Missing the Mark with Technical Debt

Software development has evolved dramatically. Mobile devices significantly changed how business is done and how software is written. An instantly connected world where actionable information flows end-end in near real-time has disrupted industries, catching businesses by surprise. They have two choices: evolve or go extinct.

Fueled by this urgency for change, business has increased pressure on IT leaders to produce more with less, and more importantly, to do it faster. The pressure to deploy new applications and features while maintaining legacy systems is a challenge faced by every IT leader. There is no time to take a breather or call for a moratorium on system deployments or releases. Both these priorities need to be juggled.

Incurring Technical Debt

When it comes to developing software, there are two paths software developers can take. They can ’take their time‘ to design it well, architect and develop it in a manner that makes future changes easier and faster to implement. Or, they can write something ‘quick and dirty’, and deliver the same features in an accelerated time frame knowing that changes and maintenance will be more difficult. Presented with both options, business leaders need a convincing argument to accept higher costs for a clean implementation when a messy solution delivers the same functionality and costs less. Why should they spend money on automated test coverage? There’s no immediate business value in automated test cases! Inevitably, the ‘quick and dirty’ solution is often the path that’s taken – and technical debt is incurred.

The Value of Technical Debt

Technical debt is often viewed negatively. It should not be. Compare technical debt to financial debt. Financial debt is often viewed as a strategic move, often used to strengthen the company, grow rapidly and acquire market share. It can be argued that technical debt is similar to financial debt. Sometimes it makes sense to write ‘spaghetti code’ and deliver features for the sake of making rapid progress and meeting customer/market needs. You want your competition to always be trying to catch up to you, and delivering features and product rapidly can help you keep your edge.

Missing the Mark

The key issue is how businesses manage this technical debt. Just like financial debt, technical debt becomes a major risk when it’s incurred without a strategy. At some point progress starts becoming expensive if all code needs to be re-worked and isn’t scalable.

While technical debt isn’t necessarily a bad thing, ignoring it will eventually manifest itself in the form of numerous issues. Classic symptoms of unattended technical debt are: reduced development velocity, bugs making it to production and unstable releases. All of these lead to a stressful working environment. This in turn creates friction within the organization where everyone looks for a scapegoat. Many organizations have fallen apart due to the erosion of trust between IT and business leaders due to the mismanagement of technical debt.

Unchecked technical debt opens up the door for competitors to overtake the business. Once the issues are bad enough to allow competitors an edge, dealing with technical debt becomes a business decision and often, it’s too late. It is critical that both business and IT leaders are involved in the strategic ‘pay down’ of technical debt.

Managing Technical Debt

Successful IT leaders are recognizing the importance of balancing business needs with technical excellence. They recognize that there is a time and place for the various approaches and standards, and that it is necessary to have a dynamic approach to delivering the needs of the business. In fact, one could argue that if you have no technical debt, you’re likely missing business opportunities.

It is important to recognize that in the future, time and resources have to be allocated to paying off technical debt. Having a strategy and sticking to it can keep you from missing the mark.

Putting Technical Debt to Work

There are several best practices when it comes to managing technical debt. One approach is to invest in incremental updates, where a certain percentage of ‘technical backlog’ is addressed during each release. An alternative approach is integrating structural changes into future major feature releases. This approach works well, when a new, exciting initiative, such as a implementing a Mobile App, invigorates the technology team to pay down some of the technical debt in parallel. Regardless of the approach, a pure refactoring effort with no new features or business value being delivered will be a hard sell to the business.

Effective management of technical debt is cost-efficient when competent development partners like 10Pearls are involved, especially when your customers are demanding innovative solutions. Working in tandem with existing internal technology teams or working independently to scale delivery, development partners can help reduce risk and stay ahead. The 10Pearls team is proud to be working with growing, disruptive businesses who are not only efficiently managing technical debt, but leveraging it to rapidly scale their business and overtake the competition.