What is technical debt?
Technical debt is the term used to describe the extra development work that a team incurs when code is not clean or well-organized. This “debt” must be repaid at some point, or else it will continue to grow and become more expensive to fix.
There are two main causes of technical debt:
1. Lack of foresight: When code is first written, it is often done so in a hurry in order to meet a deadline. This can lead to rushed or sloppy code that is not well-organized or clean. Over time, this code can become more and more difficult to work with, as it becomes harder to understand and maintain.
2. Changing requirements: As the needs of a project change, code that was once well-organized may no longer be suitable. This can often lead to teams having to refactor code or write new code to replace old code. This new code can introduce technical debt if it is not done in a clean and organized manner.
Technical debt is often unavoidable, but it is important to be aware of it and to try to minimize it. Otherwise, it can lead to significant problems down the road.
Why it’s called “technical debt”?
If you’ve been in the software industry for a while, you have probably heard the term “technical debt.” This term is used to describe the extra work that is created when a developer chooses an easy solution instead of a more complicated but better solution.
Technical debt is a term used to describe everything from bugs to legacy code, to missing documentation. But what is it exactly? And why do we call it that?
Technical debt is a term that was first used by software developer, Ward Cunningham. He coined the term to describe how quickly a software project can accumulate problems when shortcuts are taken during its development.
If you borrow money, you can do something sooner than you might otherwise. But you will have to pay back the money with interest. Just like borrowing money is a good idea, similarly, it’s a good idea to launch software fast without looking at the code diligently. But of course, as you learn things about that software, you would repay that loan by improving the software so it’s easier to read, maintain, scale, etc.
How does technical debt impact a project’s development over time?
If left unchecked, technical debt can have a major impact on a project’s development. As the debt grows, it becomes more and more expensive to fix. This can lead to a situation where the team is constantly playing catch-up, trying to fix old code instead of being able to focus on new features or improvements. In extreme cases, technical debt can even cause a project to fail.
Examples of technical debt
There are many different examples of technical debt. Here are a few common ones:
1. Unnecessary complexity: This can happen when code is needlessly complicated, making it hard to understand and work with. This can often be the result of a lack of foresight, as developers try to accommodate every possible scenario without considering whether or not it is actually necessary.
2. Duplicated code: This occurs when the same code is written multiple times in different places. This can lead to problems if the code needs to be changed, as all instances will need to be updated. Duplicated code can also make a project more difficult to understand.
3. Poorly written code: This can happen when code is not well-organized or written in a way that makes it hard to understand. Poorly written code can make it difficult to add new features or make changes, as it can be hard to figure out how the code actually works.
4. Outdated dependencies: This happens when a project relies on outdated libraries or frameworks. This can lead to problems if new versions of these dependencies are released, as the project will need to be updated to work with them. Outdated dependencies can also make a project more difficult to maintain.
How can technical debt be minimized?
There are a few ways to minimize technical debt:
1. Write clean code from the start: This is often easier said than done, but it is important to try to write clean and well-organized code from the beginning. This will make it easier to maintain and avoid introducing debt.
2. Refactor code regularly: As a project evolves, it is important to regularly refactor code to ensure that it remains clean and organized. This can be done as part of a regular code review process.
3. Use automated tools: There are various automated tools available that can help to keep code clean and organized. These tools can be used to enforce coding standards and to automatically refactor code.
4. Be aware of changing requirements: As the needs of a project change, it is important to be aware of how this will impact the code. Changes in requirements can often lead to technical debt, so it is important to plan for them accordingly.
What are some best practices for writing clean, well-organized code?
There are a few best practices for writing clean, well-organized code:
- Follow coding standards: There are various coding standards available, such as the Google C++ Style Guide. Adhering to a consistent coding style makes code easier to read and understand.
- Write simple code: Keep code simple and easy to understand. Avoid writing code that is needlessly complex.
- Write self-documenting code: Write code that is easy to understand without extensive comments. Use clear names for variables and functions, and structure code in a logical manner.
- Use automated tools: Automated tools can help to keep code clean and organized. These tools can be used to enforce coding standards and to automatically refactor code.
- Refactor regularly: As a project evolves, it is important to regularly refactor code to ensure it remains clean and organized. This can be done as part of a regular code review process.
How to repay technical debt?
The how of repaying technical debt can be simple, but it becomes more complicated when you don’t know where the debt is or when to repay it. Let’s look at four strategies for solving this problem.
1. Find “where” the debt is and create a timeframe to pay it off
Financial debt typically comes with a specific payment day. For example, your mortgage might have to be paid on the first of every month. If you don’t take care of your technical debt, it will stay with your codebase forever. You need to set repayment terms for yourself to make sure this doesn’t happen.
You need to know where your debt is. You won’t get a statement or bill every month. So you need to set a plan for how you will pay off your debt. This way, it will stay manageable.
You should do a full audit of your company’s tech debt. This will help you create a timeline to pay off all that debt. Make sure to put in place a follow-up process to make sure your company doesn’t keep accumulating more debt.
2. Listen to your tech team
You need to remember that you might not be very close to the day-to-day work needed to fix the technical debt in a codebase.
Technical debt can spiral out of control if you don’t know where it is or how much there is. That makes it hard to fix the problem. So make sure you are asking questions and finding out where the debt is in your organization and its systems.
The feedback might be telling you that it is time to address a particular balance owed.
You should also be listening to the people who work for you. Not just when you are asking them questions, but all the time. If you hear the same thing over and over again, it might mean that there is a problem that you need to fix.
If developers constantly complain about how they are working around bad design, this is a sign that something needs to be fixed.
3. Make technical debt a part of your strategy
If you want to do an audit, plan for it from the start. This means that you should bake technical debt and its repayment into your overall software development pipeline and strategy.
Technical debt can be a good thing in early-stage products or when using the MVP approach. In most cases, it’s a helpful tool in high-pressure environments that release new code more frequently.
In order to repay tech debt, you need to understand what it is and where it exists in the product. You also need to estimate how much it will cost to maintain the product in the future. Once you have this information, you need to talk to the business about when other investments should be made and include the payoff for tech debt.
When creating a new product, engineers should plan smaller milestones that will get the product to market faster. However, they also need to think about how they will pay down the technical debt that they create. This will help keep the product manageable and reduce problems in the future.
4. Use strategies that work for you
Some teams may find it easier to address their technical debt. This is because they need to figure out what criteria are most important to them and their organization. After that, they need to set priorities based on that criteria.
It is often wise to pay down debts with higher interest rates first. This is also true for technical debt. You can track and analyze how much it costs you over time.
How much time does it take to maintain this piece of tech debt?
One strategy that works is to track how much time, in hours, is spent on maintaining a particular piece of tech debt. If the hours’ result is too high, then you have to fix it right away. Seeing the time in hours shows how much money is sunk into the problem and helps prioritize it correctly.
Technical debt is an important concept in software development. It is important to be aware of it and to try to minimize it, as it can have a major impact on the development of a project over time.
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