4 ways to minimise and manage technical debt

Anyone who’s ever worked on a large software project knows that no two projects are exactly the same. However, beyond the typical user-centered product goals, every project has two main competing missions: to build technically excellent software, and to hit the deadline while sticking to the budget.

These competing goals create daily scenarios in which the development team has to make judgment calls to either build the product the right way or just make it “good enough” and ship code.

It’s often the right decision to produce code that’s deemed good enough to ship, but when you choose this option, you leave potentially imperfect code in your wake. As each of those imperfections pile up, they turn into what’s known as the “tech debt” of your project.

If this debt is ignored over time, it can eventually amass to the point where it cripples your entire project.

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While technical debt isn’t necessarily a bad thing in the short term, it’s crucial to have a plan in place that regularly pays back the balance. Not having one can hurt you and your project in several ways.

When you’re embarking on a new project, it’s easy to get blinded by deadlines and scope goals. Employees want to please executives by delivering the perfect product on time. With looming deadlines, though, your team can be pressured into ignoring tech debt and focusing solely on completing the overarching product features.

As the debt builds up, it becomes harder and harder to add new features, and your team’s pace will slow. Eventually, you’ll reach the point where progress has halted; your deadline is a distant memory. What’s worse, your technical debt can gain a mountain of interest, causing it to become far more expensive to address than it would have been earlier in the process.

A project in which technical debt is neglected will eventually turn into a 'Big Ball of Mud', which can be defined as software that doesn’t have a perceivable structure and shows unmistakable signs of unregulated growth and expedient repair. As a result, productivity becomes unfeasible, and no talented developer will want to spend his or her days working on a project that’s at a standstill.

Further, developers won’t want to work in an environment where their managers refuse to prioritise maintenance over features. Enterprises frequently lose talented people over technical debt.

If you ignore your technical debt, you’ll also end up in a situation in which every little change becomes a threat to the stability of your product. When you reach this stage, it’s far more likely that you’ll introduce bugs or system-damaging code to production – and once those issues are introduced, they’re harder to track down.

Building up some technical debt is normal – and perhaps required – but it’s key to keep it under control. Here are four ways to do so.

1. Schedule sprints

Every quarter, schedule sprints to allow your tech team to address your project’s “broken windows”. The development team should take the lead here – it will be best able to identify and prioritise the most pressing debts that need to be addressed.

Leaving the business side out of this prioritisation ensures the work is primarily focused on the quality of the code and isn’t swayed by outside interests.

2. Slow your process

This seems like a blasphemous concept in the world of agile product development, where everyone focuses on shipping products ASAP, but if you schedule deliberate times to focus on quality rather than features, you’ll end up with a more stable product. Slowing down in the short term can actually speed up your process in the long run.

3. Build a tech-savvy boardroom

In today’s changing world, many old-school companies find themselves transitioning into technical enterprises to stay competitive. However, if they don’t fully transition from top to bottom, these organisations end up being led by a C-suite that lacks technical expertise.

A boardroom without tech experience will push for features over maintenance, ultimately becoming an obstacle that tech teams can’t overcome. It only makes sense to have individuals who have experience building products involved in your product-related decisions.

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4. Use a smart design from the start

This seems simple, but people often start building without a viably fleshed-out plan. It’s key to know where you’re trying to go before you start moving. Of course, you should continue your planning and adjust as you learn, but blindly setting out is a recipe for building a foundation of tech debt.

If you don’t have a plan to address your project’s technical debt, your project will eventually grind to a halt. You’ll have to spend more time troubleshooting your code base than you do advancing it. On the other hand, prioritising your debt payments will ensure that your project continues to advance and remain viable in the future.

If your debt happens to get out of hand, you need to be brave enough to declare bankruptcy and rebuild the affected portions. No one wants to throw away a working product, but if you don’t face reality, you can spend years running in place.


Sourced from Joe Ryan, COO, Skookum

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...