In today’s marketplace, whoever finds the fastest and easiest way to a minimum viable product has a better chance at success. However, using many shortcuts to get there can quickly lead to technical debt.
While it makes good business sense to embrace the risk, it doesn’t make sense to spend weeks or months cleaning up bad code. As a result, software development teams have to develop a robust strategy to deal with this problem.
Our years of experience managing multiple software engineering teams has given us deep insights to come up with the following strategies that can help contain technical debt.
1. Understand the Primary Causes of Technical Debt
Technical debt is directly related to the human element in the software development cycle. This can be anything from inexperience, limited coding skills, and the size of the development team.
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Lack of skills and experience can also add to communication breakdown when it comes to the distribution of relevant information about the project (to the team). For example, inexperienced software engineers may not have a clear understanding of what they’re supposed to do.
At the same time, large teams with nine or more highly skilled and experienced software engineers can also have problems like coordination challenges (especially when dealing with code smells) that can lead to technical debt.
So whenever it’s possible, work with small teams of about three highly experienced software engineers. However, while this approach will work for startups, it won’t be suitable for large enterprise projects.
So when it’s a massive undertaking, the project lead needs to find better ways to communicate and coordinate with all team members.
2. Train the Development Team to Identify Technical Debt Quickly
Technical debt can be found in architecture, documentation, infrastructure, and the source code. As a result, it can be highly beneficial to train your software engineers to pinpoint code debt quickly.
The erroneous code can take the form of unnecessary code complexity and duplication, lousy style reducing readability, and long methods or functions. When it comes to documentation, it can quickly become hard to spot.
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For example, if you’re new to the team, you won’t be able to identify shortcomings in documentation like old architecture drawings or insufficient instructions.
If testing isn’t automated, every feature of the product will have to be manually tested. So if this process isn’t automated, regression testing will grow with each configuration, new feature, and supported platform.
While this won’t be a problem when the product is small, technical debt will become a significant concern when the product is ready to scale. As a result, getting your team trained and prepped to identify technical debt during all development phases can help contain technical debt to a manageable level.
3. Update Legacy Systems
Once the product matures, software engineers will spend a lot of time adding new features by inserting some new logic. However, at some point in the near future, adding new logic can become highly complicated and risky.
When this happens, the cost of adding a new feature will far outweigh its value. This, in turn, will make the development project unsustainable. This makes it important to find a balance between the cost of ownership and the cost of change.
More often than now, a rewrite is the typical response to this problem. However, this isn’t always the best approach as you won’t just throw away whatever the legacy system is doing wrong, but also what it’s doing right.
A complete rewrite will only make sense when the cost of development and delays aren’t significant. So whenever possible, it’s best to take a step by step approach to eliminating technical debt in legacy systems.
4. Take a Refactoring Approach
When you take a refactoring approach, you’re fundamentally changing the structure of the code, not its behavior. This means that this method can only work if you engage in extensive testing to prove that the behavior didn’t change after you refactored the code.
Whenever your legacy system doesn’t have tests, add it retrospectively. However, limit the tests to what needs to be changed and not the entire system.
If you’re going to adopt a refactoring approach, be ready to deal with breakages in the critical path of the system, in the changing set of functionality, in the logically connected set of functionality, and in the non-critical, not connected set of functionality.
Even if you have the best team of software engineers on the planet, it’s important to note that breakages are inevitable. As a result, formulate a plan to minimize breakages when you move forward refactoring the code.
5. Follow Best Practices
When your team is trained to spot technical debt quickly, they should also be aware of best practices. Knowing this will help the team come up with better solutions that cause minimal disruptions.
Your team’s best practices can evolve based on retrospectives. For example, if the development team is growing rapidly, you will have to adopt new practices to enhance collaboration.
Eliminating technical debt will be near impossible, but following the strategies listed above can help contain it. Whether it’s software or a mobile app, it’s always important to address technical debt right from the beginning to reduce delays and keep development costs down.