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What is Technical Debt and Why Should You Care About It?

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By: Nikki Carter
April 25, 2023

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Engineering teams know that technical debt, or “tech debt,” is an inevitable, and often necessary, part of software development. Yet, it can be difficult to explain the significance of tech debt to stakeholders and C-suite leadership. While stakeholders might want to prioritize constant innovation over paying down tech debt, letting tech debt build up can ultimately slow down an engineering team. When that happens, it can be challenging to prove that the resulting delays and complications don't fully reflect an engineering team's adeptness.

What are the reasons an engineering team might accrue tech debt, and how can they overcome it before it impacts delivery?

What is technical debt?

Technical debt is a term used to describe the implications of immature code being pushed through the software development pipeline to expedite delivery. Because the code was merged prematurely, or was a quick fix to a complex problem, it often needs to be refactored or redone, resulting in a backlog of work that will need to be taken on at some point in the future.

The term "technical debt" was first coined by Ward Cunningham, who posited that "a little debt speeds development so long as it is paid back promptly with refactoring. The danger occurs when the debt is not repaid."

Tech debt can be thought of similar to financial debt. Taking out a loan for a larger purchase makes it possible to expedite the purchase, rather than waiting to save up a large sum of cash. In exchange, you must repay the loan plus interest, which builds up exponentially over time.

With technical debt, the interest is not only the extra developer time spent refactoring the code, but the consequences resulting from not addressing that refactoring early on. As the work builds up and other work is prioritized, going back to deal with the technical debt becomes increasingly costly and difficult. In this sense the time needed to address tech debt grows, similar to interest.

Reasons for accruing technical debt

First, it's important to note that technical debt is inevitable in order to remain competitive in the industry, and doesn't necessarily imply that an engineering team has done something "wrong."

Similar to financial debt, there are reasons for intentionally racking up technical debt. The marketplace today moves lightning fast and, to stay afloat, you might opt for shortcuts that lead to technical debt in order to ship new features quickly and bring in revenue.

The associated tech debt you take on might be worth it when you compare it against the downsides of waiting to bring your features to the market. This is completely normal — the danger arises when, as Cunningham said, the debt isn't properly repaid.

Why should you care about technical debt?

Instead of working on developing new features, engineers are often left to work through technical debt, further slowing innovation and impacting a slew of business outcomes.

Even while there are good reasons why organizations accrue tech debt, the earlier it’s addressed, the better. It’s vital for engineering leaders to pay attention to tech debt and be aware of the issues it can pose to the organization:

  • Tech debt can curtail developer productivity; one study estimates that developers spend 23% of their working time on tech debt.

  • Poorly maintained code can be complex for new developers to navigate. When developers take time to improve this code, it can contribute to the overall technical debt.

  • Tech debt snowballs over time.

  • The longer tech debt goes unaddressed, the more expensive it will be to resolve.

Overcome technical debt by getting curious

To minimize or overcome tech debt, start by investigating the source.

Engineering leaders can take a cue from one Velocity customer, and use a Software Engineering Intelligence (SEI) platform — sometimes known as an Engineering Management Platform (EMP) — to demonstrate how tech debt can limit deployment. The engineering team at a popular crowdsourcing platform often worked with legacy code, and had nearly a decade’s worth of tech debt.

The company’s VP of Engineering had a relatively easy time getting developers on board to prioritize the backlog of tech debt. When it came to getting executive buy-in, however, the VP of Engineering needed concrete data to present to stakeholders in order to justify dedicating resources to refactoring the legacy code.

Using Code Climate Velocity, the engineering leader was able to demonstrate, in real time, how many Pull Requests (PRs) were left open for longer than is ideal while authors and reviewers sent comments back and forth. Velocity showed this as a lasting trend with high-risk PRs stacking up. They used this as evidence to executives that legacy code was significantly impacting deployment.

Once you outline how to tackle your current tech debt, think about how you can manage new debt going forward. Team leaders might decide to be mindful of high-risk PRs and monitor them over time to ensure that tech debt does not become insurmountable; or, you may have developers take turns refactoring legacy code while others put their efforts towards innovation. Use concrete evidence from an SEI platform to request additional resources. Once you find what works, you can scale those best practices across the organization.

Adopt a holistic approach to managing technical debt

Technical debt is inevitable, and even mature engineering teams will need a strategy for mitigating the debt they’ve accrued. Communicate with your company leadership about tech debt and its implications, work to find the root cause within your teams, and adopt a slow-but-steady approach towards a resolution.

You will never be able to address and solve all technical debt at once, but you can prioritize what to tackle first and move toward a more efficient future.

A Software Engineering Intelligence platform can provide the visibility leaders need to refine engineering processes. Speak to a Velocity specialist to learn more

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