In an ideal world developers complete every agile software development project on schedule, and within the estimated budget. Even better, there is a spare budget to test everything one more time and to develop additional features.
In the real world, the development process often faces difficulties. Technical debt is considered to be the most common issue in an agile software development project. As a result, developers and managers must understand how to evaluate and manage technical debt.
What Is Technical Debt?
The term technical debt describes the difference between perfectly developed code and the code that is actually written. Technical debt is usually the result of shortcuts made by developers to meet a delivery schedule. This situation creates issues in the codebase that developers need to resolve at some point. In other cases you need to update and maintain the software. As a result, the delivery of software is delayed.
All software development projects, including agile projects, accumulate technical debt. Developers and their leadership must keep technical debt at a level that does not affect organizational goals and performance.
Causes of Technical Debt
To better manage technical debts, you have to understand what caused them in the first place. There are four major reasons that lead to technical debt.
Even the most skilled developers can build poor quality software when the requirements are not clear. The development team has to work according to detailed product requirements and understand the factors for success or failure of the project.
Taking on too much work
Agile teams often work in sprints. However, sometimes team members can underestimate their user stories, or management can increase pressure to deliver. As a result, the team commits to more work than they can actually do during the sprint.
Since sprints are often delivered to end users on schedule, there is no choice but to complete the workload even while cutting corners. This very common behavior results in huge technical debt in the long term.
Missing documentation is a common form of technical debt. Sometimes developers forget or intentionally skip the documentation of their code when developing new features. In other cases, the code is poorly documented. As a result only developers who worked on the feature really understand it.
Each new improvement in software technology or standards can cause technical debt. For example, moving legacy applications from waterfall to agile methodologies results in technical debt inherited from old code. Developers always change and update their code. As older codebases grow over time, code becomes harder to maintain.
Bad development practices
Sometimes developers tend to ignore commonly accepted coding best practices. As a result, they write code in their own, unstandardized and sometimes difficult to interpret way.
How to Identify Technical Debt
Every project is different, but there are some common warning signs of a possible technical debt. These red flags can result in longer time to market, higher total cost of ownership, and reduced agility. In addition, they can negatively impact security and customer experience.
- Code smells—are a set of common signs indicating that there may be an issue in your system performance or the quality of software.
- High code complexity—complex code architecture significantly affects the software project efficiency.
- Bugs in production—agile development teams often discover new bugs in production during a sprint. Developers have to go back and fix these bugs. As a result, production bugs can severely impact developer velocity.
- Coding style issues—developing according to a coding style guide can help overcome issues like missing documentation and unclear code.
Ways to Manage Technical Debt in Agile Projects
Technical debt is an unavoidable reality, even in organizations that place great value on ensuring software quality. However, development organizations can leverage technical debt to determine a proper trade off between business objectives and technical realities. Allowing a reasonable amount of technical debt and having a plan to pay it back in the future is critical to the success of the product and organization.
Don’t ignore technical debt
You cannot hide from technical debt. Instead, leverage technical debt to improve the overall system performance. The best approach is to proactively identify new debt in your code and track issues. For example, Java and Android developers can use Papercut to annotate problematic code. This library is designed to keep bugs out of production by failing the build if the issue is not resolved.
Implement the right agile processes and methodologies
The right development processes and frameworks are critical for managing and reducing technical debt. The following list reviews such processes.
- Transparency—into the financial aspects of each release compared to the technical debt budget.
- Continuous improvement—necessary for improving the process if technical debt is not properly managed.
- Definition of done—teams use this agile metric to assess when the work on a product is complete. The definition of done can help your team to understand what needs to happen for any project.
- Refactoring—agile methodology embraces the fact that developers sometimes make mistakes and will need to restructure their code.
- Work prioritization—agile practices provide technical teams a chance to participate in task prioritization. As a result, developers can prioritize any technical debt that accumulates in sprints.
Teach non-technical personnel on the implications of technical debt
Developers know that the pressure to deliver software on time often leads to shortcut solutions. Therefore, honest conversations with non-technical stakeholders about technical debt is crucial. Usually organizations can tolerate different levels of debt loads or risks.
The most efficient way to explain the importance of technical debt to non-technical people is through the common language of money. You can translate the cost of technical debt into financial terms and perform a cost benefit analysis.
Create a culture of quality
Organizations that value high quality software usually care about managing and preventing technical debt. When this culture is forced on junior and experienced developers alike, anything but high quality software becomes unacceptable. As a result, you can prevent technical debt from occurring.
Technical debt is not necessarily a problem. You just have to make conscious decisions. Like with financial debt, you have to manage technical debt to reduce payments. Remember to focus on three aspects: technology, people, and processes.
In addition, raise awareness and accountability about technical debt among non-technical team members. Prioritize any incomplete or deferred tasks, regardless of significance or type. With dedication, you can use agile processes and frameworks to gain visibility and manage technical debt successfully.