Technical debt refers to what happens when software development teams choose a faster or easier path to delivery over a slower or superior implementation. Taking on technical debt is often a conscious decision, although not always. It comes down to prioritizing speed over perfection.
Technical debt is not necessarily bad and can come in different forms stemming from decisions big and small related to architecture, code, design, documentation, and more. However, when this debt accumulates over time, it can make the overall code quality suffer, increasing the risk of performance problems and errors.
Some degree of tech debt is essentially unavoidable for any product, but there is a balancing act of when it’s OK to accrue technical debt vs. when it needs to be addressed. Part of our ongoing relationships with clients is helping them navigate technical debt and assessing how regimented they need to be about addressing it depending on their goals and priorities.
Let’s break it down into 4 digestible topics:
- Examples of Technical Debt
- How To Use Technical Debt To Your Advantage
- When Does Technical Debt Become A Problem
- The Pros And Cons Of Technical Debt
Examples of Technical Debt
It can be hard to grasp the concept of technical debt without some examples. Here are a few that are easy to understand.
Solid documentation is important for any software project. Creating it, though, takes time and money. Since project documentation is more of a long-term investment, it can seem like an easy thing to skip when time and budgets are constrained. In time, a project without quality documentation can become very difficult to maintain and staff. Engineers, particularly newly onboarded engineers, can struggle to make sense of the code base, address bugs, and keep the software stable and secure.
Quality Assurance & Automated Testing
Investing in automated tests and quality assurance is critical for any software to scale and thrive long term. However, this is often not made a priority when resources are limited. In time, this leads to more bugs, crashes, and security risks while also making addressing those issues more costly and time intensive.
Poor Code Quality
Poor Code Quality is more often an example of unintentional tech debt. It may result from utilizing less experienced (and less expensive) developers or skilled developers simply rushing through work too quickly. Poor code quality leads to buggier software, functionality that doesn’t scale well, code bases that are more difficult to maintain, and more. Poorly written code often needs to be refactored or rewritten all together before long.
How To Use Technical Debt To Your Advantage
Speed to Market
Organizations can use technical debt to their strategic advantage in order to get their product up and running faster. This may be appropriate in a rapidly moving space where time to market is critical to gaining a coveted competitive edge. Getting to market may also help an organization begin generating revenue from a product, which can then be used later to address the technical debt and enhance the overall product offering.
Which leads us to our next advantage…
Sometimes building products or features in the most robust and scalable way is simply not in the budget, particularly for startups or early stage products coming to market. That limited capital may at that time be better spent on marketing, sales, or hiring. Again, this isn’t inherently wrong as long as plans are put in place to address technical debt if and when it becomes necessary.
The best way to leverage technical debt to your advantage is to weigh your tech decisions against your business needs and priorities. Ask yourself… “What is the return on investment for X vs. Y at this moment?” If the answer leads you to take on technical debt, just make sure you have a plan to go back and address that technical debt later. Because if you don’t…. Well, that leads to our next topic.
When Does Technical Debt Become A Problem?
There is a natural human tendency to not want to spend money to address tech debt in a project. Oftentimes, it is “unseen” and it can be difficult to rationalize spending money on something that isn’t currently a problem. But just like financial debt, it can cause serious problems if you don’t pay it back. Choosing the easy option over the best one is a short-term fix. In the long term, the weaker option leads to weaker software. Ignoring technical debt leads to long-term disadvantages that put your business (and users) at risk. Eventually, the software may stop working, systems can crash, or ransomware incidents occur because the tech is outdated. So, it is always smart to assess the pros and cons of tech debt before committing to taking it on in your project.
The Pros and Cons of Technical Debt
- Pros – speed to market
- Pros – potential to open a revenue stream to fund further development
- Pros – short term competitive advantage
- Cons – degradation of quality
- Cons – longer development for incremental features
- Cons – higher upgrade costs
- Cons – system compatibility issues
The Wrap Up
Technical Debt is one of the most important considerations to keep in mind when you’re handling complex software projects. The technical debt that comes with deploying and fast-tracking new technologies is often a worthy tradeoff in order to become more agile. However, it is extremely important to think about the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing an easy (limited) solution now, instead of using a better approach that would take longer. For more helpful tips and insight to strengthen your development knowledge, check out our blog or reach out to discuss a project.