Measuring and Managing Technical Debt: A Deep Dive

Timothy Joseph
Timothy Joseph | October 18, 2022

Measuring and Managing Technical Debt: A Deep Dive

Technical debt is one of the biggest problems in software testing and quality assurance (QA). Left unchecked, this can hurt companies in the long run, affecting their most critical processes and lowering their return on investment (ROI). So, what is technical debt? How does it happen? And what can you do to manage and mitigate the problems associated with it?

In this blog, we will discuss how to reduce technical debt and everything else you need to know about this topic. Read on to learn more about:

  • What Is Technical Debt?
  • How to Identify Technical Debt?
  • Types of Technical Debt
  • How to Measure Technical Debt?
  • 7 Practical Steps for Avoiding Technical Debt
  • Managing Technical Debt

What Is Technical Debt?

“Technical debt”, in the simplest words, is the extra development work that developers need to accomplish because of mediocre code. This happens when development teams prioritize speedy delivery over quality. While this may seem like a bad practice, it happens all the time because companies or users demand a new function quickly, and a “good enough” code is all the developer can prepare by their deadline. The developer can later come back to it and make improvements.

This poorly made, redundant, or even useless code is called “cruft”, and its short-term benefits may hurt the company’s operations in the long run. It’s analogous to financial debt in that it is accrued to cover a short-term expense. However, as time goes by without you paying the debt, the interest builds up.

  • An Example of Technical Debt

    When the pandemic hit, many companies shifted to remote work. But the transition was abrupt for most, with developers scrambling to create an infrastructure that could handle such a major undertaking. The result was that many digital products and systems were set-up only to serve as band-aid solutions for remote work, especially in processes like cloud migration.

    Because of these, some companies experienced losses when their technical debt started to catch up, forcing them to shell out funds to finance the clean-up before it became unsustainable.

  • What Causes Technical Debt

    Short-term planning of code can cause a build-up of technical debt and impact the end product in the long run. However, short-term planning isn’t all that bad; in fact, it’s necessary when expedited delivery is more important than the smoothness of the functionality. But when developers repeatedly cut corners and neglect to address the unclean code, the company starts accruing technical debt.


The Warning Signs: How to Identify Technical Debt?

Here are a few indications that you’re starting to accrue technical debt:

  • Problematic Codes

    You start seeing more blips in the application, called “code smells”. These are caused by misguided programming, and they are usually subtler than logic errors. Left unchecked, these could result in a crash.

  • Increased Complexity

    As more and more functionalities add up, the code becomes increasingly complicated. This shouldn’t happen in the programming if it’s developed to address all of the needs of a program or product.

  • Bugs in the Product

    A bug is an unexpected error in a product and program. These aren’t technical debt, strictly speaking, but bugs become more common when you factor in rapid development and unclean codes.

  • Issues with the Coding Style

    Overly complex coding styles are a sign of sub-optimal coding. Having a consistent coding style and strictly following it mitigates technical debt.

  • Issues with Non-Functional Requirements (NFR)

    Some codes can violate NFR restraints for the sake of quicker delivery. This can cause issues that leave your system vulnerable to security problems and prone to unreliable results.


Types of Technical Debt

Not all technical debt is the same. There are quite a few types you’ll encounter, though there are four that are the most common:

  • Unintentional Technical Debt

    Also called unplanned technical debt, this issue occurs when a developer adds or changes code to expedite processes. These updates can cause errors, especially if the developer follows poor practices or isn’t experienced in some coding techniques. This also happens in new designs that contain many errors, which can sometimes happen because of unclear communication and misaligned goals between operation teams and company developers.

    To address unintentional technical debt, there must be a standard coding style that the development team follows. In addition, the company must slow down when engineering the system to detect errors early on and avoid miscommunication.

  • Intentional Technical Debt

    Planned, or “intentional” technical debt is something that developers generate deliberately. This happens when they need a quick code to accomplish a task and they’re aware of the risks and consequences that can come with it.

    To address intentional technical debt, you’ll want to keep a record of all of these short-term fixes. That way, you can keep track of your technical debt and address it before it starts to create more issues.

  • Infrastructure Debt

    This is the implied cost of relying on technologies like databases and file systems that aren’t up to date with current technology demands. If these dependencies aren’t addressed and the business transitions to a new infrastructure, then the programs might not function as intended or even function at all.

    To address infrastructure debt, you’ll want to develop and implement infrastructure refresh policies. With these, you’ll have some guidance as to when you’ll need to update your existing technologies as the business landscape or your goals change.

  • Documentation Debt

    Developers must document their code to make maintenance easier and simplify the process of identifying bugs. However, there are times when a developer fails to document their code completely, resulting in documentation debt. If this developer leaves the company, others won’t be able to understand their code.

    The best way to address documentation debt is to encourage programmers to document their code. It also helps to develop code that’s easier to understand and relatively straightforward to avoid too many complications.


How to Measure Technical Debt?

When you know how much technical debt you “owe,” you’ll know how much effort you have to put in to reduce it. Here are a few ways you can measure your current technical debt:

  • Code Quality and Coverage

    You can ask your developers to calculate cyclomatic complexity, which is determined by the number of linearly-independent paths through a program module. They can also evaluate the depth inheritance as well as class coupling. These three metrics should be low; higher numbers indicate a larger amount of technical debt.

  • Bugs

    To determine your level of debt, you’ll also have to check the number of new and closed bugs in your code. With this data, you’ll have a better grasp of how effectively your team is able to eliminate them. In general, the newer bugs you encounter and the fewer you’re able to resolve, the higher your technical debt.

  • Code Churn

    A program’s code churn metric helps you see how many lines of code have changed since you launched it. While these changes are a normal aspect of the development process, higher numbers could indicate more issues that developers needed to address.

  • Measuring the Ratio of Technical Debt

    With the three metrics mentioned above, you’ll have the data to determine your technical debt ratio. This is the cost of restoring your system compared to the cost of its development. Use this information for decision making and planning for future technical debt.


7 Practical Steps to Avoid Technical Debt

Whether you’re a C-suite executive or a software development manager, try the following to eliminate technical debt and avoid accruing excessive technical debt in the future.

  • Integrate Automated Testing

    Automated testing is one of the best software development practices today. With this integration, you can easily identify issues in their early stages. It can also function as a regression suite, allowing programmers to determine when errors happen without manually looking for them.

  • Implement Practices of Code Review

    You’ll want to establish a process where engineers can asynchronously review code before it’s accepted into the mainline. This allows them to find bugs and performance issues, and it also fosters an exchange of knowledge and experiences.

  • Create a Culture of Refactoring

    Refactoring is simply rewriting code without changing its external behavior. This allows you to reduce the complexity of the code and adapt to new technological developments.

  • Adopt Mob or Pair Programming When Necessary

    Pair or mob programming is when two or more people work on a single code at the same time. With this practice, developers can see errors much quicker, produce a simpler design, and exchange insight to create cleaner code.

  • Track the Right Metrics and Improve on Them

    We’ve mentioned some metrics before, such as code churn and code quality. Regularly checking these and taking the steps to improve your scores will help you eliminate technical debt.

  • Tackle Root Causes at the Organizational Level

    Having high technical debt could just be a symptom of a much deeper problem. Your developers could be pressured to create more programs to keep up with demands of customers, they might not have the proper training, or everything’s tagged as urgent. Remedying these organizational issues will reduce your technical debt drastically.

  • Work Closely with the Engineers

    If you listen to the people who are working on your codes, you’ll have a better understanding of what’s wrong and what you can do to help them address it. They can provide suggestions and workarounds that will benefit you in the long run.


Managing Technical Debt

Technical debt is often an unavoidable reality in software development, but that doesn’t mean you should let it build up. It’s important to let your QA team identify, manage, and reduce technical debt to produce high-quality software.

If you need a partner to help you achieve this, you don’t need to look any further than QASource. For more information about our services, pricing, and other matters, contact us today!

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This publication is for informational purposes only, and nothing contained in it should be considered legal advice. We expressly disclaim any warranty or responsibility for damages arising out of this information and encourage you to consult with legal counsel regarding your specific needs. We do not undertake any duty to update previously posted materials.