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Technical Debt In Coding

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In this world, everybody has some kind of debt. And if we talk about the technical debt, it sounds like some kind of a financial term and actually, this is where this programming concept is based on. 

If you are a software developer or someone who has any kind of affiliation with the software development process, then you must have heard the term technical debt in your life. And it would not be wrong to say that you must have experienced it or you might be facing it right now. 

What Exactly Is Technical Debt?

Technical Debt is a common metaphor that is used in software development to refer to the short-term decisions you make while writing code, this could be because of any reason but usually, it happens in the case when you have strict timelines. 

To put it simply, and like Watts and Hertvik (2020) defined it, “Technical debt is the coding you must do tomorrow because you took a shortcut in order to deliver the software today.” 

In other words, technical debt is like any other debt e.g. you take a loan to buy a house. You have the house now but it will take years to pay off your loan, and like this type of debt, technical debt can accumulate “interest”. In this case, it can give you leverage to deliver a product on time but at the cost of quick and dirty development. It’s a trade-off between quality and time, and if you don’t deal with this debt then it can hurt you in the long term. 

How Does Technical Debt Happen?

There are quite a few reasons that can cause technical debt. Let’s see some of the most common reasons for technical debt. 

Business Goal Collision with Software Implementation

One of the most common and usual reasons for the technical debt is the mismatch of organizations’ business goals and plans with software design and implementation. Due to changes in the business context, together with limited time and resources, it is almost impossible for any organization to make sure that every line of code is perfect. So, the developers deliver the product without making sure that the code is perfect and it leads to technical debt.

Bad Coding Practices

Sometimes technical debt is caused by poorly written code by the developers. It may well be that teams need to ship code faster and as more projects arise, developers choose to focus on different tasks, taking shortcuts to deliver them on time to meet the needs of the business. Making mistakes is a different thing and every developer makes mistakes. Still, some developers simply don’t follow standard coding practices. Some types of mistakes are the anti-patterns, like the Spaghetti code. These are the opposite of design patterns, which follow a formalized, structured approach, and are good programming practices. If these mistakes are not fixed, and there is a lack of foresight, then it leads to an increase in technical debt. 

Over-Complex Technical Design

One of the causes of technical debt is the over-complexity of technical design. This makes the implementation of the product too tricky and complex which forces developers to use shortcuts or bad coding practices to achieve the deadlines. Besides a high degree of complexity in engineering design, significant changes in requirements can also be a reason that causes technical debt. 

Types of Technical Debt

For years, people have defined different types and forms of technical debt. The most famous and accepted definition of the types of technical debt is provided by Martin Fowler in the “Technical Debt Quadrant”.

According to Martin, debt can be based on intent, i.e. Deliberate or Inadvertent. The author further classified these, adding in the categories Reckless and Prudent. 

a quadrant that shows the 4 types of technical debt. reckless, prudent, deliberate and inadvertent

To explain this further, there is some debt that is unavoidable and that it is by nature, unpreventable, e.g. to meet the requirements of the client or when changes in business requirements happen. By having to work on new and more urgent feature requests, it is natural that the amount of technical debt will increase, and this is something that cannot be avoided. 

On the other hand, there are some deliberate types of technical debt. You might be wondering why someone would deliberately do this. But the fact is that it happens more than often, there are situations when the team has the option to code something in a proper manner or code it fast. Mostly the teams opt for the second choice, which is plausible if, for example, a company intends to achieve a short-term goal. This will cause them to accrue technical debt. 

What to Do if You Have Technical Debt and How to Avoid It in First Place

Now, if you know that you are in technical debt, then leave behind the debate whether it was deliberate or unavoidable, or who is responsible for this. Rather, you need to surf your energies in managing or paying off the technical debt. 

Assess The Technical Debt 

The first thing you need to do is to have a clear assessment of how bad the debt is. Measure the approximate time the developers would need to refactor and clean the code and compare it with the other milestones of the project. This will help you in identifying how much resources you would need to pay off the debt.

Addressing Technical Debt

In an ideal world, the best practice is to avoid technical debt in the first place, so you don’t have to worry about it later. There are some things that organizations can implement to avoid technical debt. For example, develop a company culture in which you discourage the shortcuts or quick fixes in the code. You can use different strategies such as pair-programming or test-driven development to avoid building the technical debt. 

Once you start accumulating technical debt though, it is important that the consequences and costs are addressed. It is usually best to tackle technical debt early on, as, with the rise of technical debt, the ramifications will also be more severe. 

Still, it could be feasible for teams to live with technical debt without ever solving it. This will all depend on how much it affects the delivery of new features and changing parts of the product, or how much it affects the performance or usability of the product, etc. 

At the end of the day, it’s necessary to evaluate the trade-off between these obstacles and the cost of solving the technical debt. Teams still do need to keep the technical debt levels low enough, so it doesn’t affect future development. This can be mitigated through good practices, and by making technical debt visible to everyone, adding it to the product backlog, and by frequent feedback loops. 

One of the best approaches is to quantify your technical debt. There are many tools and metrics available that are based on static code analysis. One of the recommended such tools is Codacy, with synced organizations, Git provider organizations and members will be automatically imported into Codacy. And as soon as you add a repository Codacy begins the initial analysis of your repository. 

With Codacy, you define your rules to ensure everyone is following the same standards. There are over 8000 rules covering best coding practices, and you can easily remove false positive issues from your review. Such a tool offers insights, for instance, where you can find issues in your code, why they are considered issues, and it also provides suggestions on how to solve each issue, and approximately how long it will take to solve them. There are several benefits in using a tool like this, the most relevant being that it saves considerable time in the development process and it makes it way more efficient. 

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