How to Measure, Manage, and Minimize Technical Debt

Andrew Townsend
Andrew Townsend
 • 
August 2, 2023
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Spend enough time as a software developer, and you learn about the existence and pain of technical debt.

Understanding, managing, and communicating technical debt is crucial. It allows us to build more maintainable software, improve our productivity, and even boost team morale.

We recently hosted a webinar with one of our software development team leads, Kiersten Nelthorpe, and senior software developer Cody Robertson, where they gave valuable insights and strategies to help you deal with technical debt in your work.

Definition of Technical Debt

Technical debt is a concept used in software development and engineering to describe the consequences of choosing a quick and easy solution in the short term, which results in increased maintenance costs and reduced efficiency in the long term.

In other words, technical debt is similar to financial debt, where you borrow money now to solve a problem but pay it back later with interest. In software development, it refers to the trade-off between choosing a less optimal or temporary solution to meet immediate needs or deadlines, knowing that it’ll require additional work and improvements in the future.

Technical debt can accrue for various reasons:

1. Time pressure: Developers may have to deliver a feature quickly, leading them to make shortcuts or compromises in code quality.

2. Lack of expertise: When developers lack experience or knowledge in a particular area, they may produce less efficient or maintainable code.

3. Outdated technology: Using outdated or legacy technology can lead to technical debt, as modernizing the codebase can be more complex and time-consuming.

4. Poor design decisions: If the initial software architecture isn’t well thought out, it can lead to technical debt as the project grows.

What Are the Risks of Technical Debt

There are negative aspects of technical debt. Much like financial debt, if you allow it to build and build without ever paying it down, you'll find yourself swamped with troubles.

For example, with lots of technical debt, you may find that a simple change that would normally take a single day may take five. It can also prevent you from developing anything new because of the knot you're tied up into.

Other consequences of technical debt can include:

Increased maintenance costs: Poorly designed or hastily written code requires more effort to maintain and fix bugs, raising development costs over time.

Increased risk of errors: Technical debt can make code less robust, increasing the likelihood of introducing bugs or security vulnerabilities.

Difficulty in scaling: As the project grows, technical debt can hinder scalability and lead to performance issues.

However, much like financial debt, not all technical debt is necessarily bad. Let's say you're trying to get code out quickly to get early feedback, or you're trying to release a new key feature where timeliness is important. In this case, you could pay down the technical debt in the future.

Minimizing Future Debt

At Smarty, we make very deliberate efforts to decrease the potential for future technical debt. We do this by focusing on a few things.

We aren’t afraid to ditch and rewrite the code before merging to the main or releasing it. It may sound like a waste, but the first time around was the cost of discovery and understanding to build it the right way. You don’t have to have everything designed upfront. This can also give us faster feedback cycles.

After the functionality is working and there are test cases, we take the time to refactor and make the code cleaner and easier to read before releasing.

Use design patterns that facilitate flexibility and make it easy to change things, like the database being used.

To learn more about reducing technical debt or how the Smarty development team does it, feel free to view the full webinar recording.

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