What Is Technical Debt? 6 Best Practices For Dealing With It

Technical debt is a common term in software development, especially when it comes to modernizing legacy systems and applications. In this article, we’ll walk you …

Technical debt is a common term in software development, especially when it comes to modernizing legacy systems and applications. In this article, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about this topic. Let’s jump right into it. 

What Is Technical Debt?

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Technical debt is the work you’ll have to do tomorrow because you took a shortcut in the development of your software today. Developers typically have to strike a balance between quality and speed; it’s the tradeoff between developing perfectly programmed software and writing good enough code to meet a launching deadline. 

Technical debt works like any other type of debt: get convenience now, repay debt and interest later. Although you would always have to do some upgrade and maintenance work on your software regardless of how perfectly it’s built due to ever-changing technologies, technical debt doesn’t refer to this kind of inevitable work. It is instead used specifically to describe maintenance issues caused by:

  • Budget limitations
  • Deadline limitations
  • Poor development choices
  • Poorly written code

Is Technical Debt Always Bad?

No, it’s not. There are times when you need to make the tradeoff between quality and speed because it is worth it. For example, when you have got a new idea and need to test the market, it doesn’t make business sense to spend a load of money on building a perfect app because you’re facing the risk of the market not being as interested in your solution as you had expected.

Technical debt is bad when it is created from neglect or poor technical decisions in the development process. It acknowledges the risk that cutting corners in the short term will generate costs in the long term and reminds developers to be mindful of those costs when making tradeoffs. 

Types of Technical Debt

Planned technical debt

Planned technical debt is tradeoffs that developers intentionally make while they are fully aware of the risks and costs they’re taking. This is when you decide to take a shortcut in your development to meet a release deadline while simultaneously knowing that you’ll need to come back and bridge the shortcut later. These planned tradeoffs can accumulate quickly over time, so you need to keep a record of them in order to prevent them from turning into monster setbacks. 

Unplanned technical debt

This refers to unintentional technical debt that results from: 

  • Poor development practices
  • Poor coding abilities
  • Poor engineering decisions
  • Poor communication between teams

While technical debt can easily happen with a lack of attention to detail, adopting the right software development model can help significantly mitigate this risk. 

Unavoidable technical debt

This is debt that doesn’t result from poor past development but from changes in business models, products, or new technologies. This type of debt is unavoidable because you couldn’t foresee it at the time when you developed your software. 

When a new business model or a new product that is vital to the survival of the business needs to be adopted, adjusting or rewriting old systems to accommodate that change shouldn’t be viewed as a problem. Also, technologies are ever-changing; what’s the newest technology today can become obsolete tomorrow, so paying for the debt of old technologies in order to keep up with new ones shouldn’t either be viewed as a problem. 

6 Best Practices For Managing Technical Debt

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Organizations without zero technical debt are those who don’t develop their own software. If you have developed your own, it’s not a big deal if you’ve incurred some technical debt. What matters is how you deal with it. Here are our four tips.

1. Dedicate time to repaying your technical debt

Technical debt is not a serious problem as long as you don’t let your accumulation of it reach a disastrous level. To prevent this from happening, you can spend some dedicated time cleaning up your codebase while developing new features.

2. Adopt code standards and review

A code standard is a collection of programming rules, guidelines, and best practices. They guide developers in writing clean, readable code, and they also make it easy to address any changes that may need to be made later. Code standards reduce tech debt by clarifying and unifying the standards of a good app. 

Code review is a process where developers examine each other code for errors. Apart from helping in avoiding potential issues, this practice enables developers to learn from one another and improve their skills.

3. Maintain a knowledge library

You can lose track of the technical tradeoffs that you make during your development process, so documenting them will make the repayment of technical debt easier later. Such documentation can be a knowledge library that contains shortcuts are taken, checklists, attached files, roadmaps, etc. that team members can read and exchange. With such a library, developers can get access to any information that they need during the development process, as well as solve problems with less confusion.

4. Do unit tests

One simple way to solve or recover from technical debt is by writing and conducting unit tests more frequently to avoid the accumulation of debt. Unit tests help developers identify bugs and improve code quality. 

5. Embrace Agile

Less technical debt accumulates when you pay it off consistently after every single sprint. Agile software development models allow teams to work on smaller batches of features while keeping technical debt incurred with them more manageable. In Agile, all technical debt is recorded in the Product Backlog, which makes it easier for future tracking. Also, Agile allows you to identify the definition of done based on your own metrics of product quality, which makes it easier to identify what you see as technical debt.

6. Start refactoring problematic code

Refactoring is the activity of rewriting poorly written code to make it more understandable, maintainable, and bugless. This activity is a necessary part of software modernization and tech debt payoff, as it helps fix up problematic legacy code. Frequent refactoring is a great way to minimize technical debt. It also produces cleaner code, making future refactoring activities easier to carry out.

Final words

While technical debt is not inherently bad, it’s still a good practice to come up with preventive measures and stay away from making unnecessary technical tradeoffs. Technical debt is necessary or inevitable in some cases, and those cases are what you should limit your debt to. 

If your company doesn’t have the expertise to execute your software development project in-house, it’s best to find a service provider to help you. 

CMC Global is among the top three IT outsourcing services providers in Vietnam. We operate a large certified team of developers, providing a wide variety of stacks, to help you build your application in the most cost-effective way and in the least amount of time. 

For further information, fill out the form below, and our technical team will get in touch shortly to advise!