Learn how to manage technical debt as a business owner — or prepare for disaster.
Technical debt means the accumulation of quick raw fixes in your codebase that you never replaced with proper code.
Creating technical debt is like throwing things around the house instead of putting them where they belong. You do that when you’re in a hurry, lazy, don’t care or have no idea where things should go. If you don’t clean regularly, your life becomes a mess. One day you’ll be arriving late to a dream date because you spent hours finding your keys.
Similarly, if you don’t manage technical debt, you should prepare to deal with financial and reputational losses. Read on to learn how this can happen and how to avoid it.
Ways to Create Technical Debt
The causes of technical debt are similar to those that may turn your home into a muddle. Here is how it works.
Developers resort to duct-tape solutions when the deadline is something like ‘yesterday’. Bad planning or desperately trying to win the competition can result in such situations.
And when you change your mind about how a feature should work shortly before launch, you’re planting a timebomb in your software. Your developer will make the requested changes but you might have to pay a high price later when consequences begin to pop up.
Fail to clarify your software requirements upfront and you’re well on your way to the technical debt trap.
If you define the requirements as you go along, you will force your programmers to exercise extreme flexibility. And to be flexible, they will have to fall back on hot fixes, which may lead to trouble later if you don’t tend to them at the right time.
Another way to create tech debt is to jam communication across the board.
This can easily happen when you transition your software development project from one vendor to another. If the new developer doesn’t get access to some of the services used in the project, they will have to jumble old and new pieces together.
Get ready for chaos if you pick a contractor who offers a ludicrously low developer hourly rate. Most programmers in that price range will treat your project as a one-off task. They will jerry-rig software that will seem to work but will bring you to tears when you try to develop it further.
But even with a brilliant developer, you still run the risk of accumulating technical debt if you lack expertise in managing software projects. You might distribute work across your development team so that people will work on things they don’t specialize in.
All too often business people fail to recognize the dangers of technical debt because it’s something out of their realm of experience. And IT people may not be able to communicate to businesses why it matters.
The underestimation of tech debt by decision-makers forces programmers to ignore development standards. They are never allowed time to manage the jumble that’s already there. They are never paid to put together a test suite that could help them treat each problem at its core instead of simply patching up issues. Finally, they never get to document the development process.
And all because businesses regard those activities as a waste of time.
Software architecture can also lead to technical debt. If it’s clunky, with components tightly coupled, you won’t be able to keep up with ever-changing business needs without cluttering the code further.
Ruby on Rails developers such as us, and programmers using similar technology, rely heavily on third-party libraries. Those libraries are written by people, which means some of them may come with technical debt and vulnerabilities of their own.
The code written in 2017 wouldn’t be written the same way in 2021. If a new developer doesn’t know how to handle the old code, they will have to be inventive (not in a good way).
How Technical Debt Can Affect Your Business
Technical debt can impair different areas of your business. Let’s take a closer look.
Technical debt will gradually reduce the quality of your software. Your application will slow down, crash and behave unexpectedly. That is a sure way to put users off, get stuck in development and ultimately lose money.
Safety and Security
Your reputation and customers’ safety are at stake. The more technical debt you accrue, the harder it becomes to spot potential risks.
The notorious Boeing 737 MAX scandal proves the point. An error in its flight control system caused by technical debt killed 346 people in two plane crashes.
You want to keep your programmers motivated so they do their best and don’t jump ship. But if your technical debt keeps growing and you never care to manage it, work will become a daily struggle for your IT people. That will demoralize them and eventually they’ll decide to leave.
To stay competitive, you need to respond to changes quickly. You won’t be able to do so if developing the tiniest new feature takes weeks. And with a lot of technical debt, you’re doomed to this fate.
As your business grows, you will need to onboard more programmers. How much technical debt you have will determine how fast they will come to grips with their role.
On top of that, a sudden surge in users will require a quick expansion of your software’s architecture. This will be a problem if your codebase is cluttered with temporary fixes.
Tech Debt Management Strategy
Tech debt management isn’t difficult. It all boils down to consistency in how you write code and control its quality. Here are four specific tips.
Tend to It
Only those who don’t develop their own software create zero technical debt. What matters is how you handle it. If it hasn’t yet reached a disastrous level, you just need to dedicate time to cleaning up your codebase. For example, you could be developing new features 80% of the time and spend another 20% managing technical debt.
Set Quality Standards
Determine which metrics to monitor in order to know when you should put more effort into managing technical debt. For instance, you may decide no less than 99.9% of your app requests should be error-free. If that number drops, you check and fix your codebase during the next scrum sprint.
Introduce discipline and consistency into your development process. To do that, use continuous integration and collect indicators like code quality, test coverage and standard compliance in one place.
In other words, don’t throw things around your house — put them where they belong every time.
Listen to Developers’ Feedback
No one knows better what’s going on inside your application than its developers, so never ignore their feedback. After all, that is why the Agile methodology includes daily standups and weekly retrospective meetings.
Technical Debt Examples from Our Practice
Knowing how to manage technical debt has allowed us to help companies improve their software. However, not all of them use that knowledge right away (and come to regret it later).
Replacing Old Libraries
One company came to us struggling to fix several issues in their application. It used old frontend libraries like jQuery, which made debugging software difficult.
We replaced the outdated tech with React, speeding up the application and making it easier to clean up.
Reducing Tech Debt as Part of Development
We reviewed another client’s application and found out it was using ancient technology and had so much technical debt that it had become unmanageable. What we did was split the project into two parts we worked on in parallel, sorting out the disarray and building new features.
In two years, we gradually redeveloped that application and redeployed it using Docker and Kubernetes, automating most of its processes. The software problems that used to take 1–2 hours to solve can now be solved in 20 minutes.
Turning a Blind Eye
A client requested our Ruby on Rails development services and didn’t want to fix their technical debt. As a result, we spent weeks developing features that we would normally build in a day. Some development plans had to be canceled because of dated architecture and poor quality of the original code. That project made no one happy.
Uncovering the Real Business Value
A company asked us to do a Ruby on Rails code review of a technology startup it recently acquired for around $1 million. We discovered that the application needed a major overhaul worth half a million dollars because its code was heavily littered up.
That is why technical debt and business value go hand in hand for digital companies.
Over to You
Technical debt is inevitable. You may be creating it both consciously and unconsciously. However, it doesn’t have to end in disaster.
To avoid unnecessary expenses, legal trouble and reputational losses, you need to be aware of your technical debt and set up a system to manage it. But the best thing to do is to adopt a long-term strategy: technical debt should be minimized by standardizing software development on a daily basis.
We have seen all kinds of technical debt. If you struggle to handle yours, or your software is acting up, we can pitch in and clean up your codebase. Just drop us a line.
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