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Technical debt accumulates when development teams cut too many corners to expedite a feature or software release delivery. The concept of trying to complete a project as quickly as possible often creates problems that must be fixed in the future.
Technical debt can cascade beyond development teams to the processes, platforms and IT ops teams that drive core business operations, such as manufacturing, order fulfillment, shipping and customer support.
Countering technical debt is critical as organizations continue to adjust longstanding development and business processes to meet the challenges of the pandemic. Explore common technical debt examples and how to best manage and remediate technical debt across a project portfolio.
Technical debt examples
Technical debt occurs in many ways, but here are six examples:
1. Poor software code quality
The most apparent technical debt is poor-quality software code. There are many reasons behind poor code quality, such as the following:
- developers who are anxious to use the latest tools despite the project having no business case for the tool;
- lack of documented coding standards for developers; and
- ad hoc or nonexistent developer onboarding and training.
Other factors include time pressures that mount with poor scheduling or when developers must rewrite outsourced code. These examples can raise technical debt to critical levels.
2. Ill-equipped IT leadership
People contribute to technical debt through poor IT leadership. The evolution of cloud and containerization trends moves rapidly and can quickly bypass customers' and leadership teams' understanding. This means that organizations often adopt unnecessary tools or make decisions that they don't fully understand, which creates technical debt.
3. Pandemic and remote work
The rapid move to remote work due to COVID-19 introduced an amalgam of technical debt that includes security, infrastructure and processes. The majority of pandemic-based technical debt could not be avoided, as organizations had to adjust as quickly as possible. The move to remote work also affected enterprise cloud strategies by speeding up cloud migrations. Internal cloud initiatives sped up, and IT ops teams cut corners to keep business users effective, layering on even more technical debt. Shortcuts have the potential to rack up technical debt that rivals code-based debt.
4. No documentation
A lack of technical documentation, especially about project code and infrastructure, is often a technical debt source. Technical documentation is easy to ignore or shortchange, especially on projects with a tight budget. But resolving documentation-based technical debt isn't about throwing technical writers at the problem. Instead, organizations should bring documentation into their DevOps culture and automate documentation in development workflows. Managers must also hold employees accountable for the documentation related to their roles.
5. Job security through obscurity
A lack of collaboration is a significant cause of technical debt. Job security through obscurity is another problem that occurs when a programmer, engineer or sys admin doesn't share job-related information with co-workers. Whether information isolation is simply the nature of a particular role or a result of individual intentions, teams might not even realize that knowledge is getting lost over time. Any IT staff with full control over a process must be responsible for maintaining documentation for it; even if the resource is not widely shared, it should exist.
6. Insufficient software testing
Testing software is another easy corner to cut that never ends well. Such technical debt is common in organizations that lack quality assurance support and have yet to implement DevOps, which provides automated testing options.
How to stop technical debt -- but not all the way
Surprisingly, there are some positive uses for technical debt. If IT ops teams go into projects with a plan to manage it, accruing some technical debt can help organizations reach crucial deadlines.
For example, managing technical debt can help IT ops teams build a minimum viable product to demo to a potential investor or customer. Organizations can also use well-managed technical debt to create a placeholder for future features or costs that must be deferred for budget reasons.
Getting technical debt under control starts with having development and operations teams recognize that debt in the project portfolio.
Once IT ops teams identify signs of technical debt, create a plan and set a schedule to start paying off that debt. Include coding standards and accompanying developer training as part of that plan.
In addition, stakeholders, project managers and developers must collaborate on prioritizing tasks to define the future state of software delivery for an organization. Once priorities are set, and IT ops teams have taken stock of the code, branch the codebase to launch technical debt remediation efforts.
Remediating and managing enterprise software technical debt must become a part of an organization's formal project plans and development team culture to meet challenges while moving projects forward.