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Understanding Technical Debt in Software Engineering

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In this article we will get to know about Technical Debt, types of technical debt, and finally this technical debt is good or bad. So, let’s start it.

Technical debt often happens in the software development process. It is nearly impossible to develop any software perfectly which requires no refactoring later on especially when the deadline is small. And refactoring is nothing but the process of rearranging the structure of the source code of the project without changing any functionalities. The purpose of refactoring is to improve the operation of the code and to get a more efficient, scalable and reusable code.  

Technical debt :
Technical debt is a concept of skipping or postponing particular works to finish and deliver the project on time. And that work becomes debt because, in the end, it has to be done by the developers anyway. It is like taking shortcuts to deliver the project quickly by choosing time over the quality of the code.  

Technical debt, well it deals with design and development phase of Software Development. That’s why some call it as design debt and some call it as code debt. The longer it stays unresolved, the harder it becomes to implement changes and resolve – by refactoring.  

These are categorized into the following types of technical debt :

  1. Planned technical debt
  2. Unintentional technical debt
  3. Unavoidable technical debt

1. Planned technical debt –
Planned technical debt occurs when the organization intentionally lets the technical debt generate while they are aware of the cost and risks involved in the debt. This takes place when the market demands delivery within a short deadline.

For example, A software application say Megamart which is one of Ecommerce platform, all required functionalities/features have been developed close to release date but only small part of application needs to be developed. But this pending part has no effect if the product is released now. So the respective team can release the product now and the development team can plan the pending work to complete on priority after release. This is called planned technical debt.

2. Unintentional technical debt –
This type occurs when there is a lack of clear understanding of requirements in the initial stage of development, not following proper procedures but choosing easy solutions, the contribution of naïve developers and/or the miscommunication within an organization. Any of these factors may result in the generation of unintentional technical debt.  

For example, A software application say Megamart which is one of Ecommerce platform, it is found that in many required functionalities/features errors are there even it is close to release date. Which has happened due to lack of communication and proper development procedures/techniques. So, this leads to unintentional technical debt.

3. Unavoidable technical debt –
This arises when some significant change or update (like adding new functionality to the software) is in the middle of development. This incident leads to the generation of unavoidable technical debt because the implementation of new requirements will make the existing code – not useful anymore.  

For example, A software application say Megamart which is one of Ecommerce platform, all required functionalities/features have been developed but now some changes coming which needs to implemented due to market requirements or technology advancement but as it is very close to release date and here also the changes are unavoidable as it needs to be implemented. So, this leads to unavoidable technical debt.

Ways to avoid technical debt:  

  1. By clearly understanding the market requirement before getting started on development.
  2. By defining and tracking debts throughout the process.
  3. By creating software design carefully based on the requirements for effective implementation.

Technical Debt is good or bad ?
Sometimes good and sometimes bad. Let’s see how ?

Yes, it is bad when it occurs just because the developers choose to focus on innovative areas of the project, seem interesting and not because they are really important.  

Sometimes technical debt is not bad. It is good and it can be used as an advantage when the delivery of software or system is more important than the smoothness of the functionality, perfectly designed and/or clean code. The cleanliness of code refers to the codes that are easily understandable, modifiable and not being redundant uselessly.  
For example, Let’s consider that you are using the beta version of Instagram. By doing that you will enjoy using some of the additional features that are yet to come on the stable version of Instagram. Yet you will encounter some drawbacks like freezing of applications, unusually the app is closed frequently & some other issues.  

If you wait for the stable version which is designed perfectly & works smoothly, then the application has the least or no technical debt. Else the beta version of the application is in the market for you, then it has some technical debts to be fixed.

Handling Technical Debt :
Making the things more complicated will bring a big problem to us only. So better to handle technical debt.

Make it a mission to over technical debt by handling it properly.

The 2 important strategies to handle it are

  1. Accessing the amount of technical debt
  2. Deciding which one to solve

Technical Debt Balance :
As from above we got to know it is neither completely bad nor completely good. So, a proper balance is required. Actually high technical debt reflects low morale and motivation which results lower productivity and indirectly it increases pressure to increase productivity and which leads to high technical debt. So, it’s like a cycle once we are in the cycle it’s difficult to come out of it. So better to maintain a proper balance from beginning.

The proper balance of the technical debt is between the release of code that’s good enough for delivery and developing the perfectly designed software. The software development team has to strike the right balance between both of them. And the team may choose one over the other choice depending on the requirements of the market. That’s all about technical debt.

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Last Updated : 02 Nov, 2021
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