Technical Debt

There are a lot of articles explaining what technical dept is, so why another one? A lot of smart people has written about it (see the references at the end of the post). Despite of this, technical debt seems to be a hot topic over and over again and here I put my two cents in.

I like Eric Allman’s article Managing Technical Debt. My favorite quote from it is:

Technical debt is inevitable.

Some may find this statement a bit controversial. I had my own successes and failures in trying to manage the technical debt. My experience shows that one can avoid technical debt for small and simple projects only. However, nowadays we often work on large and complex projects. As a result we start our projects with insufficient understanding about them which in turn naturally leads to acquiring technical debt.

Lets define what technical debt is. Usually technical debt is defined as bad coding practices and “dirty hacks” that patch the software product instead of building it. Most of time the technical debt is attributed to lazy and/or inexperienced software developers. Often the reasons for acquiring technical debt are project specific but the most common are project cost, short deadlines, lack of experienced software engineers and so on.

A lot of managers and software developers are afraid of taking technical debt. I don’t think technical debt is a scary thing in case it is well-managed. The well-managed technical debt could save time and money. Today customers buy features, they are usually not interested in maintaining the source code. Shipping the right set of features on time can be a huge win for everyone.

It is all about the risks and managing technical debt. Unmanaged technical debt can be devastating. It tends to accumulate until you cannot pay it back. Every effort to maintain and/or extend the source code becomes harder. Eventually it slows the project and in the worst case the project is cancelled.

Sometimes acquiring technical debt cannot be observed or predicted. One can take technical debt intentionally or unintentionally. Unintentional technical debt could be dangerous if remains unnoticed for a long time. Intentional technical debt also can be dangerous if the risks taken are high. Martin Fowler provides a practical decision making approach when to take technical debt (see the references).

Common practices that help for better technical debt management are:

  • experienced software developers on the team
  • reasonable ship date/deadline
  • short release cycles
  • automate as many as possible simple-but-tedious tasks
  • spread knowledge across the team/remove one-person-bottlenecks

In closing, I think well-managed technical debt is a good thing. As every debt it allows you to do important things right now and pay the cost later. Consequences from bad technical debt are yet another reason to improve our skills in technical debt managements.

References:

  1. Ward Cunningham, The WyCash Portfolio Management System
  2. Steve McConnell, Technical Debt
  3. Martin Fowler, Technical Debt Quadrant
  4. Eric Allman, Managing Technical Debt
  5. Wikipedia, Technical Dept

 

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