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Technical Debt Management: Impacts, Mitigation, and Best Practices

Startups and enterprises face cost and time pressure to accelerate product development. In their haste, they might prioritize speed and compromise proper technological implementation. Left unaddressed, they face substantial technical debt that eventually affects business outcomes.

Technical debt management is crucial to enabling sustainable business growth. Whether you’re a founder, manager, or CEO, you risk having technical debt grow exponentially.

According to McKinsey Digital, technical debt amounts to up to 40% of an organization’s technological assets. The study also mentioned a case where a bank spent around $100 million to revamp an aging system — only to realize that the effect was more widespread than expected.

I’m Artem Mysik, Head of Engineering and Tech Lead at Uptech. Over the years, I've helped startups plan and build more sustainable digital solutions. I’m aware of how tech debt hampers a growing startup and why remediation efforts can be extremely difficult in the latter stage.

In this article, I’ll help you understand and manage technical debts more effectively. Specifically, I’ll share ways to identify, measure, and reduce technical debts in your product development pipeline.

tech debt management

What is technical debt?

Technical debt is a trade-off that happens when startups prioritize speed over quality. Understandably, founders want to build an app quickly and test it in the market. While doing so, the developers they hire might omit certain best practices so they can deliver on time.

For example, developers might ignore proper documentation, overlook software testing, and use outdated libraries to meet deadlines. Simply put, technical debt is the cost of choosing speed and convenience over the appropriate app development methods. Like financial debt, it compounds over time, and paying it off is significantly harder.

Let’s say you build a minimum viable product (MVP) to pitch to investors. It impresses the investors and delivers the fundamental features that users want. However, to add more features or cater to traffic growth, your developers must revamp or restructure the code for scalability.

But that’s not always the case. Some companies choose to add more features to the original codebase instead of rewriting it. Usually, they cite cost as a reason for not rebuilding the app with a proper and more sustainable approach. Eventually, the quick fix turned into a looming problem they must face.

Unmanaged technical debt can affect business operations, customer satisfaction, and employee morale. Moreover, dealing with technical debt is more expensive as time passes. For example, developers must rewrite more functions from scratch and run more tests as the app becomes more complicated.

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Technical debt types

The first step to managing technical debt is to understand how it was introduced into your software development life cycle.

technical debt types

Intentional tech debt

As implied, these technical debts were the result of developers' deliberate actions. For example, they compromised on code security, hardcoded certain configurations, or omitted certain features to complete the app on time. As long as developers document and revisit the debts, the risk is manageable.

Unintentional tech debt

These technical debts manifest unknowingly to developers and are often a result of circumstances. For example, if an entry-level developer is tasked with complex development, bugs might occur because they lack skill and experience. Detecting unintentional tech debt is more challenging but possible if you have a robust software QA process.

Environmental tech debt

This type of technical debt accrues because of changes in circumstances beyond the developer’s control. For example, updates to operating systems, partial redesign, and vendor dependencies might require updating an app. As long as the changes are communicated properly, you can plan how to manage the technical debt without impacting operations.

Technical debt examples

Most founders might be unaware of the root causes of tech debt. Below, I share several causes you need to be mindful of.

technical debt management
  • Legacy code. If you reuse outdated codes, there is a risk of incompatibility with other tech stacks in subsequent upgrades. Besides, legacy codes might also be vulnerable to emerging cyber threats.
  • Insufficient testing. Without passing the required testing phases, bugs are shipped together with the production release.
  • Hard-coded values. Rather than allowing users to configure certain parameters, developers assign fixed values to the code. Changing the value is only possible by rewriting the source code.
  • Outdated libraries and dependencies. Some third-party vendors might cease support to the resources your app depends on.
  • Lack of documentation or outdated one can result in continuity issues when a new dev team takes over and maintains a project.
  • Suboptimal architecture. In some circumstances, developers circumvent best practices to deliver the app quickly without ensuring a solid architecture.
  • Inconsistent coding standards. Codes written without adhering to a standard convention can be difficult to read and maintain.
  • Deferred upgrades. Postponing necessary code clean-ups and patching only increases the complexity of doing so later.
  • Tightly coupled components. High interdependency between software modules can make the app difficult to modify.
  • Accumulated bug debt. Failure to promptly resolve bugs results in an unstable app that negatively impacts customer satisfaction.

The impacts of technical debt on business

Businesses must manage technical debt immediately or as planned. Delays or ignoring technical debt can severely affect business continuity and growth. Here’s why.

Dissatisfied users and loss of revenue

Accumulated tech debt results in bug-filled apps and a disappointing user experience. The more ingrained the tech debt, the harder it is to fix the bugs. A prolonged delay in stabilizing the app will cause users to cancel their subscriptions, which could put the company at a financial loss.

Longer development cycles

Developers might spend more time focusing on understanding disorganized codes instead of implementing new features. For startups, every hour spent standardizing the code can delay product completion.

Increased staffing needs

Founders and managers may find themselves needing a larger software development team to cope with the additional workload. Hiring additional developers will further increase business expenses and reduce profitability. Alternatively, you can consider outsourcing to remote developers to save hiring costs.

Lower productivity

Your developers will be overwhelmed with bad codes, security issues, and other tech debts, which will affect their morale. With their hands full, they will have no time to work on new projects.

Limited innovation

Any innovative ideas you have in the pipeline will also come to a halt because of limited resources. Until your developers have resolved severe tech debts affecting business outcomes, you can’t compete in the market with new, innovative solutions.

Potential security problems

If severe tech debts affect app security, you could be at risk of cyber-attacks and data breaches. This will result in loss of trust, reputational damage, and potential fines from authorities.

Check our guide where we explain how to build secure mobile apps and how to do it right.

How to Identify Technical Debt

You can’t pay off technical debts unless you know what they are. Otherwise, you’ll be in the dark, wondering why apps keep crashing and revenue takes a hit. To effectively manage technical debts, you need to identify and measure them.

technical debt management

Tech Debt Recognition Techniques

Often, developers can identify signs of tech debts when building the app through these methods.

Code review

Implementing code review in your software development process helps improve code quality and identify bad coding practices. For example, developers can identify duplicate codes, lengthy functions, and insecure methods through peer programming or code-reviewing tools.

User feedback

If you’re getting unusually high numbers of bug reports or negative feedback, you could be witnessing signs of tech debts. Some of the sights might be evident post-launch, while some could manifest after certain updates.

App performance

The way your app behaves in testing and production can reveal the level of tech debts accrued. For example, degrading loading speed, latency, and other performance issues hint at tech debts that require immediate attention.

Metrics to Measure Technical Debt

To plan technical debt management strategically, you need to quantify the debts. These metrics help.

Code complexity

Code complexity helps developers measure the effort required to understand, modify, and maintain a particular codebase. It involves analyzing code branches, structures, interdependencies, and other coding elements.

Code churn

Code churn quantifies how many parts or the entire code base has changed within a specific period. A high churn rate draws attention to potential instability and lack of effective code reuse.

Defect ratio

The defect ratio indicates how fast your team is resolving known bugs compared to newly reported ones. A high ratio shows developers are struggling to fix bugs, which can affect the app’s stability.

Code coverage

Code coverage provides an overview of how much of a codebase has been tested. A low coverage means there is a higher chance of undetected bugs slipping through to the production release.

Technical debt ratio

The technical debt ratio (TDR) compares the effort spent resolving existing technical debts to that spent on building the software itself.

mobile app security

Strategic Approaches to Managing Technical Debt

If you've always prioritized development speed over quality, you risk accumulating technical debt, whether intentionally or not. Signs like increasing customer complaints, app instability, or decreasing productivity indicate that tech debt is affecting your business growth.

Ideally, you’ll want to prevent as many tech debts as possible. However, as you strive to accelerate the development timeline, you might need to compromise certain coding practices and temporarily allow some debts.

We share both approaches below.

Technical Debt Preventive Measures

Awareness is key to preventing technical debts. Instead of responding to code issues post-release, it’s better to establish a standard development framework and coding practices from the start. Every team member should be aware of what constitutes acceptable coding standards to avoid discrepancies and misalignment.

Adopting the right development approach also helps eliminate tech debts. Rather than applying changes in numbers, you can break them into smaller tasks with Agile. Agile is a development methodology that lets developers continuously improve an app based on customer feedback. At Uptech, we apply Agile so we can iterate changes quickly without destabilizing the app.

Prioritization of Existing Debt

Not all technical debts require immediate resolution. Neither is it practical because companies face time and resource constraints. For example, some tech debts affect the customer experience and require prompt action. Meanwhile, you can put off others to make way for changing trends, satisfying customer requests, and capitalizing on market opportunities.

To visualize debt priorities, you can use a quadrant that pits impacts against urgency. Place each tech debt identified into one of the four quadrants. Then, focus on those that are highly urgent and greatly impacting business outcomes.

How to Reduce Technical Debt: 5 Key Steps

Chances are, you’ve acquired a number of technical debts, and you need ways to reduce them. Here’s how.

how to reduce technical debt

1. Refactoring

Refactoring is the process of gradually rewriting your codebase without changing the application’s functionality. When applied in your software development process, refactoring helps remove technical debts before they grow more complicated.

Besides, refactoring also improves code readability and maintainability. Developers have different coding styles. When refactoring, they remove redundancies, optimize functions, and standardize coding conventions to improve code quality.

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2. Automated Testing

Testing throughout the entire development stage helps identify and resolve bugs. Conducting automated tests also allows developers to detect performance bottlenecks, code vulnerabilities, and other non-compliances with coding standards. From our experience, the cost of resolving bugs and coding issues in production is multiple times greater than in the testing phase.

3. Continuous Integration and Deployment

Continuous integration and deployment (CI/CD) apply automated technologies to streamline code changes, testing, and deliveries. They ensure that end users always have access to a stable product version while allowing DevOps teams to push through changes quickly. This way, companies can minimize tech debt while accelerating app development.

4. Product management

Often, tech debts often occur because of communication gaps between different stakeholders. For example, development teams fail to consider the actual user needs, resulting in costly rework later on. Therefore, we strongly recommend conducting user research in the discovery phase and tracking changes with an adaptable roadmap.

5. Documentation

Despite the efforts to write simpler codes, you still can’t overlook documentation. Documenting software modules, including individual functions, reduces the risk of misunderstanding when a developer works on someone else’s code.

Building a Culture to Manage Technical Debt

Companies can better manage technical debt sustainability through a collective effort among stakeholders and developers. Rather than being reactive to the repercussions, it’s better to promote awareness of tech debt through an organization-wide culture.

Team Training

Inadequate technological knowledge and skills can contribute to technical debts. Therefore, ensure your development teams are exposed to the latest best practices, technological trends, threats, and other influencing factors through regular workshops and training.

Incorporate Debt Discussions in Agile Processes

If you’ve been holding Agile sprint meetings, make it a practice to discuss potential technical debts and ways to mitigate them at each session. Identify the trade-offs that developers must make to meet pressing timelines. More importantly, discuss measures to prevent compounding tech debts over subsequent iterations.

Encourage Open Communication

Don’t shy away from weighing the pros and cons of decisions when building an app, particularly if it means trading quality for speed. Encourage developers to exchange opinions, recommend solutions, and provide feedback to overcome tech debts.

Some founders find cultivating the right mindset to manage tech debt challenging, which is why they outsource their app development to a reliable partner.

Leverage Technical Experience

Startups can reduce technical debt by engaging experienced developers to lead their projects. This is especially critical in the design phase, where critical decisions are required to set the app’s technological foundation. Some founders hire entry-level developers to save costs, but the move eventually backfires, resulting in substantial tech debts.

Tools and Resources for Managing Technical Debt

Managing technical debts is a complex process that requires analyzing, monitoring, and responding to code inefficiencies, vulnerabilities, and other concerns. Often, it’s better to engage experienced developers like Uptech to manage technical debt. That said, you can simplify and automate a small part of the process with appropriate tools. For example:

  • SonarQube helps your team deliver cleaner code by analyzing and providing actionable metrics in minutes.
  • Crucible is a code review application that allows team members to discuss, implement, and unify code changes.
  • Coverity Scan is a static analysis tool that identifies defects in codes. It supports multiple languages, including Java, C# and Ruby.
  • Linters are tools that detect code errors, adherence to coding standards, security concerns, and other coding issues. For example, developers use StandardJS for static analysis and Prettier for coding conventions when inspecting Javascript codes.  

How is Aiming for Zero Technical Debt Not Beneficial?

It’s tempting to focus all effort on eliminating technical debt, but companies have little to gain for targeting zero tech debts. Remember, startups need to innovate quickly and be flexible to change. Applying an extremely rigid framework to reduce technical debt reduces your company’s ability to adapt to changes quickly.

Also, remember that not all tech debts carry the same risks. Instead of allocating your entire resource to fixing low-risk debts, it’s better to spend time working on delivering more value to users. Besides, being overzealous in reducing tech debts can limit innovative ideas.

mobile app security

Conclusion

Tech debt is inevitable when you apply, produce, or integrate software technologies into your business. Some tech debts are a conscious decision by developers, while others are the product of circumstances. Either way, unmanaged technical debts can negatively affect user experience, revenue, and business growth.

We’ve shared approaches to prevent and reduce tech debts, including refactoring, automated testing, and documentation. By increasing your team’s awareness, you can identify and manage tech debts to produce high-quality, secure, and maintainable apps.

That said, fully eliminating tech debt was never a good idea. Startups need to balance growth and releasing stable, quality apps. At times, intentional tech debts can spur growth. But the challenge is knowing when to stop before accruing too much tech debts.

Talk to our team to learn how to manage tech debts effectively.

FAQs

How to recognize technical debt?

Obvious signs of impending technical debts are code smells, a term that describes poorly structured code, overly long functions, and non-compliance with coding practices. Recurring bug reports, customer complaints, and performance issues are also signs of accumulated tech debts.

What are the 4 quadrants of technical debt?

Technical debts can be classified based on their urgency and impact. Low urgency and low impact debts pose lesser immediate risks, while high urgency and high impact tech debts require immediate attention.

How to calculate the tech debt ratio?

The tech debt ratio is defined by the cost of fixing bad debt compared to the effort required to build the entire software. You can express the tech debt ratio in time or money spent.

What are the technical debt management activities?

Developers implement refactoring, automated testing, CI/CD, documentation, and other approaches to manage technical debts. Training dev teams and encouraging discussions also allow proactive tech debt mitigation.

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