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What is Technical Debt & How to Address It

| November 16, 2022

In a fast-paced, competitive, and dynamic tech world, it can be easy to cut corners by focusing on speed over quality. 

Being a ‘first mover’ can be alluring for the benefits it brings but it’s often a double-edged sword: emphasizing quick solutions brings teams closer to the risk of technical debt. 

So, what is technical debt? Also known as ‘tech debt,’ we explain what it is, how it occurs, and an overview of how to address it.

What is technical debt? 

Technical debt is a common occurrence for development teams when they pick an easier, limited solution to get a product or service to market faster. Often, these teams will have to go back and spend additional time, money, and energy fixing issues that could have been resolved with a more thorough process.

what is tech debt

Eventually, you’ll have to put those corners you cut back on. | Source: IntegrityRisk

Tech debt can happen due to:

  1. Time Crunches: Many app development teams are under immense pressure to work fast and release products (and subsequent upgrades) quickly. In some cases, companies may outsource coding tasks to other (and sometimes subpar) developers, leading to a finished product with poor-quality code. Other times, it’s simply a necessity of getting your MVP to the market quickly.
  2. Outdated Code: Modern applications often involve several coding languages and frameworks as well as reliance on third-party APIs, all of which change over time. When portions of these technologies are deprecated as they become outdated, the development team will have to go back to rewrite applications to the latest standards, using up a more significant time frame and additional resources than what was initially planned.
  3. Poor Software Testing Standards: It’s easy to cut down the software and app testing process to save time and money. Organizations that lack a sound quality assurance department often struggle with tech debt – problems that arise as a result are typically preventable and less costly in the long run meaning if this is an issue with your organization, it should be addressed yesterday.
  4. Lack Of Post-Product Follow-Through: Sometimes, tech debt can occur even when a program or app is developed and launched without any issues. Problems can arise if a solution is not monitored and managed to adjust to changes like patches to an operating system, vendor API upgrades, and modifications to software libraries.

The takeaway here should be that tech debt isn’t necessarily the result of neglect as sometimes it occurs naturally; many times, it’s simply the byproduct of a calculated risk.

Many times, decent products hit the market that are well-funded and polished around what businesses thought would be a hit yet still fail. This is why many companies use tech debt to their advantage at key times: products are far more likely to succeed and thrive in the long run by starting with a useful core feature and doing what you can to fill in the so-called “blank space” as you test and develop other features.

What is technical debt in Scrum?

Scrum is a methodology in which a project is divided into sprints with several tasks tethered to reasonable, incremental milestones that allow teams to build a product around data and feedback gathered at each step. A scrum master leads teams in meetings and throughout the development process. 

what is technical debt in scrum

Developing a product can be a bit like traveling: some people want to take everything with them but are only allowed one carry-on bag. | Source: nappy on Pexels

While sprint planning is done before the work begins, technical debt in Scrum can occur when requirements are forgotten, not done well, or deemed of low importance.

When this occurs, tech debt becomes the cost of reworking and fixing quality issues which will almost always take more time, energy, and money in the long run when these factors are compared to their initial values. In this scenario, Scrum team leaders rely on prioritization to address issues such as those caused by tech debt.

With that said, many plans will naturally introduce tech debt because of one or more many factors influencing the project. 

The important part is that you figure out the parameters of this debt so you can factor in the time, money, and other resources to “pay it back” (so to speak) before it causes problems for users or they lose interest due to a feature not working as expected.

What is technical debt in agile?

The Agile software development philosophy intersects with Scrum methodology by hinging on an approach that emphasizes flexibility with short cycles leading to more frequent deliverables.

tech debt in agile

Collect feedback, test ideas, work the good ones in, rinse & repeat. | Source: Jon Tyson on Unsplash

This iterative approach empowers teams to release products and solutions and then innovate and fix problems by building and regularly releasing updated versions of an app.   

While an Agile environment does value improvement and introspection, technical debt can quickly become an issue due to immense pressure for products and tools to hit the market quickly. Tech debt in Agile often occurs when quality is sacrificed to meet short-term goals.

The idea is to treat tech debt much like any other debt: having some is fine but after a certain threshold, it becomes a problem. By actively working to reduce this debt and strategically taking on more when appropriate, most businesses that subscribe to an Agile methodology – and execute accordingly! – manage to effectively deal with technical debt through a product’s lifecycle. 

What’s the best way to address tech debt?

Tackling tech debt can be tricky. The longer it exists, the more problems it can cause, especially if a team does not know how to “pay” technical debt off.

what is technology debt

“You got those designs updated and code revised or do we need to go outside and talk about it?” | Source: YouTube

Here are a few key points and best practices for mitigating and eliminating tech debt:

  • Assume & Plan For Tech Debt: Team leaders should initially plan for tech debt during the planning and development process. Doing so ensures it can be handled in due time and does not create an unwieldy backlog.
  • Emphasize Maintenance Work: Team leaders should recognize and acknowledge developers who spend time fixing issues, ensuring functionality, and performing maintenance on existing apps and software projects. This type of work is essential in mitigating and even preventing tech debt
  • Maintain a Schedule: It’s very difficult to avoid tech debt amid tight timelines, rapidly shifting schedules, and unpredictable directives. Team leaders should do their best to stick with realistic schedules that pay mind to prioritization (and random fires) – you might not be able to take action every day and that’s ok. Just make sure to adjust accordingly! 

Tech debt is often a fact of life for software and development teams.

Fortunately, plenty of strategies exist to solve and mitigate technological debt and develop products seamlessly and efficiently.

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