These 8 measures will enable you to manage your technical debt better to prevent it from being the bottleneck that stifles your growth.
Work with a flexible architecture.
The most important decision to make at the start of the project use an architecture which design is malleable, especially with the rapid rate of software evolution witnessed today. Going with an architecture that keeps calling for too much refactoring, or whose design won’t accommodate future changes will leave you with costly technical debt. Use scale-able architecture that allows you to modify or add new features in future releases. While on this, complex features required in the final product should be discussed at the planning stage, that way simplified solutions that will be easier to implement can be identified, as this will lead to less technical debt in the long run.
It may be tempting at this stage for the software development to consider developing their own internal custom framework. However, we would stress caution with this approach, because this in the long run will not actually reduce your technical debt, in all probability it will only exaggerate it.
You may inadvertently saddle your team with two products to develop and support. Further splitting and diverting resources and impacting project and product timelines.
The Deal with Refactoring
Refactoring is the process cleaning up the code structure without changing its behaviour. With the updates, patches, and new functionality are added to the systems and applications, each change comes with the threat of more technical debt. Additionally, organisations are increasingly moving their IT infrastructure from on-premises facilities to co-located data centres and deploying them making use cloud-based services and cloud-native architecture . In such scenarios, some workarounds are often needed to enable the systems to function in the new environments, which they hadn’t been initially developed to accommodate. Here, you will need to take some time to refactor the existing system regularly, streamlining the code and optimising its performance – and this will be key to pay down the technical debt.
When working with a flexible architecture from the start, the amount of work that goes into this will be reduced, meaning there’ll be less technical debt involved. However, this can also lead to your software teams having to take on more technical debt,in order to deal with the technical debt.
Run discovery tests
Discovery testing essentially takes place even before a line of code is written for the system or application. This takes place at the product definition stage, where human insight software is used to understand the needs of the customer and is particularly helpful in setting priorities for the development work that will be carried out. It gives your business the opportunity to minimize the technical debt by allowing customers to give you a roadmap of the most pertinent features desired from the product.
Routine Code reviews
Getting a fresh look at the product or application from different sets of eyes in the development team will improve the quality of the code, thus reducing technical debt. There’s a catch though – this should be planned in a convenient way that doesn’t end up becoming a burden for the developers. .
Break down pull requests
Instead of having complex pull requests where numerous changes in the code are introduced at a go, have this broken down into smaller manageable pull requests, each with a brief title and description about it. This will be easier for the code reviewer to analyse.
Define preferred coding practices
Documenting the preferred coding style will result in cleaner code, meaning the developers will focus their effort on reviewing the code itself, not losing time on code format debates.
- Test automation
Relying only on scheduled manual testing opens you up to the risk of technical debt accruing rapidly, and not having sufficient resources to deal with the accumulated problems when they are identified. Automated testing on the other hand enables issues to be uncovered quicker, and with more precision. For instance, you can have automated unit tests that look at the functioning of the individual components of a system, or regression testing where the focus is on whether the code changes that have been implemented have affected related components of the system. However, establishing and maintaining automated testing will require quite some effort – making it more feasible for the long-term projects.
- Keep a repository that tracks changes made
Do you have a record of changes made in the software? Keeping one in a repository that is accessible by the development team will make it easy to pin-point problems at their source. For instance, when software is being migrated to a new environment, or legacy software is in the process of being modernised, you will want to have an accurate record of changes that are being introduced, that way if there is an undesired impact on the system this it will be easier to zero-down on the cause.
- Bring non-technical stakeholders on board
On one hand, you have the management or product team defining the product requirements, creating a project roadmap, and setting its milestones. On the other hand, there's the software development/engineering that's primarily focused on the product functionality, technical operations and clearing the backlog in code fixes. Poor communication between the two teams is actually a leading cause of technical debt.
Taking concrete steps in managing technical debt, the decision-makers in the organisation should understand its significance, and the necessity of reducing it. Explain to them how the debt occurred and why steps need to be taken to pay it down – but you can't just bombard them with tech phrases and expect them to follow your thought process.
How to start tackling technical debt
Reframe the issues involved with the technical debt and explain the business value or impact of the code changes. Basically, the development team should approach it from a business point of view, and educate the management or production team about the cost of the technical debt. This can include aspects such as expenses in changing the code, salaries for the software engineers especially when the development team will need to be increased due to the workload piling up, as well as the revenue that is lost when the technical debt is allowed to spiral.
The goal here is to show the management or production team how issues like failing to properly define the product requirements will slow down future software development, or how rushing the code will affect the next releases. That way, there will be better collaboration between the teams involved in the project.
- Allocate time and resources specifically for reducing technical debt
With management understanding that working with low-quality code is just like incurring financial debt and it will slow down product development, insist on setting time to deal with the debt.
For instance, when it comes to the timing of application releases, meetings can be conducted to review short- and longer-term priorities. These meetings – where the development team and product team or management are brought together, the developers point out the software issues that should be resolved as a priority as they may create more technical debt. Management then ensures that budgets and plans are put in place to explicitly deal with those ongoing maintenance costs.
- Retire old platforms
While most of the resources are going into developing new applications and improving the systems being used, the organisation should also focus on retiring the old applications, libraries, platforms, and the code modules. It's recommended that you factor this into the application release plans, complete with the dates, processes and costs for the systems involved.
- Total overhaul
When the cost and effort of dealing with the technical debt far outweighs the benefits, then you may have to replace the entire system. At this tipping point, you're not getting value from the technical debt, and it has become a painful issue that's causing your organisation lots of difficulties. For instance, you may be dealing with legacy software where fixing it to support future developments has simply become too complicated. The patches available may only resolve specific issues with the system, and still leave you with lots of technical debt. Here, the best way out is to replace the system in its entirety.
Every software company has some level of tech debt. Just like financial debt, it is useful when properly managed, and a problem when ignored or allowed to spiral out of control. It’s a trade off between design/development actions and business goals.
By taking measures to pay down your organization’s debt and address its interest as it accrues, you will avoid situations where short term solutions undermine your long-term goals. This is also key to enable your business to transition to using complex IT solutions easier, and even make the migration between data centres much smoother.