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How Can You Effectively Manage and Reduce Technical Debt During the Scaleup Phase?

How Can You Effectively Manage and Reduce Technical Debt During the Scaleup Phase?

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How Can You Effectively Manage and Reduce Technical Debt During the Scaleup Phase?

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As companies transition from their startup phase into scaleup, the shortcuts and compromises made in the early stages can accumulate, creating a "debt" that, if not addressed, threatens to undermine the very growth they seek.

measure technical debt through developers time

A comprehensive report reveals that average developers waste 23% of their time dealing with the consequences of technical debt, while an even more 43% of their work week is consumed by efforts to address or mitigate these issues. These facts highlight how important it is to manage and minimize technical debt strategically, particularly during the critical scale-up phase when innovation and agility are key.

In this article, we will shed light on effective strategies and practices to effectively manage and mitigate technical debt during this crucial growth phase, ensuring that it does not become a roadblock to innovation and expansion.

But what is technical debt?

  • Technical debt (or code debt) refers to outdated code that won’t be manageable in the future. This term also refers to the future cost of additional rework caused by choosing an easy or limited solution over a better approach that would take longer. It happens when teams choose quick-fix solutions that sacrifice code quality and maintainability for immediate results. For more details, go to the article about technical debt definition in Software Development.

Is tech debt always bad?

  • Even though the danger of technical debt may feel overwhelming, it's crucial to understand that not all debt is bad. Some level of technical debt is unavoidable and can even serve as a strategic tool under certain conditions. For instance, the Minimum Viable Product approach comes with technical debt by its nature of prioritizing speed to market over code perfection.

How does technical debt impact the company?

  • From an internal perspective, it may escalate development costs, slow down the pace of innovation, and significantly dampen developer morale. The constant pressure to deliver new features at the expense of essential maintenance work not only stifles efficiency and creativity but also impacts the development team's productivity.

What will you learn from this article?

  • What are the causes of technical debt?
  • How to reduce technical debt to maintain efficiency?
  • How to manage technical debt to ensure long-term success?
  • The costs of technical debt
  • How to avoid technical debt and conflict with stakeholders?
  • Strategies for managing technical debt
  • Why measuring technical debt is essential during the scale-up phase of a company?

How to Reduce Technical Debt for Maintaining Efficiency

What Are the Causes of Technical Debt?

Avoid growing technical debt to not increase development cost by knowing what causes it

  • Rushed development: Having problems meeting deadlines often tempts developers to take shortcuts, compromising the quality of the code.
  • Lack of documentation: Inadequate documentation creates obstacles for future development efforts, as developers struggle to understand or build upon the existing codebase.
  • Outdated technologies: Reliance on outdated technologies or libraries introduces risks related to security vulnerabilities and compatibility problems.
  • Inconsistent coding standards: The absence of consistent coding standards can make the codebase chaotic and difficult to maintain.
  • Lack of testing: Skipping testing phases to save some time can leave bugs and issues undetected, affecting the stability and reliability of the software.
  • Business decisions: Decisions made from a business perspective might focus on short-term gains at the expense of long-term codebase health.

In the agile development framework, which prioritizes rapid delivery and the ongoing release of features, accumulating technical debt often becomes an unavoidable part of the process.

Technical Debt in Agile

In agile software development approach, which prioritizes speed and iterations, accumulating technical debt is often unavoidable. When teams struggle to meet sprint goals and don’t get additional time, the prioritization of speed can sometimes overshadow adherence to best practices and comprehensive quality assurance.

This approach, while effective in the short term for keeping development moving and meeting deadlines, can lead to the accumulation of technical debt.

Additionally, when the focus shifts towards introducing new features at the expense of addressing existing bugs, technical debt increases, necessitating resolution before progressing further in the development process.

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To manage this effectively, agile teams must monitor the amount of technical debt and strategically address it during the product backlog stage, ensuring that it is accounted for and fixed in future development cycles.

Costs of Technical Debt

The impact of technical debt stretches beyond just slowing down developers - it affects nearly every aspect of an organization.

Studies indicate that developers lose 23% to 42% of their time addressing technical debt instead of creating new features.

This not only raises operational costs but also diverts valuable resources away from innovation.

Beyond the numbers, technical debt chips away at the quality and reliability of software, risking customer satisfaction and the company's good name.

The messier the code gets, the more expensive the maintenance will be in the future. And when new developers join the team, then they will have to face the task of dealing with what they get.

How to Reduce It?

While technical debt can sometimes be an inevitable part of the software development lifecycle, particularly when quick iterations are needed, it's essential to reduce it wisely to avoid compromising long-term project health. The following are five effective strategies development teams can employ to effectively reduce technical debt:

Regular code reviews

Encourage the practice of regular code reviews to spot potential technical debt early. This not only helps in maintaining coding standards but also promotes a culture of accountability and shared learning within the team.

Automated testing

Adopt automated testing to quickly identify bugs and ensure that new changes do not introduce additional technical debt. Automated tests act as a safety net for the codebase, facilitating smoother refactoring and maintenance.

Refactoring

Set aside time for refactoring, which involves cleaning up and optimizing existing code without altering its functionality. This proactive approach keeps the codebase flexible and easier to work with over time.

Align with business objectives

Make strategic decisions about tackling technical debt by considering the company's business goals. Focus on resolving debt that directly impacts your product's roadmap and aligns with the organization's future direction.

Technology upgrades

Regularly evaluate and update your technology stack to prevent the accumulation of technical debt from outdated or unsupported tools and integrations. Staying current with technology trends can significantly reduce long-term maintenance challenges.

How to Manage Technical Debt to Ensure the Long-term Success

case study on tech debt and code debt

Case Studies: Examples of Technical Debt

Managing technical debt is crucial for ensuring the long-term success of software development projects. Let's look at case studies that highlight the challenges and solutions related to technical debt:

Case Study: ALYNE - ember update

The old code is essentially a technical debt that impacts later development costs, but in this specific project, our developer Adam dealt with it through the update of old elements and regular testing.

Ember had somewhat faded away, and many of the packages used in the app were no longer maintained. The upgrading process regarded bumping up the version number in every single file and then troubleshooting it separately to identify potential issues of code quality.

There was quite a bit of forking and attempting to communicate with the authors of these packages to integrate changes that would allow using their solutions in higher versions of Ember.

Apart from rewriting the old code on the client project itself, it took a big-bang approach in a single pull request, changing approximately 2,500 files.

It was a challenge for the Quality Assurance to check everything, but thankfully the process went smoothly.

Adam’s (Senior developer) insights on this case after two years:

Looking back, I would probably try to divide work more and do it iteratively, view by view, although I’m not sure it would have been feasible due to the complex network of dependencies. At the time, as a mid-developer, I struggled with managing this, and even today, it would probably still pose a significant challenge, but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

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Case Study 2: Defined Learning

In our recent project, we faced a common challenge - technical debt. It was essential for our team to address the issue in advance and we managed it through an incremental improvement strategy.

Initially, our team recognized specific areas of technical debt that needed attention. We opted for an approach called "creeping improvement." Instead of overhauling everything at once, we prepared enhancements in one area at a time, sharing our approach with the team and introducing changes gradually.

Certain components were identified as outdated ("deprecated") and needed replacement. However, replacing them all at once was too expensive. We solved this problem by including the replacement of these components as part of our creeping improvements. Whenever someone worked in an area where improvement was possible, they made the necessary changes as part of their task - unless it involved a significant effort.

Our client knew that we were committed to enhancing the project so they agreed to our idea of solving the technical debt issue this way. This agreement allowed us to plan tasks marked as "improvements" and "maintenance" within our sprints alongside other tasks. These tasks, while not providing immediate business value, were aimed at long-term benefits. We maintained transparency with the client, ensuring they were aware of all such tasks.

Jarek’s (Senior developer & Team leader) insights on the technical debt:

Technical debt is inevitable, but it can be managed with proper planning. This incremental approach to managing technical debt - by logging, planning, and implementing step-by-step improvements - allowed us to enhance the project steadily without overwhelming the team or the budget. The key to success was our collaborative effort with the client and a shared understanding of the long-term benefits of reducing technical debt.

Strategies for Managing Technical Debt

Ensure Organizational Alignment with the Software Architecture

The effectiveness of a software's architecture is deeply intertwined with how well it aligns with the organization's structure and the development teams working on it. A misalignment here can lead to inefficient coordination and a higher likelihood of defects creeping into the system.

Therefore, it's crucial to regularly measure and visualize the software architecture through the lens of the development teams.

This alignment ensures smoother communication, better decision-making, and a more cohesive development process, ultimately minimizing technical debt.

Code Quality vs. Relevance: Not All Technical Debt Is Urgent

While technical debt is often associated with poorly written code, it is important to note that not every code quality issue directly means it’s a technical debt problem. Some code deficiencies might not pose immediate problems or significantly impact the project's progress. Recognizing this distinction is crucial. Organizations must prioritize addressing the most critical code quality issues that genuinely affect their software's functionality and maintenance.

Observe the People Side of the Code

Beyond the code itself, the development practices and organization can become significant sources of technical debt. A notable amount of time may be lost to inefficiencies in the development process, such as prolonged periods of inactivity while waiting for approvals or the integration of long-lived feature branches. Additionally, when code becomes too closely associated with individual developers, it creates 'knowledge islands'—a risky dependency on key personnel. Observing and addressing these 'people side' issues are essential steps in managing and reducing technical debt, ensuring a smoother and more resilient development process.

How to Avoid Technical Debt and Conflict With Stakeholders

Why you should consider tech debt when discussing development cost with stakeholders?

Communicate the Impact of Technical Debt

Clarify how technical debt can derail business objectives, worsen user experience, and lower team morale. Use metrics and scenarios stakeholders can relate to, demonstrating the benefits of reducing technical debt on the project’s quality, speed, and innovation.

Prioritize Technical Debt Reduction

Align technical debt reduction with stakeholder expectations by prioritizing based on value, urgency, and risk. Utilize frameworks like the quadrant model or debt repayment plans to strategize and communicate your efforts.

Apply Good Engineering Practices

Adopt and maintain high-quality engineering practices across the software development lifecycle. Ensure adherence to coding standards, testing strategies, and continuous integration to minimize the chance of accumulating new technical debt and to address existing issues efficiently.

Build a Culture of Technical Excellence

Cultivate a team and organizational culture that recognizes and actively manages technical debt. Promote quality, learning, and collaboration, which encourages team members to share insights and stakeholders to participate in technical decisions.

Negotiate and Compromise with Stakeholders

Develop negotiation and compromise skills to align your technical debt management strategies with stakeholder goals. Present technical debt reduction as a means to achieve broader objectives, showing flexibility and adaptability to stakeholder needs and changes.

Why Measuring Technical Debt Is Essential During the Scale-up Phase of a Company?

Measuring technical debt is crucial during a company's scale-up phase to ensure the project remains sustainable, manageable, and primed for growth. How to do that effectively?

How to Measure Technical Debt

To measure technical debt efficiently, IT businesses need a comprehensive strategy that includes the following elements. This will help maintain the health of their projects and foster sustainable development.

  • Documentation: Keep detailed records of all technical debt issues, including their cause, impact, and resolution plans, in a centralized technical debt register. This facilitates tracking technical debt and management over time.
  • Code Reviews and Analysis: Implement regular peer code reviews to spot potential debt early. Utilize static code analysis tools to automatically detect code smells, complexity, and duplication.
  • Issue Tracking Integration: Link technical debt to specific bugs or issues within your issue-tracking system and prioritize these accordingly to manage their impact effectively.
  • Testing and Coverage: Use code coverage metrics and automated testing to ensure comprehensive codebase testing, identifying areas where low coverage may indicate technical debt.
  • Refactoring: Allocate specific times for refactoring and encourage ongoing code improvement efforts as part of the development process to mitigate and pay down technical debt.
  • Metrics and Dashboard: Track technical debt using key metrics such as the technical debt ratio, code churn, complexity, and bug rates. Visual dashboards can then provide an at-a-glance assessment of the project's health and highlight areas requiring attention.

By implementing these strategies, IT businesses can effectively measure and manage technical debt, maintaining project health and ensuring sustainable development practices.

Summary

Effectively managing and reducing technical debt is crucial during the scale-up phase of a company, where the focus shifts towards rapid growth and expansion. This period often brings the risk of accumulating technical debt as teams rush to meet market demands and innovate solutions. However, with deliberate strategies and practices, it's possible to keep the technical debt ratio under control and ensure it doesn't hinder the company's progress.

To manage technical debt effectively, it is essential to cultivate a culture of awareness and responsibility for technical debt across the team. This means keeping a detailed backlog of all tasks, big or small, that have been shelved or delayed, and prioritizing them carefully.

Using the right tools can also provide a clear view of where you stand with technical debt, making it easier to manage. Regularly setting aside time to address and refactor codes is crucial. It's about striking the perfect balance between moving fast and maintaining a healthy, scalable project.


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