Technical debt refers to the cost of maintaining and updating code, often resulting from shortcuts taken during the software development process. It can arise from trade-offs between delivering features quickly and writing clean, maintainable code.
Negative impacts of technical debt on development agility:
- Slower development time: Technical debt slows down the speed of development as more time is spent fixing previous problems instead of adding new features.
- Increased maintenance cost: The longer technical debt is allowed to accumulate, the more expensive it becomes to address.
- Decreased code quality: Technical debt often results in code that is harder to maintain and understand, making it difficult to make changes without introducing new problems.
- Difficulty in keeping up with changes in technology: As technology evolves, technical debt can make it difficult to adopt new techniques and tools.
It’s not just about software development
The same principles can be applied to other technical areas as well, such as infrastructure, product development, and operations. In each case, identifying and addressing technical debt can help organizations improve efficiency, competitiveness and reduce risk. I currently work in the acquisitions team for a large company. In an acquisitions team, technical debt can refer to the outstanding tasks remaining for each acquisition that were not considered critical enough to prevent the acquisition from being considered “integrated”, but are still not the standard way the rest of the business would perform those activities.
Negative impacts of technical debt in acquisitions:
- Decreased efficiency: The remaining outstanding tasks can hinder the overall efficiency of the business.
- Increased risk: The outstanding tasks can create additional risk for the business as they may not be in line with the standard way of performing activities.
- Decreased competitiveness: The outstanding tasks can negatively impact the competitiveness of the business as they may not be able to keep up with the latest industry standards.
Keeping on top of technical debt
To best manage technical debt, the following steps can be taken:
- Prioritize debt repayment: Make a conscious effort to allocate time and resources to address the most critical areas of technical debt. Determine which outstanding tasks are most critical and prioritize them accordingly.
- Document debt: Keep track of technical debt by documenting the decisions that led to it and the impact it has on the process or codebase.
- Balance short term vs long term goals: For software development this would be a consideration of the trade-offs between delivering features quickly and addressing technical debt when making development decisions. For project implementations this would be setting milestones and assigning priorities to each task – setting expectations with stakeholders for “must have” and “would be nice”.
- Foster a culture of continuous improvement: Encourage the team to continuously evaluate and improve the process. Regularly reviewing and updating code and documentation can help reduce technical debt over time.
- Empower your engineers to make technical debt decisions: Encourage everyone to take ownership of technical debt by making it part of their processes. Assigning clear accountability for completing the outstanding tasks ensures each task is owned to completion.
In conclusion, technical debt can have a significant impact on agility and overall project success. By prioritizing debt repayment, documenting debt, balancing short term vs long term goals, continuously refactoring code, and empowering developers to make debt decisions, organizations can effectively manage technical debt and improve their agility.
The same principles can be applied to other technical areas as well, such as infrastructure, product development, and operations. In each case, identifying and addressing technical debt can help organizations improve efficiency, competitiveness and reduce risk.