Reducing technical debt: a pathway to effective digital transformation

Published: June 12, 2024

Technical debt is a concept familiar to many in software development. It generally occurs when there is a rush to finish something, leading to a messy outcome. In software development, it is the accumulation of shortcuts and quick fixes over time, complicating future work.

Understanding technical debt is crucial for tech managers because it directly influences various aspects of software development and maintenance. By recognizing technical debt, managers can allocate resources efficiently to address it, thereby reducing the risk of future disruptions. This supports strategic decisions that balance short-term gains with long-term consequences.

Technical debt: Definition

Technical debt is the baggage you accumulate from sub-optimal or expedient solutions in software development that can slow future progress and increase costs.

Being aware of technical debt is highly recommended because it allows managers to enhance team productivity. This is achieved by minimizing rework and focusing on delivering new features effectively. Clear communication about technical debt with stakeholders ensures alignment of expectations and fosters trust in the development process. Overall, a comprehensive understanding of technical debt empowers tech managers to drive successful technology initiatives and ensure the sustainability of their organization’s software systems.

Common causes

Technical debt generally happens when deadlines are tight, resources are scarce, planning falls short, requirements keep changing, or bad technical decisions are made to expedite the solution.

Technical debt manifests in various forms within software development. It can arise from bad implementations that prove difficult to maintain, as well as from inadequate documentation that obscures how systems operate. Unresolved bugs, particularly those not addressed at their root cause, contribute to accumulating technical debt. Persisting with outdated libraries, despite community recommendations against them, also adds to this burden. Overlooking security vulnerabilities in external libraries further compounds the issue, underscoring the importance of proactive debt management strategies.

Real-life examples of technical debt risks to business

Technical debt isn’t just a developer problem; it affects the whole business. It can increase maintenance costs, slow progress, hurt product quality, and even drive customers away. Real-life examples vividly illustrate the destructive consequences of neglecting technical debt.

One such instance occurred with the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, which faced severe technical debt issues in its MCAS software. The system, meant to address stability concerns, suffered from insufficient testing and documentation, leading to two fatal crashes and the global grounding of the plane. Boeing’s reputation suffered greatly, and 346 lives were tragically lost.

Similarly, Adobe Flash encountered challenges as it succumbed to security vulnerabilities and performance issues. With the advent of HTML5 and modern web standards, Flash lost relevance, prompting Adobe to announce its end-of-life by the end of 2020.

Financial firm Knight Capital Group experienced a catastrophic loss of approximately $440 million in less than an hour due to a software issue stemming from unresolved technical debt in a high-frequency trading algorithm. Outdated software led to thousands of unauthorized trades and significant financial losses.

Equifax, one of the largest credit reporting agencies, fell victim to a massive data breach in 2017, exposing the personal information of 147 million individuals. Investigation revealed that the breach occurred due to technical debt, specifically the failure to apply security patches to a vulnerable web server. This oversight allowed hackers to exploit a known vulnerability and access Equifax’s systems, resulting in profound consequences.

These examples underscore the critical importance of addressing technical debt promptly and comprehensively. So, what practical steps can we take collectively to mitigate the risks associated with technical debt? Here are some insights:

Checklist: 8 techniques to prevent technical debt

Preventing technical debt means being proactive and sticking to best practices. By following these 8 steps, you can lay a solid foundation to safeguard the security and stability of your company. Here’s a checklist:

  1. Code reviews: Good code reviews help identify potential issues before they become a problem, promoting code quality and consistency. Following the Maslow Piramide for code review might be a good way to do it well.
  1. Automated testing: Implementing automated testing ensures that changes and updates do not introduce regressions or defects.
  1. Keep libraries upgraded: Staying current with technology stacks, frameworks, and libraries minimizes compatibility issues and security vulnerabilities associated with outdated components.
  1. Security vulnerabilities tracking: Utilizing tools and processes to monitor and address security vulnerabilities proactively safeguards the software against potential breaches and exploits.
  1. Refactoring: Continuously refactoring code improves its maintainability, readability, and extensibility, reducing the probability of technical debt accumulation.
  1. Firefighter role for bugs: Allocating people to address critical bugs promptly prevents them from snowballing into significant technical debt.
  1. Product understanding: It is crucial to educate stakeholders, including product managers and executives, about technical debt. They must understand its implications for product development, sustainability, and long-term success.
  1. Inclusion in product roadmaps: Integrating technical debt management into product roadmaps ensures that it receives the right attention and people working alongside feature development.

How to reduce existing technical debt issues

Addressing existing technical debt demands a concerted effort and careful prioritization. In essence, we have two main pieces of advice:

  • Maintain it as a priority: Recognize technical debt as a critical concern and designate dedicated time and resources to tackle it effectively.
  • Allocate 10% effort in each sprint: Integrate debt reduction tasks into regular development cycles by allocating a portion of each sprint’s capacity to gradually address outstanding issues.

In conclusion, managing technical debt is not merely a technical concern but a business imperative. By understanding its nature, identifying its causes, and implementing preventive measures, organizations can mitigate its adverse effects on product development and ensure long-term success. Furthermore, by prioritizing the reduction of existing debt and integrating debt management into ongoing processes, businesses can foster a culture of continuous improvement and innovation.

It is important to highlight that technical debt can never be eliminated and that it is a natural part of the software development cycle. The objective is to manage it effectively to minimize its negative impact on projects and the business as a whole.

References

Engineering Manager at e-Core

e-Core

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