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Technical Debt: How companies can manage them effectively

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With fast-paced technology, advancements come with the increasing pressure that organizations often confront while keeping up with the new IT trends, capabilities, updates, innovations and market expectations.

However, at times when the organization needs an immediate technological solution, the IT teams feel bound to make certain short-term system-architecture and programming decisions, leading to technology-debt. It may sound like a financial term to you but technology debt as a concept can prove to be a little complex for the non-IT people.

Let’s look at a situation for instance. Software developers often face a specific timeline within which they are asked to deliver an overall software product or complete a particular technical project. During this phase, the developers or the IT teams focus more on completing the product/project on time while ignoring some of the necessary technical aspects that should ideally be included in the finished product/project. 

So, basically, technical or technology debt is the price that organizations need to pay for adopting short-term technical fixes, which create hindrances for future developments and improvements in the product or the project. 

Technical debt – How and why it came to be?

Creating a completely perfect and clean software product, IT system or an app requires the kind of coding and design that allows for easy implementation of future innovations and iterations, driving strategic technological agility. But at the same time, the developers or the IT team often have to work under tight deadlines, within which they are expected to complete and deliver the software product or IT project.

In certain cases, they might as well lack the ability to attain that technical excellence. It’s obvious that with limited time, capacity and resources, one can do only as much! This is where the concept of technical debt comes to the forefront.

The company, IT teams, and developers tend to invite technical debt when they compromise on the elements of a perfect product for the sake of timely delivery. While sometimes it becomes urgent to incur technical debt, but the company CTOs should take an informed decision about how much debt can the company carry or deal with in the future.

So basically, when software developers need to add a new capability in an existing software or build a new product, they sometimes have to choose the easier route of sloppy designs and codes, which get faster results, over the tougher route of clean designs and perfect codes, simply because it takes a lot more time, effort and expertise.

Ward Cunningham, one of the founders of Agile programming was the first to discuss the concept of Technical Debt in the early 1990s. According to the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, “technical debt conceptualizes the trade-off between the short-term benefit of rapid delivery and long-term value.” As per Gartner’s perspectives ‘technical debt can be defined as the deviation of an application from any non-functional requirements.’

How serious is the problem of Technical Debt?

When the IT team or the developers choose to put better coding and necessary technical elements on the back burner for timely delivery, they incur technical debt, which often hinders future innovations and product development. Ideally, the IT team needs to address these technical issues as early as possible to avoid a situation wherein the accumulated technical debt would add to the company’s operating and IT costs and delay the much-required innovation and product capabilities.

Unattended and collected technical debt leads to software entropy and with the passage of time, it becomes difficult to be dealt with as the IT fails to update these flawed systems, blocking strategic digital transformation.  

Today, technical debt has become one of the major concerns for C-suite executives. It has proved to be not just another technical challenge but also a blockage to business progress. These are some of the facts gathered by the Accenture survey that included more than 1000. IT and non-IT C-level executives:

  • 70% of them agreed that technical debt severely limits their IT function’s ability to innovate 
  • 72% of them said that it greatly limits their ability to migrate to new technologies 
  • 69% mentioned that it makes their IT function much less responsive to changes in the market 
  • 67% of executives said they would like to replace all of their core legacy systems

Simply put, most corporate leaders are eager to enjoy the best of both worlds – advantages and agility offered by the new IT technologies to embrace new situations with ease while maintaining the convenience of the legacy systems. 

Top 5 ways CTOs can deal with and manage Technical Debt

Acknowledge that there is technical debt:

The first step to dealing with technical debt is to acknowledge its presence and the sense of urgency to manage it for good to avoid any future IT repercussions. Once you realize the risks it induces, you will start working towards mitigating them by coming up with a plan to clean clumsy codes and design issues to ensure that aspects like product innovations, IT productivity, executive performance, and business costs are not hampered.

First of all, understand and read the warning signs that signify the presence of technical debts, such as code bloat that impacts overall performance quality, high levels of complexity due to technology-overlap, product bugs that can lead to system crash, issues with coding style and so on. 

Identify the type of technical debt

It’s important to know the type of technical debt that is present and categorize the same to take the right measures to manage it. There are 3 basic types of technical debts:

a) Planned technical debt – wherein the company is aware of the consequences and risks and make an informed decision about incurring technical debt in order to get the more important work done before taking care of the perfection in technical aspects.

In this case, the IT team ideally have a plan or strategy to contain the risks,

b) Unintentional technical debt – this type of technical debt happens for adopting poor IT and coding practices or a design approach that is full of errors.

This generally occurs due to inefficient communication or misaligned goals between operations and development, and c) Unavoidable technical debt – This kind of technical debt is incurred when the business undergoes changes or the technology progresses over time that makes it inevitable to cater to the new technical requirements that make the old design or coding, obsolete. 

Be realistic in tracking your technical debt:

Although it is difficult to calculate your technical debt through certain metrics, it is imperative to have a specific process that will help you to track the accumulation, age and impact of your technical debt.

Start by having a list of all your technical debts, make a note of the consequences for ignoring these technical aspects, make a list of all the delayed technical tasks and schedule a workable timeline to address those loopholes, and ensure to keep this list including all the parameters always visible to your entire team.

Whenever the IT or developers teamwork on correcting the technical debt, it is advisable to keep all the departments aware of the product’s feature updates. Schedule a specific time to pay off the technical debt with consistency.

Take calculative measures to mitigate its effects:

Based on your business requirements, IT priorities, customer expectations and cost factors, decide the measures that will be apt and reliable to mitigate the risks of technical debt. Assess the true cost of your technical debt. Explore and analyze the usefulness of activities like refactoring for decreasing the complexities, eliminating duplicity and improving the code-structure without changing the core nature of the program.

Decide if you need to waive the requirement of eliminating the technical debt, if not, consider processes replacement of the application/software or some other ways like digital decoupling. Calculate the monetary value that can be derived from clearing these technical debts and perform a cost-benefit analysis. Ensure to communicate your ideas, timeline to clear technical debts, finding and solutions to the rest of the organization.

Adopt agile practices to reduce technical debt:

Adopting an Agile programming approach reduces the impact of technical debt to a large extent. Agile IT environments allow the scope of iterations and innovations based on new requirements and product development necessities due to the entrance of new technologies.

Working in an Agile setup allows the IT guys and developers to fix bugs and issues in an ongoing manner. Although it reduces the scope of a specific release, it ensures quality work and embraces increments to stay on top of technical debts.

Agile methodologies like test automation and Continuous Integration (CI) enables the IT team to solve one problem at a time with efficiency and consistency, which removes the chances of accumulating technical debt in the long run. The adoption of weekly sprints will allow the IT team to clean up previous technical errors and outdated assumptions.

Technical debt and its longstanding dangers are for real and it’s important for business leaders to accept the fact that it causes more damage than short-term convenience. Just like we hide all the mess under the couch when a guest suddenly arrives at our house to just create a false impression of cleanliness, technical debt too works in the same fashion.

Ultimately, the sooner we clean up the accumulated technical errors, the better it is for the entire organization and its future growth. The best way is to talk about technical debt at the very beginning of a project and to figure out a plan to clean it up within a timeline to ensure that the business ROI is not hampered in any way.


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