Technical Debt Management in Software Firms

For software firms, the fear of running into technical debt never ceases. During the pandemic, around 78% of software companies witnessed a spike in their technical debt. Thus, in 2022, companies increased their IT budget to approximately 37% higher to avoid potential bottlenecks.

Software firms thrive on tech adoption. Thus, to keep up with the fast-paced digital transformation. An unrestrained technical debt may turn out to be a secret goldmine. But what exactly is technical debt? Do software organizations anticipate running into one, or is it bad news? Let’s find out. 

A Cursory Look at Technical Debt

Ward Cunningham coined the term Technical Debt in 1992. According to his research, running a code for the first time is more like entering a debt. When the code runs successfully, the debt is paid off without a delay. However, in situations when the code runs into failure, technical debt occurs. The debt increases with the number of minutes developers spend trying to salvage the code.

Allow us to make it easier to understand. Technical debt is more like a bargain between a code and its deadline. The code must check all the boxes of efficiency and optimality, within the desired deadline.

It is true that sometimes the code may require some last-minute tweaks, or it might simply exceed the required deadline. In such a case, a little debt is forgiving. However, undermining the cruciality of this ‘little debt’ can morph into something much worse.

Technical debt occurs when developers choose an easier path to meet their short-term goals, rather than getting the pending work done and working towards the long-term goal. The easier path is more damaging to the business. Thus, don’t get the job done haphazardly and then find yourself reworking it later.

What Drives an Organization into Technical Debt

Time and budget limitations are two key factors that inevitably push software firms toward technical debt. To make this situation a lot less daunting, there’s a trusted old ‘floor and ceiling’ concept. Abiding by this concept enables developers to clean up errors within the code before it ends up amplifying the tech debt.

There are a few instances that you and your team of developers should watch out for. Not paying enough attention to these instances is likely to run you into technical debt. Once again, we’re not completely against TD as it only strengthens the credibility of your code. But, not doing anything to tackle the following situations is bad news.

The Influences

  • Rushed, low-quality code
  • Making unsolicited alterations in the initial code, especially in the design
  • Allowing inexperienced developers to code
  • Running insufficient unit tests
  • Poor collaboration among team members
  • And of course, let’s not forget the intense pressure businesses put on their employees

Technical Debt in Software Companies – A Quick Glance at a Finnish Research

For software companies, shortcuts seldom pay off. These shortcuts may make it easier to achieve a deadline. But there’s a catch – compromised code quality and added work hours down the line.

The Lappeenranta University of Technology, Finland conducted a case study on a Finnish software company. The company offered SaaS business solutions pertaining to professional services automation and accounting.

The study revealed that software companies end up in technical debt intentionally. Rushing the project to its completion and taking shortcuts to reach the deadline are the key factors that promote an intentional technical debt.

The study also confirmed that technical debt does not stem due to poor coding only. It occurs due to unrealistic time constraints set in place by software companies, which ultimately leads to compromised code quality.

Many companies prefer playing it safe. They approach technical debt with strategic intent. The study backs this notion by stating that software companies also use TD to gain an advantage over their competitors. Sometimes that advantage can be a substantial market share. While sometimes, it can be early consumer feedback. Albeit, both these advantages are short-term. In most instances, they are capable of outweighing the future costs.

Furthermore, the study also revealed the long-term influences of technical debt. If developers choose to ignore or delay tackling TD, then the progress of a software project is likely to proceed in an unwanted direction. There’ll be instances of poor performance, weak code, increased complications, and low maintainability. All of this unlocks poor customer satisfaction and extra working hours.

Gearing Up: Identifying the Technical Debt

Alright, now let’s move on to the identification of technical debt. The process of identifying technical debt is no arduous science. Novice and seasoned software firms can easily do it, given they abide by some infallible methods.

The first step towards the identification of technical debt is… questions! According to Kidlin’s law,

“If you can write a problem down clearly, then it is already half solved.”

Let’s assume that you’ve run into some problems that are keeping you from meeting your business needs. Overcome those problems by tying them with questions. Answering those questions will ultimately bring you closer to the resolution of your technical debt.

The questions can be technical, and business-related. Allow us to give you an idea.

Is the solution you’re after…….

  • Targeting a long-term requirement or a short-term one?
  • Supporting a process that needs modification?
  • Guaranteeing to generate a bigger ROI than the maintenance cost?
  • Targeting a specific team with few users?
  • Steering your original product away from its actual purpose?

These were some business-related questions. Now, let’s move toward technical questions. The following questions are not comprehensive. They’re here to help you identify the situations leading to technical debt. Depending on your situation, you’re free to add more questions.

  • Are the package validations and code deployment taking long to process?
  • There’s a probability that other teams in your organization may be building a similar solution. If so, can those solutions consolidate into a single solution backed by joint maintenance?
  • Have there been reports of potentially inconsistent user experiences?
  • Are users complaining about errors pertaining to API calls, CPU time limits, Data locks, and SOQL?

Now that you’ve identified the causes, it’s time to bring in the big guns! We’re about to dive deeper into the tools and services that add an extra layer of accuracy to the Technical Debt identification process.

Tools & Services that Further Assist in TD Identification

Code Review

What’s it used for?
  • Analyzing and reviewing code.
  • Providing in-depth insight into code quality.

Org Health Assessment

What’s it used for?
  • Providing a holistic overview of your system’s health.
  • Recommending new ways of improvement.

Proactive Monitoring

What’s it used for?
  • Endless tracking of all the Salesforce solutions.
  • Predicting potential risks and promptly taking measures to prevent them.

Salesforce Optimizer

What’s it used for?
  • Providing a holistic overview of issues on more than 50 metrics.
  • Thoroughly analyzing and providing actionable and interactive insights.

Salesforce Professional Services

What’s it used for?
  • Identifying and measuring technical debt with exclusive tools.
  • Providing advisory and consulting services to organizations to align them with the current industry standards.

Security Scanner

What’s it used for?
  • Performing an in-depth static analysis of all the unpackaged code.
  • Highlighting error patterns and alerting developers to fix the problems.

Static Code Analyzer

What’s it used for?
  • Identifying the quality and overall security of the code.
  • Examining the code while executing it.

Delving into the Types of Technical Debt

Steve McConnell suggested that technical debt falls into two types: intentional and unintentional. McConnell further explained that intentional debt is the one that developers deliberately use as a strategic tool. While an unintentional debt occurs due to a poor job.

Later, IEEE released a paper that disclosed that there are various types of technical debt. We’re jotting some of them below.

Types of TD

1.     Architecture Debt

This one pertains to issues arising in the code’s architecture. Ignoring this would compromise the performance, strength, and various other factors of your code.

2.     Build Debt

This debt occurs when a build ends up consuming more time and resources than usual.

3.     Code Debt

As the name suggests, this debt occurs when the code becomes difficult to maintain and run.

4.     Defect Debt

This debt occurs due to known defects. The defects usually come into notice via testing, while sometimes users highlight these defects.

5.     Design Debt

This debt comes to notice with the help of two things. First, by analyzing the source. And second, by identifying the practices that are in no way violating the object-oriented design principles.

6.     Documentation Debt

This type of debt rises due to poorly maintained software project documentation. Incomplete, insufficient, and missing information result in such kind of debt.

7.     Infrastructure Debt

This surfaces when there’s a delay in software development activities.

8.     Process Debt

This debt occurs when inefficient and obsolete processes end up in the code.

9.     Requirement Debt

This debt occurs when the requirements of a product are implemented halfway or not at all.

10.  Test Debt

And, lastly, this debt occurs in the phase of code testing. Not running enough tests on code, and other inadequacies that hinder the test phase fall within Test Debt.

The Brunt of Technical Debt

Tackling Technical Debt promptly enables software developers to meet big goals. However, there’s a downside. Holding on to a technical debt longer is more like drilling a hole in your boat deliberately. And what happens then? Your boat – in this case, your business – sinks.

According to Forbes, technical debt is more like a silent killer of a software firm. It’s easy to ignore while your business is in its early days. Leaving it over time brings along a load of consequences. Some of those, we are jotting below:

Lack of Innovation

Software firms thrive on innovation. When technical debt over accumulates, your company’s ability to visualize and execute new ideas runs into shambles. Moreover, it becomes increasingly difficult to move on to something new when you’re already busy investing your money, effort, and time in finishing your backlog.

Failure to Compete

Getting an edge over competitors is what every organization strives for. Ignoring technical debt makes it harder for firms to stay ahead of competitive threats. Because your organization would be fixated on unfinished tasks. Adjusting and shifting your focus toward your competition would become a hassle.

Reduced Productivity & Slow Output

Technical debt is a productivity drainer. Remember, a haphazardly designed code would require more elbow grease over time. Subsequently, your team would end up incurring slower build times. Plus, you’ll notice a dip in the production-test-release phase. All of these factors would ultimately lead your team to an inevitable loss of revenue.

The QA Stress

Upon hearing the deadline whooshing by. The pressure will then creep up on your QA team. Ensuring the code turns out error-free and efficient is the key QA outcome. And rushing through this phase means that your QA team has ignored some crucial tests and left them for later. This consequence correlates with the previous pointer. If you want your QA team to leave no errors behind, then be mindful of tackling your misconceptions in the prior step. Don’t let the errors snowball into a behemoth of unsolved mess.

Dealing with Tech Debt – The Infallible Strategies

For software developers, technical debt is a big deal, and incurring one is even bigger. Okay, time for a quick scenario. Let’s assume that your team has already incurred a technical debt. Now, what should you do about it?

Well, McKinsey revealed that IT firms with a proactive approach to technical debt management are likely to reduce their debt from 75% to 25%. This confirms that taking prompt action is everything. These strategies should give you a good idea.

Strategy 1

Tech firms consider tech debt as a daunting phenomenon. That’s because everyone in the company has their own perception of it. Your firm’s business teams may perceive TD as a technological shortcoming. Whilst for tech teams, TD affects the quality of design, testing, and most importantly the code itself.

Conclusively, the first strategy to overcome the TD is to bring everyone – business and tech teams – on the same page. The definition of technical debt should be the same for everyone in the organization.

Strategy 2

Being aware of your technical debt is one thing. But knowing what activities would mitigate it is the real game changer. In a survey conducted by Carnegie Mellon University, 65% of the respondents didn’t even know how to tackle TD.

Remember, in software development, the notion of one size fits all does not work. Address your technical debt with measures dedicated solely to your situation. This practice would allow your team members to collaborate and resolve the tech debt more efficiently.

Strategy 3

Set the coding standards in place for your team. The standards usually comprise of industry’s best practices, guidelines, and rules related to coding. Your team would become capable of formulating clean code that’ll also be easily expandable and readable by other developers.

Moreover, this practice bars unnecessary errors from ending up in the code, ultimately saving developers and QA experts a lot of their valuable time.

Strategy 4

An estimated 98% of companies stayed afloat with Agile methodology. Agile software engineering practices are best to keep technical debt at bay. Teams that abide by this methodology consistently maintain quality throughout all phases of development.

The best thing about Agile methodology is that it adds all the TD-related tasks to the backlog. Team members can track the overall progress incredibly easily while tackling the TD in a proactive way.

Strategy 5

Automated testing highlights errors and bugs in a code, way quicker than manual testing. Developers and QA engineers are equally responsible for running automated testing. Technical debt surfacing at the time of code testing is a common thing, and for that automated testing is the best solution.

Automation expedites error detection and enables QA teams to focus on areas seeking their expertise. Think of all the time and effort QA teams can save with this.   

Technical Debt Management – A Recap

And finally, we’ve reached the conclusion of our discussion. Before we wrap this all up, let’s take a final glance at technical debt and all that falls within it.

Technical debt bears a remarkable resemblance to typical financial debt. Say, there’s something that you need to purchase. But, you’re short on cash. So, you go ahead, borrow the amount you require from someone else, and pay it back later.

In software development, the debt surfaces when you produce sub-optimal code. Tech teams usually do this when they’re trying to meet a deadline quickly. Thus, when they deliberately leave room for an inevitable upgrade. They’re basically entering a technical debt, which they’ll have to address later on no matter what.

A sub-optimal code will ask for several tweaks and re-optimizations before reaching the optimal phase. Resorting to quick fixes and patches only adds more muscle to the TD. Therefore, the best way to keep the technical debt from going out of hand is by being patient and tackling the issues with infallible, full-scale solutions.

All Things Concluded

The competition out there has heated up. Software companies are keeping up by adopting innovative technologies. With the adoption, comes the inevitable chance of running into technical debt. Some companies jump into technical debt intentionally. For them, this test of time would enhance the reliability of their product. And, it would give them a much-needed competitive advantage.

For companies incurring an unintentional technical debt. Meeting new goals and innovation becomes a long shot. In a nutshell, a technical debt functions more like a tool that is capable of making or breaking your product release cycle. So, make sure to understand, use, and manage your technical debt with all your might. Remember, your approach to tackling your TD will determine how efficient, flawless, and progressive your codebase would be in the future.

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Harris Solangi
Key Contributor:
Harris Solangi

VP Engineering
Disciplined with over 10 years of experience, Harris is highly regarded in the Technical Debt and Technology Asset domains.
Edited by Tissam Khan – Putting spellchecks behind bars, and producing tech-centered content from the Bat Cave read: home