What Is Technical Debt and How to Deal With It

by Anna Khrupa on Jan 14, 2022

Technical debt is a term that is frequently used in the software development industry. The term was coined by Ward Cunningham, one of the authors of the Agile Manifesto. Since then, technical debt has become one of the software development buzzwords in relation to product quality. Here is what technical debt is, why it appears, the biggest risks associated with it, and ways to overcome technical debt. 

What is technical debt?

Technical debt is the practice of releasing products with limited functionality or underlying issues for the sake of faster time to market or short-term profitability. Repeatedly sweeping performance or functional issues under the rug leads to design debt accumulation, and paying back the debt, or resolving the issues, gets more expensive and labor-intensive as time passes.

How does technical debt appear?

When you have a long-term project, the appearance of technical debt is nearly inevitable: with the current rate of tech progress, using every single available way to improve your product is downright impossible. However, that is not the only way for a developer to accumulate technical debt. Here are the 5 most common situations that lead to the growth of tech debt:

  1. The stakeholders prioritize release dates over the quality of the product and pressure the development team to complete the project as quickly as possible with little regard for its technical condition.
  2. The specifications and requirements of a software product are constantly changing, usually as an attempt to try and keep up with the market trends and demands, while the original specs gradually start being treated as an afterthought.
  3. The team lacks the necessary skills and experience to perform the job on the desired level. This can include both regular software developers whose skillset is limited, and team leads whose leadership style does not match the nature and goals of the project.
  4. Most decisions concerning the conceptualization and development of the project are rash. There is little to no planning, and the communication between the stakeholders and the team is sporadic and insufficient.
  5. There is a clear lack of testing and QA. Testing only happens occasionally or the scope of testing includes only parts of the product. This, in turn, leads to some issues being left undiscovered, some being purposely ignored, and inefficient band-aid fixes being introduced for the most obvious ones.

Types of technical debt

Technical debt is definitely a term that is most often used with a negative connotation, but it’s not always that bad for a project. There are multiple types of technical debt, and in some cases, its existence can be justified. Here are the 3 most common types of tech debt and their origins.

Deliberate technical debt

Deliberate technical debt appears when the team and the stakeholders are fully aware of the debt’s existence but consider time to market to be their main priority. In other words, when the development team takes the quickest route, it usually leads to the accumulation of technical debt. This type of technical debt has one big benefit of speeding up the release cycle, but when left unpaid, it can slow down and complicate the development of new product features.

Accidental technical debt

Almost any long-term software development project will eventually run in a situation where an outdated design or set of project requirements risk slowing down the development of the product and the implementation of new features. Maintaining the balance between fast, continuous delivery and future-proof solutions is a fine art, but a solid original design and a refactoring habit should get you there.

Bit rot technical debt

Bit rot technical debt usually takes the longest to develop, and it’s the one type of technical debt that is the hardest to eradicate. Bit rot technical debt happens when the whole system or its certain components undergo so many changes, often made by different members of the team without knowing in detail about each other’s contributions, that they become unnecessarily complicated and difficult to maintain or update without refactoring.

The biggest risks of technical debt

The important thing to understand about technical debt is that it’s not inherently bad. When you are fully informed about the scope of debt and have a working strategy to deal with it, technical debt can be a great way to fuel innovation and deliver quick fixes to the issues with the product. However, there aren’t as many situations where technical debt is fully under the team’s control. Here are the biggest risks of accumulating technical debt and leaving it unattended:

  • Extra time to fix. The more debt your project acquires, the more time the developers will spend fixing it, and there are definitely better ways to use that time.
  • Unnecessary expenses. By some estimates, up to one-fifth of the company’s technology budget can be spent on fixing technical debt instead of further developing the product.
  • Curbed innovation. When a significant part of the company’s resources goes towards technical debt, and when the project largely depends on legacy systems that need constant maintenance, innovation becomes harder to achieve.
  • Unstable performance. When there are large amounts of technical debt, you can never be fully confident in your product’s performance. Stability, compatibility, and ability to work under heavy load are just some of the things that can go wrong.
  • Testing struggles. QA engineers have plenty of work to do on a software project as it is, which means that large amounts of technical debt create an unnecessary strain for the testing team and can lead to some tests or aspects of the product being skipped.

How to minimize or avoid technical debt

We’ve already established that technical debt is not necessarily a bad thing, but consistently accumulating it won’t do your project any good. We have a detailed guide on how to reduce tech debt, and here are the 5 additional tips to help you manage it correctly.

  1. Agree on the guidelines within your team. In order to tackle the technical debt problem more effectively, the whole team needs to have a similar understanding of the problem and how it can be overcome. There are situations where the stakeholders or the developers don’t see technical debt as a problem at all, and that only creates more confusion and makes it harder to manage the issue.
  2. Establish code standards and reviews. Having a clearly defined coding standard in your company creates a universally understandable definition of a good software product and the requirements needed to make it happen. Code reviews, in turn, are a healthy way to keep the developers accountable for their input, create an environment where they can learn from each other, and ultimately avoid acquiring tech debt.
  3. Use the right tools. The software development industry is constantly evolving, and modern developers can take advantage of a variety of tools for managing technical debt. One of them is Duecode, a comprehensive tool that allows you to quickly assess the quality of the code and the amount of technical debt, as well as achieve a smooth software delivery process with fewer risks to the quality of your product.
  4. Introduce a refactoring routine. Refactoring legacy code is something developers often put off until the very last minute, but doing it regularly helps you avoid many of the problems associated with technical debt. By keeping your code up-to-date and clean, you not only improve the current quality of the software product, but also make it easier for the developers to make alterations to the code as the project progresses.
  5. Consider switching to Agile. The Agile software development methodology allows the team to deliver the product in small increments. Working under the Agile methodology means that you can set your own guidelines for considering the project finished, which eliminates the need to rush the delivery. By dividing the work into sprints and having extensive quality control at each stage, the team will be able to avoid piling up technical debt.

Moreover, you can minimize or completely eliminate technical debt if you work with a reliable tech partner instead of trying to do everything yourself. QArea is your best option when you want the work to be done on time, with focus on quality, and with adherence to software development best practices.