We are familiar with financial debt, which we take on to purchase items we desire. With technological advancements dominating modern-day living, a different kind of debt has emerged. Technical debt refers to a term that is closely related to technology. It is an outcome of a company’s efforts to adapt technological innovations to serve its customers on digital platforms.
Similar to other debts and overdraft fees, technical debt is something that is expected to be paid off at some point. Such payment may be in the form of money, time, and other resources.
How to Incur Technical Debt?
Technical debt is also called design debt or code debt. As these terms suggest, this type of debt is an outcome of building software systems and applications.
For example, a development team may be working on building an app and have a deadline to complete such an app. However, the team may not have enough time to code every aspect of the software correctly. To solve this dilemma, the team may opt to beat the deadline and release an imperfect application that has underlying technical issues. Examples of common issues include incorrect codes, missing documentation, or bugs.
The logic behind this decision is to meet time expectations and fix the technical issues later on. Thus, technical debt occurs because the software development team prioritizes delivery over accurate coding.
The Origin of Technical Debt
Ward Cunningham is the software developer who first coined the phrase – technical debt. Cunningham is the co-author of the “Agile Manifesto” and is often credited as the inventor of wiki. He first used the term as a metaphor to explain to company stakeholders why they need a budget for software refactoring.
Cunningham thought that the metaphor accurately describes how rushing to deliver software may mean having to refactor it later because of unresolved technical issues.
Over the years, people involved in technology have made their expanded definitions of technical debt. These definitions have a lot to do with the role that stakeholders view technical debt to pay.
The Causes of Technical Debt
Experts argue that technical debt is not a product of incompetency, laziness, and unprofessional behavior. Software problems and issues due to such reasons have been difficult to solve and repair.
Software engineers think that technical debt is due to real project constraints. It is inevitable in situations where there are existing factors out of a team’s control.
Factors that lead to technical debt:
Technical debt occurs when development teams feel pressure to complete a project at a specified time. This pressure usually comes from upper management, who may not understand the time commitment required to perfect a software solution. Development teams can give in to this pressure and release the application to satisfy management. The released software may be functional but may have missing features or is not optimized for high performance.
Sometimes it is hard to keep up with technological innovations, which include developer frameworks, libraries, and coding languages. These ever-changing technological advancements in software can result in technical debt.
For example, a development team may use a coding language, like Python, to develop a software solution. After the software release, the team would realize that such coding language is not the most effective in delivering the functionalities and performance the company desires.
External Factors that Change Rapidly
A full-featured software may be outdated by the time the company releases it. This is because it takes so much time to build a well-coded application. The software can quickly be outdated because of external factors such as cyber threats, new market trends, and shifting customer expectations.
Types of Technical Debt
There have been several debates and discussions on whether a technical debt is a conscious decision on the part of the software development team. Most experts agree on distinguishing technical debt into different types. The past years have seen software developers creating new ways of classifying technical debt.
However, the simplest and most notable distinction of technical debt comes from Steve McConnell. He divided the term into 2 types – intentional and unintentional.
McConnel defines technical debt as intentional if developers use it consciously as a strategic tool.
In contrast, unintentional technical debt is a “non-strategic result of doing a poor job”.
Martin Fowler expanded on McConnell’s idea and created the “Technical Debt Quadrant” to classify technical debt into more categories. Then, a group of researchers from the Software Engineering Institute released a paper that classifies technical debt into 13 types based on the nature of the debt and not whether it’s intentional or not.
Is Technical Debt Bad or Good?
Experts could not agree on the matter. Ward Cunningham thought technical debt is a good idea if the goal is to use the software as quickly as possible so the company can get some experience operating it. If the company is aware that it will eventually have to devote resources and time to fix the software, then technical debt is necessary.
Other thought leaders in technological fields view technical debt as a tool for getting ahead of the competition or the marketplace. If the purpose is to achieve quick gains in a highly competitive environment then technical debt is useful. These leaders do not necessarily think that fixing codes at a later time is a negative consequence just as long as the gains are significant.
However, some industry experts are not a fan of technical debt. They believe it can drain the company’s liquid assets and cost them more time and resources than they initially expected. Eventually, technical debt will hinder the ability to grow and compete with other businesses.
How to Reduce Technical Debt with Low-code
Low-code development platforms use simple drag-and-drop interfaces to allow non-coders to create applications. These platforms are great for reducing technical debt because they allow developers to quickly update and fix bugs without needing to write code.
This is possible because low-code development platforms use a visual environment with an abstraction layer that separates the code from the interface. This allows not only programmers but also citizen developers to easily make changes without having to rewrite their entire application.
The general consensus seems to be that the definition and perception of technical debt are subjective. Whether technical debt is good or bad, depends on the context. This logic is the same for financial debt – risky but beneficial, unproblematic when managed correctly.
Software quality and performance will always satisfy the users, but the speed of a software release helps businesses reach their goals. Therefore, if a development team finds it necessary to get into technical debt, they should understand the cost. Managing technical debt requires an effective doable plan and the discipline to stick to it.