How to Dominate Technical Debt and Build Better Code

In software engineering, technical debt refers to the trade-offs made when prioritizing quick solutions over code quality and maintainability. While it is sometimes unavoidable in a fast-paced development environment, technical debt can ultimately hurt the overall quality of the product. It’s crucial for software engineers to prioritize and manage technical debt to maintain high code quality.

This article focuses on how software engineers can manage technical debt to build better code. I’ll cover the benefits of managing technical debt, the risks of ignoring it, and various techniques for tracking and managing it. By the end of this article, you’ll have a better understanding of tech debt and how to best manage it to ensure successful project outcomes!

Benefits of Managing Technical Debt

Managing technical debt has many benefits, both for individual engineers and for the overall success of a software project. By recognizing and proactively managing tech debt, engineers can ensure that their code remains efficient, maintainable, and robust.

Lower Maintenance Costs and Increased Code Efficiency

One of the primary benefits of managing technical debt is that it can lead to lower maintenance costs and increased code efficiency. When tech debt is not managed, it can accumulate over time and lead to code that becomes increasingly difficult to modify or extend. This can result in higher costs for maintenance and updates over the life of the project. By proactively managing technical debt, engineers can prevent tech debt from accumulating and ensure that code remains efficient and maintainable.

For example, code refactoring can be used to improve code quality by restructuring or rewriting code to follow best practices and eliminate technical debt. This can reduce the amount of code that needs to be maintained, leading to lower costs and more efficient use of engineering resources.

Improved Team Collaboration and Better Productivity

In addition to reducing maintenance costs and improving code efficiency, managing technical debt can also improve team collaboration and productivity. By prioritizing tech debt, engineers can tackle the most critical issues first, ensuring that resources are focused on the highest-priority items. This can help teams work more closely together and be more productive overall.

For instance, by focusing on tech debt, engineers can work to streamline code, eliminate redundancies, and reduce complexity. This can make it easier for team members working on different parts of the project to collaborate more effectively, resulting in faster development times and higher-quality outputs. Overall, prioritizing technical debt can help teams be more effective and efficient, leading to better project outcomes.

Risks of Ignoring Technical Debt

Ignoring technical debt can have significant drawbacks and risks that ultimately affect code quality and project success. Tech debt can be defined as the cost of not keeping code clean and can accumulate over time from shortcuts, lack of testing, or unoptimized code. Below are the details of the risks and ramifications that ignoring technical debt can have:

Increased Technical Debt and Greater Risks of Project Failure

When ignoring technical debt, it can stack up over time, which will eventually lead to an overburdened system that becomes more challenging to manage and maintain. Increased tech debt leads to slower product delivery, more frequent crashes, and higher costs of maintenance. This increased tech debt can lead to a higher risk of project failure. A project that has accumulated too much tech debt can grind to a halt or become completely unmanageable in the worst-case scenario.

For example, suppose the original code was not set up with scalability or flexibility in mind. In that case, it could lead to technical debt accumulation, which can result in the system being unmanageable or eventually require a complete overhaul. Such effects can lead to project failure, increased employee workload, and wasted resources.

Ineffective Team Collaboration and Lower Productivity

Ignoring technical debt may also result in ineffective team collaboration and lower productivity levels. Tech debt can lead to increased project conflicts, reducing trust between the team and communication, making it harder to manage projects over long periods. For instance, when new features have been added rapidly to the codebase over time, it can result in increased pressure and stress among team members, particularly when trying to debug when issues arise.

Ignoring technical debt also results in lowering productivity levels, reducing the overall quality of the project, and increasing the stress felt by team members. This constant overload can make work less enjoyable and become a demotivator for team members, leading to increased turnover rates and reducing the chances of project success.

In summary, ignoring technical debt can lead to increased tech debt accumulation and lower project quality, leading to severe consequences that can result in an unmanageable system. It is crucial to keep tech debt under check, provide a healthier work atmosphere that promotes teamwork, and reduces stress levels amongst your team members.

Techniques for Tracking and Managing Technical Debt

To manage technical debt effectively, there are several techniques that can be used to track and prioritize technical debt. These techniques help software engineers to manage technical debt and ensure that it is kept under control.

Creating Technical Debt Backlogs

One such technique for managing technical debt is to create tech debt backlogs. Tech debt backlogs are similar to work item backlogs and can be used to prioritize technical debt items. These backlogs help software engineers manage technical debt effectively by identifying technically relevant issues and organizing them as per their nature, severity, and impact on the project.

To maintain these backlogs, engineers should consider the following factors: regularly updating them with the most relevant tech debt issues, prioritizing technical debt based on severity, and determining a clear path for resolution.

How well does this work in practice? Well, it depends. I have personally been on teams where this has and has not worked well. Simply making a Jira or DevOps work item with a title that says “Fix the bad code in this spot” is a complete waste of time, and you shouldn’t be shocked if that never gets prioritized. Want better results? Communicate the business value of doing the technical debt. Link it with other work items in that area of the code. This is literally competing with features and bug fixes for priority, and it’s your job to champion the importance of such work.

Continuous Refactoring

Another technique for managing technical debt is the use of continuous refactoring and automated testing. These techniques help minimize tech debt by addressing it as soon as it is identified and by ensuring that tech debt is not introduced when adding new code. Refactoring involves restructuring the existing code to make it simpler, easier to maintain, and easier to test.

Some things to look out for here:

  • How much time are you spending on this?
  • Are you going down a rabbit hole trying to address tech debt?
  • Are you decoupling your tech debt clean up from the actual feature/bug you were working on when it comes time to landing it?
  • Do you have a shared understanding of spending this kind of time & resources with your teammates and stakeholders?

The “Boy Scout” rule is an example of minimal refactoring/cleanup that some argue is safe just because it’s such small changes. But where is the line drawn? You need to remember that changing any code inherently introduces some type of risk & effort, so make sure your time is spent well on priority areas.

Automated Testing

Automated testing helps in detecting tech debt in the codebase by ensuring that changes made to the existing code do not break existing functionality. It ensures that tech debt is identified before it becomes a major concern, making it easier to address.

But aren’t automated tests just useful for catching bugs and regressions?

Well, sort of. Yes, that’s their primary purpose – to provide confidence in code changes being safe enough that they didn’t break existing behavior. But when it comes to tech debt, what if every time you or your team is touching one area of code the tests need a ton of attention to get passing results?

Of course, these could just be bad tests (maybe some tech debt in the tests!) but this could also be a sign that the code being touched needs attention. Perhaps it’s so coupled together and/or has unclear logic that folks don’t realize their change will cause other expected behaviors to break. This could be a great sign that that area of code could be a great target for some refactoring to address some tech debt!

Now, Work On Managing Your Technical Debt!

To get a grip on tech debt and build better code, it is essential to understand the importance of managing technical debt effectively. With effective management, you can improve code quality, reduce maintenance costs, increase productivity, and prevent project delays or failures. However, ignoring technical debt can lead to an increase in tech debt, issues with team collaboration, and lower project success rates.

It is essential to remember the benefits and risks of managing technical debt effectively. Prioritizing technical debt through continuous refactoring, automating testing, and creating tech debt backlogs can lead to improved code quality, efficient team collaboration, and increased productivity.

To take advantage of these techniques, you should start by developing a thorough understanding of tech debt and its impact on your project success. Implement a strategy that includes these techniques and manage technical debt in a way that works best for your team and project requirements. By doing this, you can tackle technical debt and build better code, leading to more successful projects and satisfied customers.


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    author avatar
    Nick Cosentino Principal Software Engineering Manager
    Principal Software Engineering Manager at Microsoft. Views are my own.

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