessness or ignorance can lead to unwanted issues which could be avoided easily. All such issues that can be avoided by giving a bit of attention to the code fall under the inadvertent and reckless category.
  4. Inadvertent and Prudent: Inadvertent and Prudent is the last part of the Technical Quadrant and the most complex one. Rather than doing or planning for the technical debt, this one is more about learning. Software development is all about innovation and learning new things. The motive of this part is to enhance the learning opportunities from the actions which will help in managing the debt and finding better ways to accomplish a task.

Causes of Technical Debt:

Technical debt can either be positive or negative for software but one thing is sure, it is caused by certain factors. These are some of the reasons that cause technical debt. 

  1. Business Factors: In most cases, the software is created to support a business model or to align with the business ideas. However, the same business can hinder the right practice of software development. Due to business pressures, teams may have rushed to release the software quickly or with a minimal budget. When the process is rushed or the finance is limited, the code quality is bound to be compromised, hence leading to technical debt.
  2. Development Process: There are stances when the concept is not documented properly. Due to this reason, the developers may start to have confusion during the entire development process. This confusion combined with a lack of test automation can lead to technical debt in the process.
  3. Inexperienced Team: In software development, the more time a developer has spent working, the better chances of them finding the issues in the code. Sometimes, the existence of the technical debt is unknown, but an experienced developer can identify common issues. However, inexperienced developers may not follow the same path initially and may miss out on some of the issues. This is the reason why it is often said that there should always be an experienced developer in a team. Apart from that, lack of communication can also be the reason for technical debt in software.
  4. Context Change: Sometimes, the technology or the requirements that were used earlier do not fit the software development process anymore. The only solution to that is changing the technology, process, or tools used earlier. This major change could result in technical debt.

How to Measure Technical Debt?

Before beginning to reduce technical debt, it is essential to determine how much technical debt you currently have. When it comes to measuring technical debt, the calculation of several metrics is necessary to have an accurate picture. Here are the different metrics for measuring technical debt.

#1: Cycle Time:

In general, cycle time is the duration or the time consumed to complete a task. In software development or programming, cycle time is the time between the first commit in the code section by the developer and the deployment of the code. A short cycle time showcases that the process is highly optimized which ultimately means low technical debt. On the contrary, a longer cycle time means a lack of code optimization and high technical debt. 

#2: Technical Debt Ratio:

Resolving an issue in the software will be done only through additional costs. The technical debt ratio is the measurement of the repair cost of software against the overall build cost. It helps in determining the quality of code. A lower technical debt ratio is preferred by the developers as it signifies higher code quality and a lesser probability of technical debt. The general rule of thumb is to aim for a five percent or less technical debt ratio. However, the preferred ratio varies with the developer as well as the project. 

#3: Code Churn:

Code churn is a crucial element in measuring the technical debt ratio as it helps in calculating the number of times a code line is deleted or replaced. In situations when a new feature is developed, there is a high possibility of code churn. However, as the product becomes older and several issues are resolved, the amount of code churn begins to reduce. If code churn still exists in high numbers, even after launch and bug fixes, it depicts that every iteration is coming with additional issues and errors. 

Best Practices to Manage Technical Debt

Knowing about the technical debt will help you make the right changes in the system or adopt the best practices necessary for improvement. Here are some of the best practices that assist in reducing technical debt. 

Practice #1: Understand that You Have Debt-

Oftentimes, companies have technical debt without benefiting from it or acknowledging it. Sometimes this debt can be beneficial and there comes a time when this debt is no longer beneficial for the company. Rather than just having technical debt without any benefit, it is best to acknowledge that the debt is no longer useful and should be reduced to make the software better. The sooner you understand that you have debt, the easier it will be for you to minimize it. 

Practice #2: Set Quality Standards-

One of the biggest reasons for unwanted technical debt is poor code quality. However, the reason is not incapable developers, but lack of quality standards in the code. Due to this reason, setting minimum quality standards will ensure that your code quality remains high which ultimately reduces the technical debt. 

Practice #3: Determine Your Right Approach-

To tackle technology debt, you should be clear on your approach to managing it.

  • There are three major strategies to handle this debt and the first one is doing nothing. Even though it may sound like a lazy act, it is an excellent approach when the technical debt is beneficial for the product. The only thing that you should identify is the consequences of taking this approach. 
  • The second is incremental refactoring where you need to work on every sprint to reduce the technical debt. Though it is highly effective in doing so, it is also an expensive way of reducing debt.
  • The third approach is to replace the entire system. There are stances where legacy systems become highly complicated and fixing them by resolving minor issues is not efficient in the long run. Rather than fixing them, the best thing is to replace the system. Without a doubt, it will be hefty, but it remains to be the guaranteed way to manage technical debt in the long run. 

How Can ThinkSys Inc Help You In Managing Technical Debt?

ThinkSys Inc can help your organization in finding the right balance between managing and reducing technical debt. Our expertise in DevOps services combined with Cloud adoption, security issue detection, building, and many others will help in finding underlying issues in the code which will ultimately help in minimizing technical debt.

Furthermore, we are equipped with some of the best tools in the industry which will help in measuring this debt. Our practices like finding duplicate blocks of code, analyzing their pattern, and identifying bugs or problems in the code will be used appropriately in managing technical debt in your software. 

Technical debt will always be there in the process and it is not always bad. Much like traditional debt, how it is used defines its positive or negative effects. Managing the technical debt efficiently and using the best practices to minimize it is the way to get one step closer to a successful program. When technical debt starts to become unmanageable, it is best to reduce it to the minimum to avoid any negative effects on the program. 

Frequently Asked Questions(Technical Debt)

An AWS environment in an organization is created to solve certain issues and meet business objectives. However, a lack of a comprehensive framework and gaps in AWS can cause technical debt in AWS.

Agile methodology is all about delivering the working software quickly. When the software delivery is rushed in an Agile environment which leads to compromised code quality, issues, and bugs that may require an additional cost of fixing is technical debt in Agile.

Technical debt can be solved by following practices:

  • Prioritize debt tasks.
  • Automate tests.
  • Train developers.
  • Set code standards.
  • Hire an agency.

If you want to get professional assistance in solving technical debt, ThinkSys Inc can help you in optimizing your software code and minimize technical debt.

The basic way to measure technical debt is through the technical debt ratio. The acceptable number of this ratio is five percent(5%) but it depends on the project and the development team. 

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