Paying Off Your Technical Debt

Reducing and eliminating technical debt has been a cornerstone of Tonic Design Co.’s services since our early days. Technical debt is the root cause of countless software problems, but many developers aren’t even aware that they’re accumulating it.

Technical debt can be described as the lingering complications and compromises that occur when teams are focused on developing software quickly -- instead of developing software correctly.

Cutting corners to get the job done instead of spending time to properly plan out and refactor your existing code to better support new work can have dire consequences. Developers end up increasing the complexity of the system, and as a result, they increase the time, effort, and costs of future work.

Having a buildup of technical debt is problematic because it’ll eventually lead to serious problems in your software development cycle. It shows itself as ever-increasing time estimates for new tasks, performance and reliability issues, problems with onboarding new developers, increased development costs, and countless other issues.

Think of it like kicking a can down the road; except that each time you kick the can, it gets bigger and heavier.

Preventing Technical Debt

The easiest way to solve the technical debt problem is to avoid accumulating it in the first place.

To do so, it’s critical to take time to think through important steps in the development process before you start implementing solutions, and to keep the lines of communication open between everyone involved in the project.

If you’re bringing on new developers, spend time getting them up-to-speed on the project as a whole so that they can consider future needs even when working on short-term priorities. Add a style guide and a linter (if your tools allow, treat warnings as build errors), then work as quickly as possible to bring your code into compliance with the guide. Readable, well-formatted code, by definition, is cleaner code.

“Future-proof” the project as much as possible and plan for potential blockers. When you’re in the project planning phase, dedicate time towards refactoring (and perhaps, re-architecting) in each sprint.

It may take extra time, but that’s unavoidable. It takes time for companies to accumulate the debt, and it will take time to reduce it. Using our earlier analogy, we’re still kicking the can down the road, but now we’re taking chunks out of it, and making it smaller as it rolls along.

Often the sheer amount of technical debt can be too difficult to solve internally. Developers that have already spent countless hours on a project can miss mistakes in their own code. Adding a few sets of new eyes and fresh perspectives might be what you need.

Overall, it’s important not to look at these efforts as a time- or money-suck in development projects. The time spent on technical debt reduction increases (or more accurately, restores) your speed in the future when you work on bug-fixes or enhancements in the refactored sections of the code. By eliminating technical debt, you’re setting yourself up for development success in the future.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed by the state of your code and need some outside assistance, don’t forget about our Code Audit service. We offer two options to get started -- an introductory plan that focuses on your major pain points, or a more comprehensive assessment of your full codebase against Tonic’s standards.

If you want to learn more about addressing technical debt, we recommend a few of our favorite books: Check out Clean Code by Robert C. Martin and Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code by Martin Fowler and Ken Beck.