How to Balance Technical Debt – Tackle It Before It Tackles You

As software engineers, we all know the importance of writing high-quality code and building reliable software. However, the reality is that we often have to make trade-offs between perfect code and getting things done quickly. This is where technical debt comes in! The concept of taking shortcuts or adopting quick fixes that may have to be paid off later. Of course, they payback is with increased costs, greater effort, or even lower quality overall. But figuring out how to balance technical debt is something that isn’t trivial for many teams to figure out!

Over time, technical debt can accumulate and have a significant impact on software development projects. As a result, managing and figuring out how to balance technical debt effectively is crucial for project success. We need to have a strategy in place that ensures we are not ignoring technical debt but also not getting bogged down by it. By striking a balance between technical debt and productivity, we can achieve sustainable software development.

So, let’s explore how to tackle technical debt before it tackles us!


Understanding Technical Debt

Technical debt refers to a set of design or development shortcuts taken during software development. This often requires future cleanup or refactoring for the continued health and stability of the system. These shortcuts may be taken to save time or money, to meet an urgent deadline, or simply because they were the best known option at the time.

As a software project moves forward, technical debt can accumulate, and the amount of debt can build up to the point where the amount of time required to fix issues and update the code is greater than the time that was initially saved by taking the shortcuts. This buildup can cause serious problems, making it harder to develop new features, slower to fix bugs, and damaging the overall quality of the software.

What Does Technical Debt Look Like?

Technical debt can come in many forms; some examples include taking shortcuts in coding standards, delaying unit testing, skipping documentation, or deferring refactoring. The nature of the technical debt will often depend on the requirements of the project, the amount of development time and budget available, and the priorities of team members.

Despite its drawbacks, technical debt can be advantageous in certain situations. Technical debt can help create breathing room during development, allowing developers to pivot to new features or ideas rapidly. Additionally, technical debt can help an organization prioritize features and ensure that they launch features to market quickly.

To identify technical debt, software teams should frequently review their processes and code to determine areas that require improvement. These reviews can be conducted during code review, sprint retrospectives, or other forms of debugging and testing.

Overall, understanding technical debt is critical for any software developer or engineer hoping to build sustainable, scalable systems. By taking a pragmatic and reflective approach to identifying, assessing, and cleaning up technical debt, teams can ensure that their codebase remains efficient, reliable, and valuable.


How To Balance Technical Debt

Balancing technical debt is a critical factor when it comes to software development. It’s how we manage technical debt in a way that allows you to maintain a balance between innovation and maintenance. The goal is to balance maintenance, time to market, and risk such that we don’t compromise the quality of software.

Prioritizing Technical Debt

Prioritizing technical debt is a key step in balancing it. Prioritization ensures that you are working on the most critical technical debt items first. This helps you manage risk and avoid more significant problems down the line. Prioritizing technical debt should involve examining the impact on both business and technical metrics. Prioritization approaches include:

  • Business impact prioritization: prioritizing technical debt based on how it impacts the overall business goals.
  • Urgency prioritization: prioritizing technical debt based on how quickly it needs to be addressed.
  • Risk-based prioritization: prioritizing technical debt based on the level of risk posed to the product or team.

Factors to consider when prioritizing technical debt include the severity of the issue, the level of technical debt, and the impact it has on your team’s productivity and the product’s overall quality.

Strategies for How To Balance Technical Debt

There are several strategies for balancing technical debt. These strategies include:

  • Technical debt reduction: paying down technical debt through refactoring and rebuilding components that are causing the most issues.
  • Continuous refactoring: ensuring that technical debt is always being addressed through ongoing refactoring work.
  • Choosing the right technologies: selecting new technologies that will allow for reduced technical debt over the long term.
  • Best practices for balancing technical debt: implementing proven technical practices that help to balance technical debt like code reviews, test-driven development, and documentation.

By using these strategies, software teams can ensure that they keep technical debt under control. They can also maintain a focus on innovation and the development of new features. By successfully balancing technical debt in this way, you can develop software that remains of high quality and meets the needs of your users.

Check out this video for my thoughts on how vital it is for everyone to focus on managing technical debt by aligning it with business value:

YouTube player

Risks of Ignoring Technical Debt

Ignoring technical debt can be enticing in the short-term when more pressing matters are at hand, but the long-term risks can often outweigh the benefits. By avoiding technical debt, teams can run the risk of both product and team deterioration over time.

Impact of Ignoring Technical Debt

Ignoring technical debt can create a variety of negative consequences that can ultimately hurt a product and its users. For example, technical debt can slow down a product’s delivery and deployment time, making it harder to keep up with new features and bug fixes. Additionally, it can cause the product to become more difficult for maintenance and can increase the cost of developing changes.

Consequences of Ignoring Technical Debt

The consequences of ignoring technical debt don’t stop at the product level. Faced with accumulated technical debt, teams will likely struggle with their software development processes, which can lead to team burnout and reduced morale. Individuals may become frustrated and unmotivated when they are unable to improve their software product. Ultimately, teams that turn a blind eye to technical debt can experience a high employee turnover rate.

Negative Effects on the Development Team

While technical debt can seem like a distant problem, it can have a real impact on the daily life of software developers. It can cause frustration and ultimately demotivate developers who are constantly trying to juggle technical debt and normal development work. This can lead to developer burnout, lower productivity, and a lower overall quality of work. Developers may find themselves avoiding taking ownership of certain features or areas of code because of the technical debt that exists there. Often, this can cause other team members to pick up the slack.

Risks of Technical Debt on the Product

Technical debt can cause havoc on a product by creating a backlog of maintenance and repair work that needs to be addressed. This bottleneck can make it difficult to respond to user feedback and create new features. It can also lead to an increase in bugs, which can result in loss of revenue and customers. Furthermore, as technical debt accumulates over time, refactoring code for better maintainability may become increasingly difficult or impossible. This, in turn, can shorten the lifespan of a product and make it difficult to keep up with competitors.

Overall, ignoring technical debt can have significant consequences on your product and development teams. Not being aligned on how to balance technical debt can have great consequences. Understanding the long-term risks associated with ignoring it can make it clear why addressing it in a timely and consistent manner can be critical to the success of a product.


Now You Know How To Balance Technical Debt!

Figuring out how to balance technical debt is an essential aspect of software engineering and development. The goal should be to create a sustainable development process that enables teams to manage technical debt without sacrificing product quality or development timelines.

By prioritizing technical debt, adopting best practices, and using the right strategies, teams can reduce their technical debt and maintain their products’ health over the long term. On the other hand, ignoring technical debt can lead to significant problems, including development team morale issues, reduced productivity, and negative consequences for the product.

Ultimately, by managing technical debt effectively, software engineering teams can stay ahead of potential challenges and drive success in their projects. I encourage you, a software engineer, to find ways to speak to your stakeholders about the business value and the ROI of scheduling technical debt. Help them understand how to balance technical debt by conveying the reasons in ways that they’ll support.

Nick Cosentino

Principal Software Engineering Manager at Microsoft. Views are my own.

Leave a Reply