What Is Technical Debt?

A fast fix isn’t always the best fix.

Written by Brennan Whitfield
What Is Technical Debt?
Image: Shutterstock
UPDATED BY
Brennan Whitfield | May 14, 2024

Technical debt refers to the buildup of extra work when software development shortcuts are taken. It can be likened to interest on a financial loan, where you get a product out faster, but at the cost of more fixes needing to be done to it later. Despite the connotations of ‘debt,’ technical debt isn’t always a drawback for development initiatives, and can even be leveraged as a strategic tool to meet product goals.

What Is Technical Debt?

Technical debt (or tech debt) refers to the reworks required for a software product, caused by prioritizing fast delivery or using inefficient code. Tech debt can be intentional or unintentional, based on the software team’s goals.

Technical debt is a common occurrence in software engineering, often presenting itself when teams need to meet tight project deadlines or fulfill fast-changing product needs.

 

What Is Technical Debt?

Technical debt (also known as tech debt, code debt or design debt) describes the buildup of software work from using coding or development shortcuts instead of long-term, thorough solutions. Some of these shortcuts can include using poorly written code, using outdated software frameworks and libraries as well as not properly testing or documenting new code.

Over time, code solutions meant for temporary fixes can require fixes themselves, causing roadblocks for when a codebase needs to be updated, scaled or maintained. “There is no ‘one aha moment’ when a team realizes they have accrued this debt,” Anupam Singh, vice president of engineering at Roblox, told Built In. “Instead, it’s a trickle of incidents and issues related to ballooning cost and laggy performance.”

The phrase ‘technical debt’ was coined by software developer and Agile Manifesto co-author Ward Cunningham in 1992. Cunningham originally equated the idea of technical debt to that of financial debt, where technical ‘interest’ — the delivery and effect of suboptimal code — continually adds up if not properly addressed, and will eventually have to be ‘paid back’ through code refactoring.

Technical debt frequently “represents a strategic trade-off: opting for quicker achievement of immediate goals at the cost of future efforts to pay down the debt,” TJ Andrews, engineering manager at Bubble, told Built In.

 

Is Technical Debt Bad?

Technical debt can present itself as a bad or good occurrence depending on the company and a software team’s goals.

In some cases, technical debt is viewed as solely a developmental setback, as it may lead to reduced product performance, scalability difficulties and increased occurrences of software errors and bugs. Unintentional technical debt in particular, where a team isn’t aware of shipping inefficient code, can result in unchecked software decay and an increased workload when adding to existing infrastructure.

Some see technical debt as an inevitability when working with software, and just another element to factor into the development process. To deliver new features on time or use solutions that fit within development budgets, technical debt can be thought of as a tool to balance these product priorities.

“It’s impossible to not have tech debt, because if you didn’t have it you would pretty much never deliver anything.”

“I think it’s impossible to not have tech debt, because if you didn’t have it you would pretty much never deliver anything,” Kyle Hanson, technical founder of GetDynasty and former software architect at Carta, told Built In. “You can’t really think of it as a bad thing because it’s something you’re kind of forced to make a decision on whether you acknowledge it or not.”

Sometimes, technical debt can even be a positive sign that a business is growing. For example, if a platform’s user base is increasing and requires its infrastructure to expand to be able to support this number, technical debt will likely arise.

“Technical debt accrued due to increased usage is not a bad thing,” Singh said. “Think about debt as an increased tax liability; this is a sign of higher income, which is good news.”

 

What Causes Technical Debt?

Technical debt can be caused by a variety of factors throughout a software product’s development, both deliberately or inadvertently.

Budget Constraints

Developing code that yields the greatest benefits for a product may not fit within the budget or be seen as a worthwhile investment. Robust code solutions, especially those that involve building an entirely new system from scratch, often require more money and expertise to implement — without a guaranteed payoff. As a result, teams may opt to utilize fast, cheaper code solutions for existing codebases to save on expenses.

Claus Moberg, vice president of engineering at Roblox, emphasizes budgeting as one reason technical debt presents itself: “[Say] we built this thing the right way a long time ago, and it used to be best in class, but migrating off of it and onto the new industry standard is really expensive, risky, or time consuming, so we haven’t done it yet.”

Time Constraints

Tight deadlines play a role in contributing to technical debt, as teams may look for the quickest solution to be able to ship a product or new features to market on time. Though this means getting value to customers faster, it also means having more product deficiencies to make up for later on. “Here, you are knowingly shipping bad code,” Moberg explained.

Lack of Knowledge or Experience

Due to improper training or a lack of development experience, teams may not have the proper knowledge to create optimal code solutions for the long-term. This can lead to a surplus of unintentional technical debt, as inexperienced software engineers may not be even aware of or know how to identify detrimental code.

Lack of Sufficient Software Testing 

Software testing allows a team to uncover errors in a codebase and ensure a product is performing as expected before releasing it to customers. Without this testing, teams could easily miss bugs that affect the functionality of a product. This would require additional updates or patches to be released after a product has already launched, meaning additional technical debt to handle.

Related ReadingHow to Reduce Technical Debt and Bolster Your Cybersecurity

 

Consequences of Technical Debt

Decreased Performance or Functionality 

For any product with technical debt, it could have overlooked performance issues. Some features may be buggy or not work at all, affecting usability and customer experience. This could also lead to more substantial system failures or downtimes when not fixed over time.

Ongoing Delays and Maintenance

The more technical debt is accrued, the longer it takes to fix. This can cause delays, missed deadlines and an ongoing backlog of work throughout development. When technical debt goes undocumented, this can make it even more difficult to gauge how long it will take to overhaul.

Increased Security Vulnerabilities

Rushing a product out the door means there may be gaps in its code, leading to security vulnerabilities. Instances like cryptographic coding errors, improper testing and outdated encryption algorithms can increase the risk of security breaches and security compliance violations. 

 

Types of Technical Debt

Technical debt is mainly categorized as intentional or unintentional, with subcategories of awareness for each — known as the technical debt quadrant. This quadrant, created by software developer Martin Fowler in 2009, helps highlight the ‘why’ behind technical debt occurring, as well as identifies whether accrued technical debt may be considered as ‘good debt’ or ‘bad debt.’

Types of Technical Debt

  1. Deliberate and reckless
  2. Deliberate and prudent
  3. Inadvertent and reckless
  4. Inadvertent and prudent

Intentional Technical Debt

Intentional technical debt is any technical debt that is known and accrued on purpose. This type of debt is often used strategically in order to meet deadlines or remain within a project’s budget.

Deliberate and Reckless 

A team may know the best code to use, but opt for speedy delivery instead in order to get a product out the door as fast as possible. Deliberate and reckless technical debt can accrue when the stakes of a project are high, and only the most necessary code is used to complete it. It normally coincides with a conscious lack of product documentation and testing.

Deliberate and Prudent 

Deliberate and prudent technical debt is when a team purposely decides to ship a product quickly, but has a plan for sorting out consequences effectively later. Technical debt in this case is usually calculated and well-documented, so teams know what issues need to be addressed and how to build the software to make it easier to adjust in the future. This kind of debt can accrue when the stakes of a project, and the risks of using shortcuts in development, are generally low.

Unintentional Technical Debt 

Unintentional technical debt is any technical debt that is unknown or not intended to occur. This type of debt often results from a lack of knowledge or foresight into the most optimal solutions.

Inadvertent and Reckless

Attempting to use the best code solutions without having sufficient knowledge, experience or skills of how to do so can lead to inadvertent and reckless technical debt. This can look like a team implementing inefficient code or frameworks without being aware of more efficient alternatives. Inadvertent and reckless technical debt likely goes unnoticed and undocumented, making it more difficult to resolve later.

Inadvertent and Prudent 

Inadvertent and prudent technical debt occurs when a team believes that it used the best code possible while developing a product, but technical debt still arises. In this case, the team itself is knowledgeable about software practices, though unconsciously used less efficient solutions. This technical debt is typically unaccounted for at the start of development and not spotted until after a product has already been launched.

The 13 Types of Technical Debt 

In 2014, a group of academics categorized technical debt into 13 types, as outlined in the paper “Towards an Ontology of Terms on Technical Debt.” These types were introduced to provide a common, more specified vocabulary of technical debt that isn’t covered by McConnell’s or Fowler’s categorizations. Each type highlights how the technical debt particularly manifests along with key indicators.

  1. Architecture debt
  2. Build debt
  3. Code debt
  4. Defect debt
  5. Design debt 
  6. Documentation debt
  7. Infrastructure debt
  8. People debt
  9. Process debt
  10. Requirement debt
  11. Service debt
  12. Test automation debt
  13. Test debt

 

Examples of Technical Debt

Intentional Technical Debt Example

One example of intentional technical debt is a case where a system or platform must be scaled quickly to account for an influx of new users. Additional features on this system may need to be released fast, with eventual refactoring in mind, in order to meet customer needs and accommodate current traffic.

“The most significant instances of technical debt are when a system has to scale 10x but was designed for 1x,” according to Singh. “A prime example of this is analytic systems, which grow from 1PB to 100PBs with daily users going from 100 to 100K with a number of distinct workloads going from 10 to 100.”

Unintentional Technical Debt Example

An example of unintentional technical debt is a case where a software product was built by a team of inexperienced developers, and this product was not tested or reviewed properly before its launch. The team isn’t unaware of any shortcomings in the codebase and didn’t anticipate possible software bugs, leading to a need to address multiple errors after the product’s release.

 

How to Reduce and Manage Technical Debt

1. Define and Track Technical Debt

Properly documenting technical debt can help developers stay on top of it. A team should define what constitutes technical debt and require everyone to track product debt using a collaborative system or software solution. This way, developers have a way to list and prioritize technical debt tasks, mark them when they are resolved as well as be aware of debt logged by others on the team.

2. Conduct Routine Code Reviews

Code reviews ensure a software’s code is looked over for errors by peers before it is shipped out. Holding routine code reviews can help developers uncover bugs or potential areas of technical debt early in development so it doesn’t become a problem later. Project management methodologies like Scrum and Agile often apply code reviews as part of its process.

3. Automate Testing and Bug Detection

Implementing automation testing can help catch software bugs that may have been missed during development or manual testing. Automated testing runs software through test cases and can flag any errors that are found, reserving human time and effort for more critical tasks. It is especially useful for large codebases or projects requiring repeated testing.

4. Keep Technology Updated

Outdated software or technologies can lead to technical debt, as they no longer may be supported or integrate properly with other systems over time. As such, keeping the technology stack updated to modern standards or the most efficient option for product needs helps prevent technical debt from accumulating.

While technical debt can be perceived as a disadvantage, it remains as a necessary component to maneuver when building software.

“If you’re on the search for the perfect product or code, you’re never actually going to be able to deliver the feature since there’s always going to be some deficiency,” Hanson said. Importantly, “as a [software] engineer, you need to make the choices of how you want to apply the resources and what matters the most in the short-term, and make decisions that don’t make it too hard in the future.”

Frequently Asked Questions

Tech debt, short for technical debt, refers to the extra work required due to taking shortcuts throughout the software development process. Tech debt can be caused by using deficient code and outdated software frameworks, or not properly testing and documenting code. It often occurs under tight development timelines or budget restraints.

Scrum is a product management framework used to help teams organize their work and progress toward a shared goal. Practices in scrum can be used to track and resolve technical debt found throughout a product’s development. This can include using product backlogs to document technical debt and necessary adjustments, and creating scrum sprint goals specifically to tackle accrued debt.

Tech debt may be considered as bad or good depending on a team’s goals and whether it was accrued intentionally. It can even be viewed as unavoidable and a neutral, routine factor to address during software development.

An earlier version of this story was published in 2020.

Hiring Now
Canva
Cloud • Digital Media • Machine Learning • Mobile • Software • Design
SHARE