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The 21st century executive

How to Use Technical Debt To Your Advantage


In a perfect world, there would be plenty of time, an ample budget, a plethora of resources to pour into each software project, and no known bugs or missing features. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world, and software development teams have to learn how to manage their technical debt. Find out what exactly technical debt is, how to manage it, and how to keep it at bay in further projects.

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What is technical debt?

Software developers and team leaders need to strike a balance when it comes to meeting goals and making decisions. There are often difficult decisions to make, and various types of debt may be used in these tough situations.

Just like financial debt, technical debt is a common solution to get out of a difficult problem. A responsible business entity, for example, might temporarily enter into financial debt for the best outcome in the long run. It’s clear from the beginning, though, that the debt will ultimately need to be repaid with interest. That means the sooner it can be paid off, the better.

The same is true with development teams and their software code. Software projects will always have bugs that need to be fixed. Just like the business entity mentioned above, IT managers and developers face tough decisions. Following several iterative processes of bug resolution, they might have code that has become increasingly inconsistent, complex, or difficult to understand or work with.

The more problems created with your software’s new features, the more “debt” is created. This is the debt of needing to fix the code in the future to ensure the software continues to be useful, has a good user experience, or achieves its purpose. 

So why would IT leaders allow for technical debt?

Reasons for technical debt

Sometimes, it’s worth having something immediately—even if you have to pay a little extra for it. For example, having a car right now will open up a world of possibilities for a person. This is why many people choose to take out a loan, which means they’re entering into financial debt. This debt is considered a preferable cost versus saving up for years to pay for a car in full.

This illustrates why some IT managers choose to release a product or application with some technical debt. They decide that releasing the application with known issues, even though it will require extra work later, is better for their goals compared to fixing any bugs, glitches, or problems with its architecture before its release. 

The common restrictions of software development projects that lead to a decision to accept an amount of technical debt include deadlines, limited resources, competitive pressure, or other constraints.

Just like financial debt, however, technical debt needs to be managed and repaid. Find out the best ways to do so.

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Best practices to manage technical debt

Having a plan in place to manage technical debt is essential if a software team is ever to get out from under it (or else reduce it to workable levels). Let’s examine what steps they should take to achieve this.

Assess the debt

A team needs to understand just how much technical debt there is to know how much harder they have to work to eliminate it.

Many teams quantify how much technical debt a project has by measuring it in the number of days needed to fix these technical issues. From there, they can attach a dollar amount to how much work lies ahead of them. This will reveal the cost/benefit ratio of fixing issues for the current release versus postponing until a future release.

Communicate the debt

Once the team knows how much technical debt there is, they need to share this information with those who need to know. These people might include shareholders, non-IT managers, and anyone else with a stake in the final outcome of a project.

Pay the debt

Once those in positions of authority know how much technical debt will be accrued, important decisions need to be made.

Does the debt truly need to be repaid?

In other words, are the bugs trivial, or have they become more trivial with the passage of time due to evolutions in the market or the software itself? If they don’t negatively impact the project’s goals, some bugs may not be a real issue.  

What components need to be refactored?

To put it another way, which parts need fixing? This might entail removing duplicates, simplifying, or improving the code’s structure without changing how a program behaves.

Does the application need to be replaced?

After all the parameters have been gathered and a clear picture of the outcome has been obtained, the project may not be worth the amount of debt it will create.

Just like financial debt, technical debt will ultimately need to be repaid. The debt may be worth it in the short-term to achieve a project’s goals, or it may need to be avoided altogether—it all depends on how much of it exists and if it can be paid off successfully.

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About the author
Juan Pablo González

Working as Foreworth’s Chief Technical Officer, Juan Pablo (JP) manages the company’s technical strategy. With nearly 20 years of experience in software development, he ensures the development process at Foreworth is meeting its keys objectives and technical requirements.

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