Leaving some technical debt in the wake speeds software delivery, but the high interest on that debt can mean costly rework and loss of customer satisfaction. Software pros describe five ways to reduce technical debt and the problems it causes.
Technical debt, also known as code debt, is a software programming phenomenon that happens when low-quality or defective code is released in software, or when defects in software are not discovered and fixed quickly. Most often, this occurs in iterative application development when speed of release is valued more than high quality.
Letting defects go unresolved is like not paying off a loan, and the interest builds up, explained Mik Kersten, CEO of Tasktop Technologies, a software lifecycle integration tools vendor in Vancouver, B.C. "You have to pay down that technical debt," he said. Otherwise, a part of the application portfolio is a dead end, and it's going to sink the company with overtime costs needed to do maintenance.
Here are five dos and don'ts for turning the tables on technical debt.
1. Do define best practices for DevOps and adhere to them.
Automating every application lifecycle management process is as important as using automated development tools when it comes to reducing technical debt, advised Michael Irigoyen, software engineer at Accusoft, based in Tampa, Fla., at DeveloperWeek 2017 in San Francisco. "Automate the end-to-end process," he said.
Unfortunately, tooling gets more attention than craftsmanship in software development today, noted Matt Heusser, principal consultant for Excelon Development. Too many software organizations today are buying tools and just dropping them in the development pipeline, rather than creating foundation processes. So, when they end up with a lot of buggy software, they blame the tool.
Enforcing best practices can stop people from taking process shortcuts -- like cutting corners writing code -- that lead to mistakes, said Christopher Tozzi, analyst for Fixate IO in Livermore, Calif. "Doing things the quick-and-dirty way [can create] quick-and-dirty code snippets, which can add up to big technical debt across a large program."
To improve first-time quality and reduce the regression rate, Heusser said DevOps teams must facilitate collaboration between dev and test, improve communication, and develop better coding and testing skills. This can't be done without developing a component architecture and the ability to deploy different components. "It means coming up with meaningful examples in the requirements with something like the three amigos," he said.
Investing in process improvements can be very valuable. At Accusoft, Irigoyen said, regularly scheduled, two-day hackathons give developers time to work on solutions to their own and their peers' process problems. Among other innovations, these sessions have produced methods and tools that help reduce technical debt, such as a log overview and analyzer, a programmed drone that reacts to build failures and a CSS style reference website for UI developers.
2. Do automate all nonvalue work.
Reduce technical debt by streamlining activities that add time and cost to development, but do not add value to the product, Tasktop's Kersten said. Examples can include meeting compliance requirements, doing reports on activities and making handoffs of work from one person to another.
Nonvalue work increases as companies adopt Agile and iterative development. "When you go from nine-month release cycles to four-week iterations, your people have to do the same nonvalue work that they would normally do every nine months in four weeks," Kersten said. Automating all those nonvalue activities is critical to reducing technical debt and speeding DevOps processes.
3. Don't let the flaws in software fester.
Theresa Lanowitzfounder, voke inc.
"The later in software development that a defect is identified or found, the more expensive it is to resolve or remediate the issue," said Theresa Lanowitz, founder of voke inc., which has researched the cost of technical debt and rework in Agile software development and is based in Minden, Nev.
Over 30 years ago, the cost of fixing bugs in production was found to be 1,000 times the cost if it were found in the requirements phase, according to a study by Barry Boehm and Victor Basili. In 2008, an IBM System Science Institute report estimated the cost of discovering software defects after release is 30 times more than catching them before release.
Every defect creates and carries baggage that increases the cost of repair over time. Heusser noted that fixing something right away is faster than getting a customer report, trying to figure it out, debugging, fixing and retesting.
"The other big problem with deferring fixes is the incremental, death by a thousand cuts that happens as the defect tracker fills up," Heusser said. "When a new bug is reported, people have to check the defect tracker to see if it was identified, but marked 'fix-later.' The open defect list begins to look big."
Tozzi pointed out that fixing flaws in production software can’t be done without attracting unwanted attention. Critical updates have to be released, which takes a long time and requires informing users. Also, bottlenecks can occur -- for example, not all users will install updates. In a number of ways, a bug that makes it into production can hurt the provider's reputation.
4. Don't rush through the requirements phase of iterative development.
It's a popular myth that gathering the right requirements is easier in iterative development, Lanowitz said. The Agile development methodology has pushed the defining application requirements to later in the lifecycle. That poor requirements elicitation is a primary cause of rework remains true to this day, she said.
"People think that developing stuff in smaller pieces now means there are fewer and more obvious requirements," Lanowitz said. Instead, users are even more demanding of feature releases, as opposed to monolithic app releases. They use the feature right away and can decide if it works well quickly. Automating testing is a must-have way to reduce technical debt.
5. Do automate testing first to reduce technical debt.
Without automated testing, it's impossible to reduce technical debt and rework in Agile and DevOps projects, experts agreed.
"Automate all the traditional types of tests," Lanowitz said. "It eliminates the overall total number of defects, reduces your test cycle and reduces your overall software cycle."
Businesses' survival today is questionable if leaders don't understand test automation's role in reducing technical debt, experts cited above agreed. Tasktop's Kersten concluded: "Those companies that don't start automating now will get disrupted by the more lean startups."
DevOps success calls for quality
A company that allows technical debt to enable speedy software releases creates a jaded DevOps' culture, Heusser said. "New features are rewarded, and there are not clear consequences for bad code, [if] it doesn't slow you down. The net result is the code base continues to get worse, and there is a great deal of baggage added, which slows down forward progress."
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