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Timonwa Akintokun
Timonwa Akintokun

Posted on • Originally published at blog.timonwa.com on

Understanding Technical Debt in Software Development

Technical debt is a term that describes the cost associated with using quick and dirty solutions in software development. It is a consequence of prioritizing short-term gains over long-term technical excellence. Such costs include time, money, and resources.

When a team of developers is under pressure to meet deadlines, they may choose to take shortcuts in their code to get the job done quickly. While these shortcuts might help the team meet its immediate goals, they can also introduce additional complexity and risk into the codebase. This might involve using hacks or workarounds, skipping proper testing, or failing to follow best practices.

Over time, this technical debt accumulates and can lead to many problems. A code that is difficult to understand or maintain is more likely to have bugs, which can cause user issues and require even more time and resources. In addition, the need to constantly work around the shortcomings of the initial quick and dirty solutions can slow down future development and make it more challenging to add new features or make changes to the code.

Technical debt is neither bad nor good because of the different instances in which we can acquire it. Technical debt is just debt. Think of it like a financial debt. Sometimes taking out a financial loan is necessary. We might use that loan to start a business or pay for hospital bills. And at the end of the day, we either pay back the loan on time or suffer the consequences of late payment or lack of payment.

And just like financial loans, the cost of technical debt can be a trade-off for faster shipping times. What matters is that we accumulate debt prudently, manage it properly and have the plan to pay it back.

Managing technical debt

Managing technical debt is a balancing act. On the one hand, it's important to avoid accumulating too much technical debt, as this can lead to significant problems down the road. On the other hand, it's also important to recognize that sometimes taking on a certain amount of technical debt can be a necessary trade-off to meet business goals or respond to changing circumstances.

One way to manage technical debt is to establish a formal process for tracking and addressing it. This might involve setting up a system for identifying and prioritizing technical debt and implementing regular code reviews and refactoring sessions to address the most pressing issues.

Another critical aspect of managing technical debt is communication. It's essential for everyone on the team, from the developers to the product managers and executives, to be aware of the technical debt that exists and to discuss the trade-offs involved in taking on additional debt. This can help ensure that the team makes informed decisions and works together to find the right balance between short-term gains and long-term technical excellence.

To effectively tackle technical debt, it's crucial to have a clear understanding of its causes and potential solutions. This way, you can proactively prevent and manage technical debt effectively.

Causes of technical debt

There are many causes of technical debt, some of which are preventable and others simply an inherent part of the software development process.

Lack of planning and design

One of the most common causes of technical debt is the lack of proper planning and design during the early stages of software development. When developers do not take the time to plan and design the architecture of a software application carefully, it leads to a lack of modularity, flexibility, and scalability. This can result in a codebase that is difficult to maintain and update, leading to a build-up of technical debt over time.

Unclear requirements and scope

Another common cause of technical debt is unclear or incomplete requirements and scope during the development process. When developers do not have a clear understanding of the goals and objectives of a software application, it can lead to a lack of direction and focus. This results in a codebase that aligns differently from the application's intended purpose, leading to technical debt.

Poor coding practices

Developers who do not follow best practices and coding standards can create a codebase that is difficult to read, understand, and maintain. This can lead to a higher likelihood of bugs and vulnerabilities, as well as increased time and effort required for code maintenance and updates. Poor coding practices can also cause technical debt.

Legacy code and technical debt

Technical debt can also be caused by using legacy code in software development. Legacy code refers to outdated or deprecated code that has been inherited from previous versions of a software application. Using legacy code can be problematic, as it may not be aligned with current best practices and standards. This can result in a codebase that is difficult to maintain and update, leading to technical debt.

Lack of code review and testing

Another common cause of technical debt is the lack of code review and testing during the development process. Developers who do not regularly review and test their code can create a codebase prone to bugs and vulnerabilities. This can lead to technical debt, as it may require more time and effort to fix these issues in the future.

Lack of team collaboration

A lack of collaboration and communication within a development team can cause technical debt. If team members are not working together effectively, it can lead to a lack of consistency in the codebase, making it difficult to maintain and improve the software system.

Pressure to meet deadlines

In today's fast-paced world, there is often pressure to meet tight deadlines and deliver software applications quickly. While this can be necessary in some cases, it can also lead to shortcuts and compromises in the development process. This can result in technical debt, as developers may prioritize speed over quality and long-term maintainability.

Lack of resources

Developing a software system requires significant time, money, and expertise. A lack of resources can also lead to technical debt. If a company does not have the necessary resources to develop a software system, it may be forced to take shortcuts or make compromises that result in technical debt.

Lack of focus on long-term maintenance and improvement

In addition, technical debt can be caused by a lack of focus on long-term maintenance and improvement. Many companies focus on getting a software system up and running as quickly as possible without considering the long-term implications of their decisions. This can result in a system that is difficult to maintain and improve over time, leading to technical debt.

Solutions to technical debt

Fortunately, there are several steps that developers and organizations can take to reduce or limit technical debt.

Plan and design carefully

One of the most effective ways to prevent technical debt is to carefully plan and design the architecture of a software application during the early stages of development. This involves creating a detailed roadmap for the development process, including the application's goals, objectives, and requirements. This helps ensure that the codebase is modular, flexible, and scalable, making it easier to maintain and update over time.

Follow best practices and standards for coding

Another critical step in preventing technical debt is following best coding practices and standards. This involves using consistent coding conventions, such as naming conventions and coding styles, and following established design patterns and frameworks. This helps ensure that the codebase is easy to read, understand, and maintain, which will reduce the likelihood of bugs and vulnerabilities.

Clearly define requirements and scope

To prevent technical debt, it is also essential to clearly define the requirements and scope of a software application during the development process. This involves creating detailed specifications and requirements documents and establishing clear milestones and deadlines. This helps ensure that the development team has a clear understanding of the goals and objectives of the application, which will prevent the codebase from becoming misaligned with the intended purpose of the application.

Prioritize quality over speed

While prioritizing speed over quality can be necessary in some cases to meet tight deadlines and deliver software applications quickly, it is important to prioritize quality over speed to prevent technical debt. This means taking the time to carefully plan and design the application's architecture and following best practices and standards for coding. It also involves regularly reviewing and testing the codebase to ensure it is free of bugs and vulnerabilities.

Refactor legacy code

It is vital to regularly refactor legacy code to align it with current best practices and standards to prevent technical debt. This can involve updating the codebase to use more modern programming languages, frameworks, and libraries and reorganizing and modularizing the code to improve maintainability.

Regularly review and test the codebase

Another effective way to prevent technical debt is regularly reviewing and regularly testing the codebase throughout the development process. This involves using code review tools and processes to ensure that the code is consistent, maintainable, and free of bugs and vulnerabilities. It also involves conducting regular testing, such as unit testing, integration testing, and end-to-end testing, to ensure that the application is functioning as intended.

Foster collaboration and communication within the development team

To prevent technical debt, fostering collaboration and communication within the development team is essential. This involves establishing clear roles and responsibilities and providing opportunities for team members to share their knowledge and expertise. It also involves using tools and processes to ensure that all team members work together and are on the same page throughout the development process.

Summary

In summary, technical debt is a common and often inevitable part of software development. By understanding the costs and risks associated with technical debt and implementing strategies for managing it effectively, teams can avoid letting it become a significant hindrance to their success.

Learn more about technical debt


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Top comments (2)

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ant_f_dev profile image
Anthony Fung

A good overview on the topic.

I think one of the most difficult aspects is the balancing act. On one hand, if a solution is (over) engineered for a task it becomes unnecessarily complex (YAGNI comes to mind - You Ain't Gonna Need It). Think a switch statement for an if/else 'in case' more branches are needed at some point.

On the other hand, if a solution ends up being too simple for the eventual requirements, the architecture will need re-writing for readability.

As always, we can only make the best decision at the time.

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adriens profile image
adriens

I see a lot of _Lack of planning and design _