Tech debt happens. But there are ways you can keep it from getting out of control. Find out how to prevent technical debt from piling up and slowing you down.

Let’s get real for a minute…

No matter how you build software, accruing some technical debt is inevitable. In fact, tech debt is a bit like time in that you can’t really escape it. But just like you can take measures to save time, you can also take measures to reduce the time you waste paying back technical debts.

In other words, although amassing some tech debt in your software is more-or-less unavoidable, there are ways to reduce it. If you understand how tech debt builds, you can prevent it from piling up in the first place.

Preventing tech debt starts with knowing what it is and how it happens. So before I tell you the best approaches to preventing it, I’ll give you a 3-sentence-synopsis of what technical debt is…

Tech Debt Defined

Technical debt is the term used to describe the amount of resources that will need to be expended in order to refactor a software item that was built in haste.

You see, when software is built sloppily (either actively (in order to meet a time requirement) or passively (out of carelessness), it will create performance issues going forward which will compound until the software is rebuilt.

This means that tech debt originates when you cut corners, and it builds on itself until you (re)code the software properly.

So? Don’t take shortcuts…

Here’s How You Can Prevent Technical Debt

Start at the Start

What’s the first thing you do when beginning a software development project?

a. eat ice cream

b. buy confetti to celebrate launch

— or —

c. carefully plan each step of development and prepare a roadmap to keep your project on track

If you answered a or b, then you’re doing it wrong. (You may have style– because both ice cream and confetti are awesome– but, alas, it’s wrong.)

If you answered c, then you’re starting at the start. Which makes sense, right?

If you plan for everything before you begin development, you can infuse your process with a plan for controlling tech debt as it occurs (and before it becomes a dead weight).

Consider the effect technical debt will have on the overall performance of your software and allot time (and budget and developers) to pay back technical debts. Then, start a project with a plan already in place to prevent and manage tech debt.

If you anticipate refactoring, you can build refactoring time into each working iteration. In fact, if you KNOW already that you have or will accrue tech debt, you can dedicate whole iterations specifically to eliminating technical debts.

Be White Hat

Not surprisingly, you can also prevent tech debt by always writing great code.

If you want to keep a clean, high performing code base, you have to adhere to high coding standards, and you have to make your team accountable to the quality of code they produce.

You can prevent technical debt by establishing and maintaining superior development criteria which can include:

  • pairing programmers (because two is better than one)
  • mentoring relationships (because experience is the best teacher)
  • adherence to best practices (because doing it right is always better than doing it over)
  • automated testing and static code analysis (because duh)
  • retrospectives (because when you know why things happen, you can control that thing in the future)

Perhaps the most critical criteria of software development is one that defines completion.

It Ain’t Done Til it’s Done

Tech debt happens when programmers make hasty development decisions. The most typical example of a hasty coding decision is one that sacrifices overall code quality for a quick (but clunky or impermanent) fix. But hasty doesn’t stop there…

Other rash development choices can result in premature deployment of software to a production space. And that’s bad for everyone. When bad software is published, tech debt compounds.

To prevent technical debts from stacking-up (and from depreciating your overall user experience), form an incontestable definition for software that is “done;” a definition that, unless precisely met, precludes software from being published. Period.

Keep in mind, the impact of technical debt becomes greater as your code base gets bigger. Be strong, and DO NOT, under any circumstance, deploy code that could compromise the overall performance of your software.

Another thing…

Bugs Should Bug You

Unfixed bugs produce tech debt.

Use a system like Bugsnag to keep you in-the-know about errors and other performance issues in your software. If you keep these issues at the forefront of your mind using a tool designed to “bug” you about bugs, you can prevent technical debt from piling up right under your nose.

In a perfect development approach, you should budget time within each iteration to assess and correct buggy code before it becomes a bigger problem.

Similarly, code that is difficult to understand or edit, and code or processes that are overly complex are also symptoms of tech debt and should be treated like bugs. Correct readability and usability issues within your code base to reduce clunky or caustic behaviors in the future.

Clean-Up Duty

You know that thing when you go camping and you have to pick-up the trash left behind by the campground’s previous occupants? Or when you move into a new rental property and clean it top-to-bottom before you off-load all of your own stuff?

Coding is like that.

If you enter a code base that looks like a dumpster-fire, you have to clean it up. That’s your duty as a coder and performing it will reward you in the long run. If you respect your code base, it will reciprocate.

What to Consider When You’re Considering Technical Debt

Tech Debt Affects Development and Business

As you remember, tech debt happens when you take shortcuts.

Usually developers take shortcuts to meet time constraints put upon them by business needs. But, while that may put software into production sooner, it will also result in inferior features and slower deliveries in the future.

To prevent technical debt from overpowering your software, maintain a balance between what business expects and what is realistic for development.

In this way, communication between business and development sectors is critical. A spokesman for development must communicate to business the importance of avoiding technical debt (even at the cost of a later delivery).

Tech Debt is Expensive

The cost of compounding technical debt is high. It affects everything from the performance of your software to the amount of resources you have to invest in order to work effectively within your code base.

In other words, technical debt can cost you your customers, and it can cost you heaps in the world of overhead and development time. If tech debt forces you to work sower, in doing, it also means you’re less efficient, less productive, and more expensive.

As you can imagine, in business, teams that are less efficient, less productive, and more expensive don’t last very long.

To be truly effective at software development, you must operate in a clean code base. This means you have to budget time and resources for keeping your code pristine and refactoring sloppy features.


You Can Prevent Technical Debt and, as a Great Software Developer, it’s Your Responsibility to Do So

Click the following link for more information on ELIMINATING technical debt >

At the end of the day, tech debt happens. Just like any other byproduct of creation, when you write software, some technical debts will invariably result. But if you enforce awareness and strong coding habits, you can prevent technical debt from becoming a problem.

At the outset of every project (or even every iteration), discuss tech debt and establish a plan for managing it. Allot resources, take accountability, and reduce wasted time by incorporating these  tech debt prevention techniques into your development approach.

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