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Understanding Technical Debt in Software Engineering

Last Updated : 04 Apr, 2024
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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.  

What is Technical Debt?

Technical debt is a concept of skipping or postponing particular work 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 deals with the design and development phase of Software Development. That’s why some call it design debt and some call it code debt. The longer it stays unresolved, the harder it becomes to implement changes and resolve – by refactoring.

Types of Technical Debts

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, in a software application say Megamart which is one of the e-commerce platforms, all required functionalities/features have been developed close to the release date but only a small part of the 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 be completed 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 miscommunication within an organization. Any of these factors may result in the generation of unintentional technical debt.  

For example, in A software application called Megamart which is one of the e-commerce platforms, it is found that in many required functionalities/features, errors are there even if it is close to the release date. This has happened due to a 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, in A software application say Megamart which is one of the e-commerce platforms, all required functionalities/features have been developed but now some changes coming which need to be implemented due to market requirements or technological 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.

4. Code Debt

It is the result of sacrificing code quality to deliver a project quickly. This can cause problems like redundant code, incorrectly named variables, and inadequate documentation, all of which can affect the project’s long-term maintainability.

5. Design Debt

It is a result of short-term architectural concessions that lead to decisions that are difficult to scale and sustain, tight interaction, and a lack of a modular approach.

6. Testing Debt

When testing procedures are violated, there is a risk of undetected flaws increasing, which compromises software reliability. This results in insufficient test cases and test coverage.

7. Documentation Debt

When there is insufficient or out-of-date documentation, it makes it difficult to understand the system. It consists of inadequate high-level system documentation, out-of-date API documentation, and missing inline comments.

8. Knowledge Debt

It is a single point of failure that results from a lack of knowledge or documentation in particular areas. It highlights the value of documenting, exchanging knowledge, and reducing dependence on any one team member.

Ways to Avoid Technical Debt

  1. Regularly Refactor: Refactoring should be included as a fundamental step in the development process. Code should be reviewed and refactored regularly to enhance its readability, structure, and maintainability. Divide big, complicated functions or classes into smaller, easier-to-manage parts to improve reusability and decrease coupling.
  2. Compose Detailed Examinations: Put in place a thorough testing plan that includes automated regression tests, integration tests, and unit tests. Make sure there is enough test coverage to identify and stop regressions, which lowers the possibility of untested changes causing technical debt.
  3. Avoid Overengineer: Look for simplicity in both the plan and the execution. Steer clear of overengineering by making solutions as simple and basic as you can. Avoid the urge to include unnecessary characteristics that could lead to higher maintenance costs and needless technical debt.
  4. As technical debt emerges, take action: As soon as technical debt is discovered, give it top priority. Every development iteration should include time set aside for code cleanup and refactoring. Track technical debt with tools and analytics like static code analysis reports, code smells, and code complexity measures.
  5. Encourage Developers: Give engineers the freedom to take the lead in efforts to reduce technical debt and improve code quality. Promote a shared accountability and ongoing development culture for preserving code quality. Give developers the time, money, and instruction they need to devote to activities aimed at reducing their technical debt and improving their skills.

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, that 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 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 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

You have to determine the amount of technical debt in your project before you can take any action. This entails evaluating several factors, including testing coverage, architecture, documentation, and code quality. Among the methods for determining technical debt are:

  • Code Reviews: To find instances of shoddy design, redundant code, or out-of-date code, thoroughly review the code.
  • Static Code Analysis: To find possible problems like complexity, maintainability concerns, and code smells, use tools that analyze code without running it.
  • Automated Testing: Calculate the extent of testing coverage and note any gaps, as these may point to possible technical debt.

2. Deciding which one to Solve First

After evaluating the technical debt, it’s critical to decide which problems should be fixed first. Not all technical debt is created equal, and certain problems could affect the project more than others. Think about the following while choosing which technical debt to address:

  • Effect on Business Objectives: Give priority to technical debt that has a direct bearing on the achievement of business goals or the provision of value to users.
  • Danger of New Problems: Pay down the technical debt that has the greatest potential to cause issues or delays on the road.
  • Cost of Delay: Compare the expenses of taking care of technical debt right away with the costs of waiting. In some circumstances, paying off technical debt sooner rather than later could be more economical.

Technical Debt Balance

As from above, we got to know it is neither completely bad nor completely good. So, a proper balance is required. High technical debt reflects low morale and motivation which results in lower productivity and indirectly it increases pressure to increase productivity 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 the 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. 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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