If you’re in the software development industry, chances are you have heard of technical debt. Well, chances are you’re dealing with technical debt. Things like maintaining existing code or refactoring monolithic applications are just a few of the implied activities resulting from existing tech debt that you might be familiar with.

zero technical debt hero

Simply put, technical debt is all the coding you have to redo tomorrow because of the shortcuts you took yesterday.

If you’re like me, just imagining the possibility of having to redo some of the existing code might give you the chills. From considering all the tests that must be done to ensure the application will behave as expected to understand the existing and “old” code probably implemented years ago by different people, I’m already sweating!

But more importantly, it’s the impact that those shortcuts and technical debt in place have in your business:

  • Slower development pace: when you have a great amount of tech debt, any change you make in an app requires changing code in many different places and testing it to make sure nothing broke — delaying the value delivered to end-users.
  • Need for more development expertise: having a complex app with bad architecture and code patterns requires more expert developers to tackle those problems and make the app more efficient—and we all know how difficult it is to hire developers today.
  • Increased IT backlogs: business requests continue to pile up since development teams aren’t able to cope with the demand, impacting business agility to deliver value, continuous innovation, and stay competitive.
  • Higher risk of introducing security liabilities: the shortcuts taken to meet time-to-market might introduce security liabilities.

So, if technical debt is that bad, shouldn’t we aim to eliminate it completely? Moreover, when companies are pressured to deliver new digital products faster than ever, is it even possible to live without technical debt?

Why Is It So Hard to Be Debt Free?

Let’s start by answering the first part of the question: eliminating technical debt is hard to achieve.

That’s because technical debt is not just about introducing bad code and skipping development best practices for a faster go-to-market. That’s one of its sources, but that could be managed with better planning.

The problem is that there are several internal and external factors that organizations cannot control, leading to an increased debt. Factors like:

  1. Lack of team expertise: mainly from the most junior developers who may not know how to implement best practices yet.
  2. Lack of detail and last-minute changes: many times, developers need to build an app or make changes to an existing one without having a comprehensive view of what's required or needed.
  3. Lack of documentation and knowledge transfer between teams: to accelerate a project, development teams skip writing the documentation, thinking they’ll be there in the future to maintain it, which often is not the case. And the teams that end up with the task of maintaining it and evolving it don’t have access to the whole context and end up introducing further errors.
  4. Lack of vision: teams focus on delivering the current timeline and do not think of the future evolution. This short sight directly impacts how the application is designed and how it can deal with future requirements.
  5. Unpredictable market changes: technical debt is also a result of all the unknowns (< enter redundancy >) we didn’t know when we started building the solution and didn’t prepare for.

Most of these factors are impossible to predict and, therefore, plan for.

So, to answer the question “should we aim at zero tech debt”, the short answer is no.

Technical debt out of control jeopardizes a company’s agility and ability to tackle demanding business needs and respond to the market pressure. That’s true. But only in an unrealistic world would it be possible to eliminate it completely.

Hence, the question shouldn’t be how to eliminate technical debt but how to take control over it in order to keep the ability to cope with business demand and urgency.

Tips to Manage Technical Debt

Your best option is to acknowledge the existence of your debt and keep it under control. This will allow your development team to produce faster while controlling the risks of tech debt and coping with business demand.

There are a few things your team can do to manage it better:

  • Define with your development team which level of technical debt they’re comfortable with, and that provides them the necessary agility to meet the business demands.
  • Assess the risk of letting some “technical debt” slip to cope with the time-to-market.
  • Assess how impactful and difficult it will be to deal with it later by asking the right questions. Questions like: “do you need to move data from one place to another to fix this after an application goes live?”; “Will it impact third-party systems partners consuming APIs from my system?”

Another tip is to use development platforms that already include the necessary tools to help you manage technical debt from day one.

That’s the case of OutSystems, which has several tools embedded to help development teams build products ready for the future where technical debt management is seen as a first-class citizen fully embedded within the development lifecycle.

This includes the Architecture Dashboard, which helps IT leaders visualize complex cross-portfolio architectures and identify problems while also helping developers follow best practices and avoid common pitfalls.

Visible technical debt in Architecture Dashboard

To learn more about how OutSystems helps you keep your technical debt under control, check out our additional resources: