In the highly competitive software industry, developers regularly come across situations where they have to move projects quickly. To attain highly ambitious deadlines, the development team often clears sub-optimal code with the intent to make it better later. In short, they prioritize speedy delivery over perfect code. The decision may expedite the process, but it shoves the organization into a pool of (Tech) Debt.
While Technical Debt may come across as a negative connotation, more often than not, it’s not. Technical Debt is not inherently bad. It just enables you to deliver features faster and places you ahead of your competitors. Sometimes, these shortcuts become inevitable and are simply needed to survive the market. So, Technical Debt can be a strategic tool if elected wisely but a significant impediment if not taken care of in time.
Technical debt occurs when it has been snowballing for years
The longer you hold onto the debt, the messier it gets. The word ‘debt’ carries the same denotation as in a financial world. This means technical debt too accrues interest and paying later can hinder a business’s ability to compete and innovate.
To thwart Technical Debt from robbing your resources, time, and energy, here are some simple yet effective ways to manage it.
Encouraging Regular Code Refactoring
Since Technical debt grows at an exponential rate, it's important for managers to encourage frequent refactoring to prevent a system failure. Often developers defer refactoring as it doesn’t add a direct value to their rally. Refactoring neither prompts new functionality nor fixes a bug. So, often, it doesn’t tick an item on their priority board.
Reports suggest Technical Debt is one of the major drivers of decreasing morale among developers. They feel they are forced to take on “low-key maintenance work,” over exciting and vital new projects.
The approach, however, stimulates the accumulation of technical debt and leads to an early demise of the system. Therefore, project managers must make 'regular refactoring,' part of the working culture. It nowhere means dedicating the entire day to it, but rather adding it to routine, or spending the last hour of a workday on refactoring. Measures like these can help organizations improve code quality and minimize Technical Debt.
Keeping a Reserve of Time and Resources
A certain amount of technical debt can be considered ok, as long as the organization has the resources and knowledge to pay it off later. Therefore, take a conscious decision to get into debt (or get out of it later). It's an asset only if it was planned strategically and repayment capacity was assessed beforehand.
Also, for better allocation of time and resources, it's better to document and lay down the rationale for the choices made. Documentation will reflect the reasons, consequences, and a roadmap to deal with Technical Debt. It can save much time and resources when the firm decides to pay off in the future.
Defining Technical Debt
Often, the definition of Tech Debt gets blurry in an organization. In the Business context, Technical Debt might be manifested as the adverse effect of technological decisions leading to higher operational costs and a slower time to market. While the tech department might explain it as the outcome of reducing the quality of code, testing, and design. At the surface level, both these definitions are right, yet wrong. Hence, to remove the duality, all parties should come on board and view the issue from the same lens. Business and IT leaders should mutually agree on what constitutes Tech Debt. On regular catch-up calls or training sessions, the team should discuss technical debt, as well as procedures to manage it.
Introducing DevOps and Automation
DevOps and automation have emerged as the most successful adaptions to deal with many executional challenges of software development including, Technical Debt. DevOps enables a culture of continuous development and testing that makes it easy to spot technical challenges early. The collaboration of development and operations improves communication, encourages frequent generation of usable code, and reduces the number of bugs. They are helpful in slowing down the accumulation of debt and minimizing the barrier to refactoring.
Additionally, Automated Testing helps engineers test regularly, double-check the code, and validate the system in its entirety.
Creating a Dedicated Tech Debt Team
When Technical Debt starts to get out of control, it's advisable to pool in a team to supervise the health of the ongoing products and evaluate the status of the Technical Debt. The team can help you ensure the long-term agility of the product and foster better communication, empathy, and transparency between product and engineering teams.
The idea here is to form a team dedicated to tracking backlogs, prioritizing Tech Debt, setting metrics, and channelizing workload. The team will be further responsible for setting procedures and schedules, so as not to let technical debt grow.
This will not only help your company address Tech Debt faster but also plan a roadmap for future, underlining debts.
When you take ownership, it demonstrates your value system and genuine interest in the job. It allows you to become more aware of your role and deliver your best.
A system, where actions are accounted for, is more effective, transparent, and supportive. It eliminates the time and effort on unproductive activities and keeps the team focused on priority work.
When you are responsible for your actions, you get mindful of when to push back and protest a low-quality code that can dangerously compromise the project. The attitude also encourages employees to take up technical debt more frequently with their managers, product owners, stakeholders, and the broader business.
Technical Debt is not necessarily bad if it boosts the chances of a faster and more successful outcome. It's considered okay if you have the resources to pay it back and give you the competitive edge.
Project managers and developers should remember that Technical Debt can go good or bad. The temptation of short-term benefits can land you in a soup, if not analyzed adequately. The light of 'success' can blind you from seeing that you are contributing to a potentially expanding debt mountain. Moreover, surveys have suggested Technical Debt, if not addressed in time, can reverse the purpose. Instead of adding value to the business, it can bring the development cycle to a screeching halt.
In the end, one should opt for short-term compromises only if they have an arsenal of tools and techniques ready to manage the Technical Debt.