What is Tech Debt and How Can You Solve for It?

Alec Cargin

6 min read

Jul 7, 2021

What is Tech Debt and How Can You Solve for It?

As much as we hate to admit it, we’ve all had to deal with the ever-increasing laundry pile. You rush through your day, from work to dinner to being just flat out too tired to deal with it. Pretty soon, the pile is a mountain and you need an outfit. 

You have two choices: the quick and easy one where you just grab some of the cleanest clothes you can find and spritz them with some Febreeze or the longer option of actually washing, drying, and folding the entire pile. 

One will save you time but isn’t sustainable for the long run while the other takes longer but sets you up for future success (at least in the sartorial sense). Now, imagine that dirty pile of laundry is your codebase and you’re pretty close to understanding the term technical debt, or tech debt. 

So, what exactly is Tech Debt?

Tech debt (or code debt) refers to the amount of refactoring work you’ll need to do in the future because of the corners that were cut in the name of speed over quality. Don’t confuse the word debt to think it has to do with financial debt or monetary debt. The technical debt metaphor simply means when a workload is created, this debt load is then referred to as tech debt.  

Though tech debt is often accumulated with the best of intentions—think the pressure of meeting a strict deadline—these shortcuts will often create problems in the future and restrain your progress when it comes time to implement new features and enhance functionality.

Tech debt can come about in a number of ways. 

Not all tech debt is created equally and it’s sometimes necessary to accrue some debt to keep projects moving. More often than not, technical debt grows as a result of choices made by the development team such as:

Development without established design

This is considered a “bad up-front definition.” While coding before the design stage is complete will get you started earlier, much of this work will be refactored later to match designs and requirements. That’s why Design Thinking is critical in your development process and can be used to help avoid any tech or design debt.  

Manual testing instead of automated testing 

Tech debt can show its ugly head as countless hours are spent testing your code manually. Combat this with automated testing, instead, which ensures your existing code is functioning properly without having to spend all your time running through every possible case. 

Merging different branches of code that were developed separately 

Parallel development will ultimately require a merger into a single codebase. Every change made in one area will add to the work needed to merge branches. 

Consequences of Tech Debt

Tech debt can plague a business and its goals in a few ways. The first is time. Just like the youngest child of any family, tech debt loves itself some attention. And since all code changes add to the existing debt, the more changes and implementations you make, the more time your devs will have to spend on breaking it down. All this is time that your team could spend on advancing the project. 

Technical debt also preys on businesses financially. Let’s look at an example of a project with more debt than there is time to handle it. At this point, you really only have two options. 

Option one, you get everything running smoothly at a high level, but the extra time you spent handling the debt caused you to miss your deadline. Now you have an upset client or missed your window to launch. 

Option two? Release the code with its persistent bugs and defects and deal with unhappy users, system outages, and a draining of your resources.  

Neither option is fit for good business. But since you’re here, you’re on track to handle your company’s tech debt before you’re ever faced with this decision. 

Unfortunately, the only “real” way to solve for tech debt is to, well, solve for it. Usually a tiresome process with plenty of code refactoring, there’s really no way around existing tech debt other than coding again and doing it better than before.

But, if you’re starting a project, how can you best avoid it, to begin with? 

How to Avoid Tech Debt 

Avoiding or managing technical debt is important for each business. Tech debt does a lot of things to a business, but one thing it doesn’t do is discriminate. Whether you’re a startup eager to reach the market and acquire users or a giant in the industry trying to add new features to old code, tech debt will be looming behind every decision you make.

A company would rarely ever need to completely pay off all tech debt, but you do need a plan in place to prevent it from getting to damaging levels. From avoiding bad code to evaluating code quality to managing technical debt, there are ways to avoid significant technical debt.

Here’s how: 

Evaluate the current scope of your sprints.

Factor in the current debt, if it already exists, and decide if the velocity of each sprint should be pulled back to allow more time to chip away at existing debt, handle new debt, or some combination of the two. Depending on what works best for your team, either set aside some portion of each sprint to handle that sprint’s debt or devote an entire sprint to handling tech debt.

Establish a clear definition of “done” for your work and a baseline for code quality.

When evaluating code quality, several methods can be implemented including peer coding reviews, documentation rules, debugger tools, and automated tests. If you’re interested in improving code quality and could use some help, check out our blogs on How We Make Sure Our Code Meets Our High Standards and Why ‘Good Enough’ Isn’t Good Enough for Our Clients.   

Consider implementing code audits.

At Big Nerd Ranch, we often partner with companies to assist with digital product development. At times, we are expected to enter seamlessly into the flow of an ongoing project, and we can’t let technical debt prevent us from progressing. 

We achieve this seamless transition through code audits, which serve as our “tech debt dogs,” dedicated to sniffing out pre-existing issues. Code audits are a detailed and comprehensive breakdown of source code usually following a three-step process moving from a front-end code review to the backend and finally reviewing the infrastructure. They unveil bugs and bad code while also familiarizing our team with all logic and documentation, saving an estimated 33 hours of work per every hour spent in an audit. 

Technical debt can be harmful to the efficiency of your team and the quality of your product. Like other problems, though, there is always a solution. Start incorporating technical debt into your sprint planning and implementing code audits to get a grip on tech debt before you have to sacrifice any more unnecessary work or money on tech debt throughout your development processes. 

The Nerds Can Squash Your Tech Debt  

Need some help getting ahead of your project’s technical debt? Here at the ranch, we provide detailed code audits, excellent developers, experienced project strategists, and the highest quality code to ensure your project is never hindered by technical debt. We’d love to help you get out in front of your debt as soon as possible. Reach out today and you can kiss your project’s tech debt goodbye.

Josh Justice

Reviewer Big Nerd Ranch

Josh Justice has worked as a developer since 2004 across backend, frontend, and native mobile platforms. Josh values creating maintainable systems via testing, refactoring, and evolutionary design, and mentoring others to do the same. He currently serves as the Web Platform Lead at Big Nerd Ranch.

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