Balancing Act: Managing Technical Debt in Software Development

Effective strategies for managing technical debt in software development, focusing on code refactoring, scalability, and leadership.

Managing technical debt in software development is crucial for achieving rapid forward progress while keeping your software scalable, maintainable, and stable. This article will help you understand the concept of technical debt, how it’s measured, and how to make sure it enables future growth, rather than stifling your business.

What is Technical Debt?

Technical debt is a concept in software development that occurs when a team chooses a quick or easy solution now, instead of a better approach that would take longer. Just like financial debt, this shortcut saves time in the short term but can lead to more work or problems later on. As the software evolves, this ‘debt’ accumulates and can make changes more difficult and time-consuming, often requiring extra effort (such as extensive code refactoring) to ‘pay off’ the debt by fixing or improving the earlier shortcuts.

Managing technical debt in software development is a trade-off between immediate progress and potential future issues, similar to how taking out a loan can help you immediately but comes with the need to pay it back with interest later.

Accumulating Technical Debt Should Be Intentional and Strategic

There’s some ideal amount of technical debt in every situation, and it’s almost never zero. Much like financial debt, technical debt is not always a negative thing; it’s just another resource to leverage, which comes with advantages and disadvantages. In order to make conscious strategic decisions about technical debt, you have to be aware of when you’re taking it on, know what the cost will be to pay it down later, and put in the time and work to pay it off.

How to Measure Technical Debt

Technical debt is complex and can manifest itself in many different ways. No single metric can really paint the full picture, but there are several individual metrics that can be useful:

  • Number of outstanding bugs that impact users. This would typically be compiled from a project tracking system like Jira or ClickUp by your project manager(s).
  • Technical debt multiplier. This is a subjective measure of how much longer it would take to change or add code compared to a perfect, clean code base. For example, a multiplier of 1.5 would mean that everything takes 1.5 times longer in the code than it would if the debt was zero.
  • Test coverage. This measures how much of the code is tested by the automated tests. Coverage of 80% is generally considered a minimum for stable, mature production systems. Full 100% coverage can be so difficult and costly to maintain that it’s rarely worth it in the real world.

Developer estimates. Ask the developers who work in the code how much it sucks to work with on a scale of 1 to 10. This generally provides a highly reliable holistic picture of code-based health but obviously gives you less actionable information. It can be most useful to assess progress over time or to measure progress before and after a tech debt paydown initiative.

Managing Technical Debt in the Startup Stage

Most startups begin taking on technical debt immediately. In the early stages of a new operation, budgets tend to be extremely tight, and timelines can be aggressive. Development teams are generally very small and have to work as quickly as they can.

This early stage debt can be managed by:

  • Ensuring that the key roles on your project are filled. Critical roles are often missing from the team, which can create situations where developers have to do everything. Rather than having developers do every job or work unsupported, bring in part-time contractors to help leverage their time as effectively as possible.
  • Building the absolute minimum necessary. Spend as little as you can to validate your hypotheses about what problems your users have and whether or not they’ll buy your solution. Having a well-defined minimum viable product (MVP) will ensure that cost is kept to a minimum. Shifting priorities creates predictable problems for product development teams; maintaining focus on the MVP across all business stakeholders will help keep work moving forward without guesswork about which features might help sales. Scope drift can be lethal to young startups!

These steps ensure that you’re taking on debt that is predictable and won’t hurt too much later. Let’s explore this concept in more detail.

Predictable Technical Debt vs. Unpredictable Technical Debt

Ideally, the technical debt you take on can be solved relatively easily as part of future initiatives. For example, by definition, building an MVP means building a product that is only functional enough to validate your hypotheses. It’s not ready for full commercial scale, which might mean implementing better security measures, setting up new cloud infrastructure, or improving usability. That work can all be easily predicted in advance by an experienced team, which means it can be scoped and budgeted with confidence.

This is Predictable Technical Debt, and it’s much easier to manage while maintaining your forward momentum.

Compare this to the technical debt of a tangled, messy code base as a result of rapid shifts in direction and unrealistic pressure on the team. Fundamental problems in code or architecture can be unpredictable and surprising. Fixing them often means pausing all work on new features and functionality that would allow the business to grow. This is Unpredictable Technical Debt, and it can be devastating for small businesses.

The best way to manage technical debt in software development is to be conscious and intentional in your product development strategy. If you need the support of seasoned experts to help start or scale your software project, reach out to us to talk more!