Technical debt accumulates when development teams take too many shortcuts to speed up the delivery of a feature or software release. The concept of trying to complete a project as quickly as possible often creates problems that need to be resolved in the future.
Technical debt can extend beyond development teams to processes, platforms, and IT operations teams that drive critical business operations, such as manufacturing, order fulfillment, shipping, and support customer.
Addressing technical debt is critical as organizations continue to adjust longstanding development and business processes to meet the challenges of the pandemic. Discover common examples of technical debt and learn how to best manage and resolve technical debt in a project portfolio.
Examples of Technical Debt
Technical debt occurs in many ways, but here are six examples:
1. Poor software code quality
The most apparent technical debt is poor quality software code. There are many reasons for poor code quality, such as the following:
- developers anxious to use the latest tools when the project has no business case for the tool;
- lack of documented coding standards for developers; and
- integration and training of ad hoc or non-existent developers.
Other factors include time pressures that increase with poor planning or when developers have to rewrite outsourced code. These examples can drive technical debt to critical levels.
2. Ill-equipped IT leadership
People contribute to technical debt through poor IT leadership. Changing cloud and containerization trends move quickly and can quickly bypass the understanding of customers and management teams. This means organizations often adopt unnecessary tools or make decisions they don’t fully understand, creating technical debt.
3. Pandemic and remote work
The rapid shift to remote work due to COVID-19 has introduced an amalgam of technical debt that includes security, infrastructure, and processes. The majority of technical debt related to the pandemic could not be avoided, as organizations had to adapt as quickly as possible. The shift to remote working has also affected enterprise cloud strategies by accelerating cloud migrations. Internal cloud initiatives accelerated and IT operations teams took shortcuts to keep business users efficient, racking up even more technical debt. Shortcuts have the potential to accrue technical debt that rivals code-based debt.
4. No documents
A lack of technical documentation, especially on project code and infrastructure, is often a source of technical debt. Technical documentation is easy to ignore or overlook, especially on projects with a tight budget. But resolving documentation-based technical debt isn’t about throwing technical writers at the problem. Instead, organizations should embed documentation into their DevOps culture and automate documentation into development workflows. Managers must also hold employees accountable for documentation related to their roles.
5. Job security in the dark
A lack of collaboration is a major cause of technical debt. Job security through obscurity is another problem that arises when a programmer, engineer, or system administrator does not share job-related information with co-workers. Whether information isolation is simply the nature of a particular role or the result of individual intentions, teams may not even realize that knowledge is being lost over time. Any IT staff with full control over a process should be responsible for maintaining its documentation; even if the resource is not widely shared, it should exist.
6. Insufficient Software Testing
Another easy-to-cut corner that never ends well is software testing. Such technical debt is common in organizations that lack quality assurance support and have not yet implemented DevOps, which provides automated testing options.
How to stop technical debt — but not all the way
Surprisingly, there are positive uses for technical debt. If IT operations teams embark on projects with a plan to manage it, accumulating technical debt can help organizations meet critical deadlines.
For example, technical debt management can help IT operations teams create a minimum viable product to demonstrate to a potential investor or customer. Organizations can also use well-managed technical debt to create a placeholder for future features or costs that need to be deferred for budgetary reasons.
To control technical debt, the development and operations teams must first recognize this debt in the project portfolio.
Once IT operations teams identify signs of technical debt, create a plan and set a timeline to start paying off that debt. Include coding standards and accompanying developer training as part of this plan.
Additionally, stakeholders, project managers, and developers must collaborate to prioritize tasks to define the future state of software delivery for an organization. Once priorities are set and IT operations teams have a code update, plug in the codebase to kick off technical debt resolution efforts.
Fixing and managing enterprise software technical debt should be part of an organization’s formal project plans and development team culture to meet challenges while moving projects forward.