Reduce Technical Debt to Satisfy End Users and Increase Market ShareWritten by Emi Weiss
Solutions for technical debt reduction, from process management to digital transformation, that foster widespread system sustainability.
What Exactly is Technical Debt?
Technical debt represents any part of your technology or organization that affects the end user experience and long-term stability of your organization. These may represent features that could’ve been refined in the beginning, but fell through the cracks or were purposely deferred during rushed development cycles. This debt lives in an organization’s software, but also in its security, process, and organizational departments, and can have a major impact on your bottom line. Understanding how it accumulates, what business functions it affects, and proper management of it are the first steps in finding the right solution for reducing technical debt.
Software Technical Debt
Software issues are probably the first thing that come to mind when you think of technical debt.
Software technical debt consists of:
Known bugs that go unfixed
Poor code quality or design and their subsequent issues
Lack of code test coverage on quality, security and performance
Presence of old code or artifacts not in use
Obsolete, expensive or difficult technology (a.k.a. legacy systems)
Security Technical Debt
Debt that affects system security can directly affect you and your clients data.
Security technical debt includes:
Incomplete or outdated documentation or missing comments
Known vulnerabilities that have not been addressed
Lack of quality assurance testing (QAT) for security
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Process Technical Debt
Debt in processes can be harder to recognize than errors in code or clear security issues because they exist between the lines of communication, business processes, and organization.
Process technical debt includes:
Processes that do not function effectively during or after a merger or acquisition
Poor developer experience or attention to detail
Unproductive work environment for employees
Stale internal processes that haven’t been updated or audited recently
Process technical debt is typically where other types of debt stem from, since issues regarding software or security point back to an issue of standards, authentication, and clear expectations.
Organizational Technical Debt
Organizational technical debt is similar to that of process in that it exists within bureaucratic lines. However, process technical debt exists on a daily basis in small ways, while organizational technical debt lives on a much bigger scale, representing the foundations of an entire organization and all of its supporting tools, software, processes, management team, values, and mission.
Organizational technical debt stems from:
Technology constructs that are not aligned with organizational standards
An unclear purpose; fragmented teams working towards different missions and operating with different values
The largest contributor of organizational technical debt is Toolchain Debt, represented by:
Diversified tool sets that are not aligned with organizational standards
Lack of technology standardization across the organization, which may be a combination of undefined standardization and/or lack of adherence to standards by developers and staff
Understanding technical debt and how it presents itself within your organization is the first step in improving the developer experience, accelerating time to market, and delivering innovative user experiences.
Now we’ll explain what causes technical debt, how to easily recognize it, and how to manage its impact.
“Technical debt is the difference between what was promised and what was actually delivered.” - Dan Radigan, Atlassian
Benefits of managing technical debt
By successfully managing technical debt you can expect:
Increased engagement due to improved user experience
Faster system + operations
Thorough and successful deliverables
Increased competitive advantage
Decreased fixed and variable costs
Increased employee/developer job satisfaction
Decreased customer churn
Positive impact on the bottom line
Managing and reducing technical debt has the potential to redefine your organization, software, process, and security.
The point of starting a business (other than to earn profits and provide jobs) is to satisfy end users and provide the market with solutions that solve challenges and drive value. Managing and reducing technical debt clears way for an organization to become agile in their development processes, increasing their ability to adapt to evolving consumer preferences and market needs. This then increases competitive advantage and potential within the market.
Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash
How Does Technical Debt Accumulate?
When a company goes through any sort of change, it’s an opportunity for debt to accumulate.
Technical debt can quickly appear when a new software is created without proper quality assurance, or when a new process is implemented without proper governance. It can also build little by little over time through multiple quick, poor quality releases or through a team’s tendency to take shortcuts in day to day operations. Main causes of technical debt include:
Mergers and acquisitions
Lack of standardization
Lack of consistent audits
Type of business model
System age and architecture
Governance over organization or specific departments (i.e. design or development)
Recognizing and managing technical debt
Recognizing and managing technical debt early on plays a critical role in maintaining the health of operations and the quality of digital products. If technical debt accumulates it will become incredibly difficult to repair, let alone a timely and expensive undertaking, and the user experience is at risk, which could ultimately impact the bottom line.
An experienced developer should be able to recognize the presence of technical debt immediately upon looking at a system’s code or witnessing a software’s performance. As engineers develop new features or software enhancements, they should be following standard operating procedures and analyzing the code for any nuances that may translate into technical debt.
However, if technical debt has built up and become ingrained in an organization’s processes, it can be hard for developers to be objective, especially if they helped write the code. This is why it’s extremely important to employ third party audits and user acceptance testing on a regular basis, as well as maintain standard documentation for such reviews.
When auditing your system for technical debt, pay attention to these 8 metrics.
Metrics for measuring technical debt
1. Managing and Reducing Bugs
Don’t let open bugs outnumber closed bugs. If you have so many that you can only fix a small percentage of them within a rational amount of time, this is a sign that your system may need a transformation.
2. Quality of Code
Having high quality code is the most obvious metric for avoiding software bugs - it must be easily read, have proper comments, indentation, punctuation, and flow. In addition to these grammatical features, technical managers and executives should measure these 4 items when reviewing software code quality:
Lines of code
Depth of inheritance
3. Cycle Time and Code Reworking
Cycle time represents the amount of time between product development planning and execution, which you want to be as low as possible without sacrificing quality. When measuring technical debt, you also need to study the time it takes to adjust existing code and solve errors without implementing hacks or quick fixes. If you find yourself adding in a week or two of time to develop new features because you'll need to rework old code, you know that technical debt is beginning to accumulate.
“To prevent technical debt, follow the 6P's. Prior planning prevents piss poor performance! When you prioritize delivery time and fail to plan, you are bound to end up with more work in the end as you refactor all of your code.” - Pete Nystrom, VP of Engineering at Seamgen
4. Code Churn
Code churn represents the number of times a particular line has been deleted and replaced, or rewritten, pointing to whether it was done right the first time, second, and so on. An increased amount of code churn demonstrates a lack of development experience or poor attention to detail.
5. Code Coverage
Code coverage indicates how efficiently your code has been written — a large number of unused lines of code demonstrates subpar development experience. A good target number here is 80%. Higher than this is to be commended, while a lower score indicates work to be done.
6. Ownership of Code
Have 1 or 2 software owners per project - don’t saturate the process with too many working minds.
7. User Testing and Feedback
Conduct internal and external user testing to ensure the user experience is seamless. While conducting internal testing, the quality assurance engineers should document any identified issues and report all the feedback so it can be implemented by the development team.
8. Technical Debt Ratio (TDR)
TDR is the last metric to pay attention to when recognizing and managing technical debt.
(Remediation Cost ÷ Development Cost) × 100 = TDR
The TDR value explains how much time and resources you will need to dedicate to repair and address your technical debt. The optimal TDR sits around 5%. Anything greater than 10% is a clear indicator that your technical debt is growing more quickly than you can address it.
All of these metrics are great to keep in mind to identify the amount of technical debt within an organization, but none of them will be measured consistently or properly without standard audit processes in place.
Which technical debt to repair or eliminate
Technical debt exists across organizations in many ways, as discussed above, and determining which debt to address first can seem a bit trivial. The approach and strategy to eliminating technical debt depends entirely on each individual company’s goals, costs, resources, and situation. Everyone wants to fix all their problems, but it’s unrealistic to tackle them in one stretch. Teams should begin by focusing on the area that needs the most improvement and will deliver the largest amount of value.
Here are some examples where you could focus your energy:
Inefficient operations due to outdated technology is driving costs upward
User engagement is dwindling due to a poor or outdated user experience
Incomplete documentation and processes that can’t be traced for updates and audits
Lack of quality assurance testing leading to compromised data sectors where errors and data leaks can happen
Losing market share due to the inability to adapt quickly and a slow go-to-market process
A merger causes stale processes to come to light that cause confusion, project inefficiency, and code reworking
Increasing technical debt is impacting employee retention rates due to heavy workloads and poor deliverable feedback
Lack of standardization across departments causing deliverables to be unbalanced and absence of cohesion across the organization
How to fix technical debt
There are two primary solutions to technical debt, depending on the level and amount of debt a system has.
Technical debt repair is recommended when minimal debt has accrued. Debt repair involves performing a comprehensive audit of all systems and organizational processes, then manually repairing technical debt internally or outsourcing the workload.
Outsourcing software technical debt for fixing bugs and errors takes time, money, and can lead to bigger problems caused by working with third parties who aren’t experienced with your product or processes. An outsourced team requires onboarding and training that takes time away from reaching the end solution, and may present issues like language barriers, time zones, and complicated relationships.
If debt repair is the route you choose to go, as processes are refined and redefined, consider implementing the concept of “decoupling”. Decoupling involves splitting systems into smaller units, including legacy data sources, business processes, and core functions. Decoupling reduces the likelihood of increasing technical debt by introducing more streamlined processes and therefore improving the ability to recognize and manage technical debt.
When technical debt has been neglected for months or years and has accumulated beyond repair, the investment to resolve the issues may very well exceed the more strategic investment in digital transformation. Would you prefer to spend thousands of dollars addressing old problems or set aside the investment to modernize your digital applications and deliver a reimagined experience to your end users?
How do you know if it's time for a digital transformation? If you want to secure a sustainable future for your brand, investing time, money and energy into your digital transformation strategy is a necessity. It will help you engage with consumers, improve operational efficiency, reduce the time it takes to get products or services to market, and drive innovation.
A digital transformation investment empowers an organization to pursue a holistic digital strategy for people, processes, technology, data, and enterprise-wide governance.
Outsourcing resources to address a backlog of software bugs may offer a short-term solution, but as competitors adapt their strategies and ride the disruptive wave of digital transformation, your organization will be left at a competitive disadvantage. We’ve now seen once-dominant incumbent organizations lose ground to their more digitized competitors in nearly every industry. Digital transformation is reshaping entire sectors and transforming business processes.
It’s no longer sufficient to simply maintain an archaic solution and slowly hack away at technical debt. We are not suggesting that you need to throw away everything you have to date, but take a good hard look at what’s working and what’s not. Consumer preferences are ever evolving and you need to keep up with the digital curve. The good news is that we’re still at the beginning stages of this era.
Digital transformation doesn’t just mean you need the newest and most effective technologies, you also need a workforce that can drive transformation. Your processes, technology, and governance go hand-in-hand with your team.
Companies with a digitally savvy executive team outperform their peers by 48 percent in terms of revenue and valuation (Sloan Management Review). You need a management team with an understanding of how emerging tech will shape their company’s success. It’s not enough for employees to be up to speed with digital - the executive team also needs to have the desired skills and knowledge to drive a digital transformation strategy. Ensure that you have enterprise-wide buy-in, define shared goals, and implement modernized standard operating procedures. If everyone is committed to the new vision, you’ll mitigate technical debt and be in a position to focus on growth and innovation.
Recognizing and managing technical debt early on plays a critical role in maintaining the health of operations and the quality of digital products. If technical debt accumulates, it will become incredibly difficult to repair, let alone a timely and expensive undertaking. Plus, the user experience will be put at risk, ultimately having the potential to impact the bottom line.
Managing, eliminating, and reducing technical debt will empower your organization to reduce overhead costs, improve the user experience, increase employee retention, and accelerate the product development cycle to introduce new features or digital products that keep up with ever-changing consumer demands.
It’s crucial to assess your digital capabilities and identify the gaps that will help you achieve growth and maintain your competitive edge. More often than not, investing in digital transformation will deliver significantly more impactful results than attempting to address unkept software or broken processes.
While it’s important to be strategic rather than tactical, that doesn’t mean every part of the organization should be transformed immediately. To ensure impact is created early in the transformation, it is best to start with the transformation of a single business domain before moving to another part of the organization.
Remember to instill an agile mindset. As consumer preferences evolve and the market shifts, so too should your digital offerings. Always listen for market feedback and introduce agile software development best practices to mitigate technical debt.
Seamgen has worked long and hard to create a proven agile software development and digital transformation process that mitigates technical debt and ensures our clients can keep up with the digital curve. Seamgen will help you deliver immersive digital experiences that increase the bottom line. For a free consultation with our digital transformation team, please contact email@example.com.
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Seamgen’s Digital Transformation Solutions for Reducing Technical Debt