What is Technical Debt?

In the context of web and software development, Technical Debt is a term used to define additional work needed to fix or improve the code so that new features can be built, or so that the application can run more efficiently.

In the context of web and software development, Technical Debt is a term used to define additional work needed to fix or improve the code so that new features can be built, or so that the application can run more efficiently. Examples of fixing technical debt include refactoring code, rewriting data models, and rewriting a function or service call for speed. It can take anywhere from minutes to hours to days and even years to properly address technical debt.

Technical Debt arises from a number of reasons, but perhaps one of the most common rationalizations that leads to technical debt is the short-term gains, followed by, “We’ll have time to fix it later.”

If technical debt is not part of the engineering team’s culture, then at some point, issues added to the backlog to address technical debt get deprioritized over new business objectives, which enables technical debt to multiply as quick fixes are introduced to address an outstanding issue in order to fix a problem for a near-term goal. Startups are more at risk for technical debt as they often face time pressure for building out a minimum viable product in the shortest time possible.

Minimizing Technical Debt

Technical debt is inevitable, but there are steps that can be taken to minimize the amount of technical debt that an engineering team incurs. Here are a few options:

  • Agile Development: Agile development provides a framework that encourages practices that ultimately reduce technical debt. Rapid iteration, continuous integration, testing, retrospectives, user story definitions, and metrics for the level of efforts make it easier to track development teams’ progress and hold teams accountable for the development of new features as well as the introduction of technical debt.
  • Thoughtful Architecture: Before any development begins, thought should be given to the system’s architecture. This includes the programming languages used, the frameworks used, software design patterns, the infrastructure used (and how it integrates with the programming languages used), the skillsets of the team, and the team’s culture and philosophy. All decisions should work in harmony to improve the engineering team’s present and future productivity and output. Decisions should be evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses, and any potential introduction of technical debt.
  • Code Audits: Regular code audits and the development of a robust testing framework with continuous integration processes make it easy to track code “health”. Peer evaluation of code allows developers to share and exchange best practices and reduce the introduction of technical debt through constructive peer review. For peer evaluation to be effective, however, teams must develop a culture of self-improvement and growth. Developers must be willing to accept constructive feedback, and the delivery of feedback should not be antagonistic or destructive.
  • Linters and Style Guides: This is related to architecture design. The adherence to following specific style guides when developing code and using linters to enforce these style guides can go a long way in keeping development teams producing clean and organized code. Style guides for specific frameworks can help reduce technical debt by following best practices established through a long history of development experience by a community of developers.
  • Culture: Engineering teams should have a culture for producing high-quality code. This needs to be reinforced at various levels, and ultimately should be encouraged by management and leadership at various levels. In the early stages of a product’s lifecycle, it is important for management to understand the risks of technical debt and the importance of minimizing technical debt.

Technical debt is a natural part of software and web development. It’s often not possible to foresee every product requirement, and even if it is possible, sometimes a simple clean solution doesn’t exist. However, minimizing technical debt will lead to less headaches, less staff turnover, happier engineering teams, and a technically robust product – all important for a product’s success.