Technical debt: What is it and how can it hold you back?

Technical Debt: What it is and why you should avoid

If you pay attention to the news, you’ve probably heard a lot of talk about debt lately. The national debt, student loan debt, credit card debt. But there’s another type of debt you may not have heard of: technical debt. Much like its more well-known cousins, technical debt can cause serious problems. But it can also be a tool. If you’re launching a custom software development project, you need to understand what it is and why you need to budget resources for it. To get your project completed on schedule and within budget, here’s everything you need to know about technical debt.

What is Technical Debt?

Technical debt is the hole you can find yourself in if you opt for short-term fixes to technology problems instead of long-term solutions. Also known as code debt or tech debt, technical debt is measured in the time and cost of rework, and it can take on many forms. This could include coding bugs, incompatible legacy code, flawed designs or even missing documentation. It can also refer to deferring maintenance and upgrades on hardware and software to the point that recovery is extremely costly. Or it can refer to a system that is just plain old and requires replacement at significant cost to ensure the continuity of your business. This happens when a company uses an old solution too long and then faces a huge bill to replace it.

Technical debt is most often the result of tight deadlines and rushing to get a project delivered and implemented. But it can also happen because of scope creep, where you start a project and build the architecture with certain functionality in mind, but then want to add capabilities and requirements later in the development process. While the initial coding may have been enough to support the original scope, it may not be sufficient for the expanded project. Building additional functionality or scalability on top of an insufficiently designed foundation can create technical debt in the long term.

Why is it a Problem?

Technical debt is a problem because it disrupts the normal software development life cycle by increasing the amount of rework you have to do to complete a software project. The result is increased development costs, project delays and frustration for both your internal team and your development partner. If you don’t work to fix technical debt, you’ll likely continue to experience problems with your software system down the road.

Not only that, but technical debt can have a ripple effect on the rest of your business. If you were counting on having a new software system by a certain date, but the project gets delayed, you’ll have to continue using your legacy software. If you are using contracted SaaS systems, you may have to extend the contract, potentially at a higher price, or find other ways to fill the gap in your operation until the new software is complete. In the big picture, you started a custom software development project because you identified a problem or an opportunity. The longer it takes to complete the software, the longer those problems go unresolved and the opportunities unrealized.

Sometimes technical debt is necessary to demonstrate proof of concept or to test a specific function in the software. It can help move a project along, just as borrowing money can be useful as long as you account for the accrued interest. So not all technical debt is bad, at least in early stages of development. But you will need a plan for managing it effectively if you’re going to avoid major headaches later in the software development process.

How Do I Avoid Technical Debt?

The surest way to avoid technical debt is to follow best practices throughout the software development life cycle. Plan your project accurately from the beginning and prevent scope creep by creating a vision for your project and sticking to it. Try to predict your future needs and design your system so that it can accommodate changes down the line without having to rework the entire software.

Technical debt can feel like a developer problem, and it will certainly be a headache for your software development partner. But the cause can also be with the software’s eventual owner. When company stakeholders are unrealistic about their timelines or want to rush to get a software project completed, it can lead to technical debt.

For a software development project to be successful, everyone needs to be aligned on the scope, future use, design and timeline for testing and delivery. By following best practices and having a clear vision for your software, you can avoid technical debt, keep your project on track and ultimately create a solution that helps your business thrive.

About Saturn Systems

Saturn SystemsSaturn Systems is an entirely U.S. based software engineering firm that provides a broad range of services, from project-based development and quality assurance testing to fully integrated staff augmentation teams. Saturn's Rural Outsourcing model couples the lower cost of doing business in Duluth, MN, with an experienced engineering team - making Saturn an attractive alternative to high-priced metro firms and the inherent difficulties of offshore services.

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