Technical Debt: Causes, Types, and 6 Ways to Reduce Your Debt

What Is Technical Debt? 

Technical debt, also known as code debt, is a metaphor coined by software developer Ward Cunningham. It refers to the implied cost that organizations incur when they opt for a quick, often imperfect solution, instead of the best long-term solution. Just like financial debt, this "borrowed time" accrues "interest" over time, manifesting as additional time, effort, and resources required to fix these problems in the future.

Technical debt can occur intentionally or unintentionally. When incurred intentionally, it's often due to the pressure to meet deadlines or deliver results quickly. On the other hand, unintentional technical debt can arise from lack of experience, poor planning, or unforeseen complexities. Regardless of how it's incurred, understanding and managing technical debt is crucial for maintaining the health and efficiency of your software systems.

Technical debt is not inherently bad. A certain amount of it is a natural byproduct of the software development process. However, like financial debt, it becomes a problem when it's allowed to accumulate unchecked. It's important to strike a balance between the short-term needs of your projects and the long-term health of your software.

Why Is Technical Debt Important? 

Technical debt matters because it directly impacts the productivity and efficiency of your software team. The accumulated "interest" of technical debt can lead to slower implementation of new features, more bugs, and ultimately, decreased product quality. This can result in customer dissatisfaction and loss of business.

Moreover, high levels of technical debt can demotivate the development team. Constantly having to deal with legacy issues leaves less time for innovation or working on exciting new features. This can lead to a vicious cycle where quality continues to decline as the team struggles to keep up with the mounting backlog of issues.

Lastly, technical debt can pose significant financial risks. The costs associated with fixing issues increase exponentially the longer they are left unaddressed. This can have a severe impact on your project budget and overall financial health of your organization. Therefore, understanding and effectively managing technical debt is vital for the long-term success of your projects and overall business strategy.

Learn more in our detailed guide to technical debt management (coming soon)

What are the Causes of Technical Debt? 

Technical debt can arise from a variety of sources. Here are some of the most common causes:

Unclear Project Requirements

One of the main causes of technical debt is unclear or constantly changing project requirements. When the project's objectives and specifications are not clearly defined, it can lead to confusion and result in suboptimal solutions. Additionally, if the requirements change frequently, it can be difficult to maintain a consistent design, leading to a patchwork of hastily implemented features.

Bad Code

Another significant cause of technical debt is bad code. This includes code that is poorly written, messy, or difficult to understand. Bad code can make it hard for developers to maintain and update the software, leading to more time spent on debugging and less time on developing new features.

Lack of Documentation

Lack of proper documentation can also contribute to technical debt. When code is not properly documented, it can be hard for other developers to understand what the code does and why it was written in a particular way. This can lead to confusion and increase the likelihood of introducing errors when the code is modified or updated.

Lack of Testing

A lack of adequate testing can lead to technical debt as well. Without thorough testing, bugs and issues can go unnoticed until they become bigger problems. This can result in more time and resources spent on fixing these issues, thereby increasing the technical debt.

Information Silos

Lastly, information silos, where knowledge is not shared across the team, can lead to technical debt. When only a few individuals understand certain parts of the code, it can create dependencies that slow down the development process and increase the risk of errors.

Examples and Types of Technical Debt 

Infrastructure Debt

Infrastructure debt arises when an organization's underlying tech infrastructure is not updated or maintained adequately. This might occur due to a lack of investment in infrastructure, rapid growth that outpaces infrastructure development, or the use of outdated or inefficient technologies. 

As a result of infrastructure debt, the organization may struggle with system inefficiencies, downtime, or even data loss. For instance, an organization using a legacy server instead of migrating to the cloud could experience significant infrastructure debt due to the cost and time required for maintenance and the inability to scale on demand.

Security Debt

Security debt refers to the risks and vulnerabilities that arise when an organization fails to invest adequately in cybersecurity measures. This can occur due to a lack of knowledge or awareness about cyber threats, budget constraints, or a failure to keep up with the fast-paced evolution of cyber threats. 

For instance, a company that fails to patch its software regularly might accumulate security debt, exposing itself to potential cyber-attacks that could lead to data breaches, legal issues, and loss of customer trust.

Software Debt

Software debt involves issues that arise from problems in the software development process, such as coding errors, poor design, or bugs. This type of debt can result in inefficient, unstable, or insecure software applications that hinder business operations and customer satisfaction. 

For example, an e-commerce company that rushes to release a new version of its online shopping portal to meet a launch deadline might accumulate software debt if the site provides the required new features, yet is buggy, slow, or unable to handle required traffic volumes.

Learn more in our detailed guide to technical debt software (coming soon)

Documentation Debt

Documentation Debt is incurred when there is a lack of proper documentation for software, systems, or processes. This can lead to confusion, inefficiency, and mistakes, as team members and users do not have the necessary information to understand or use the systems effectively. 

For instance, a software development team that does not adequately document its code could accumulate documentation debt, making it difficult for new team members to understand the code or for existing members to update it.

6 Ways to Manage and Reduce Technical Debt 

Here are key  strategies for managing and reducing technical debt in your organization.

1. Code Review

Code review is a critical practice for identifying and rectifying problems in the code that could contribute to software debt. By regularly reviewing the code, developers can spot errors, inefficiencies, and potential security vulnerabilities before they become major issues. For instance, a development team could establish a practice of peer reviewing each other's code, or use automated code review tools to help identify potential problems.

2. Code Refactoring

Code refactoring involves improving the design of existing code without changing its external behavior. This can help to eliminate software debt by making the code more efficient, readable, and maintainable. For instance, a developer might refactor a piece of code by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable functions, or by replacing a complex conditional with a more straightforward solution.

3. Automated Testing

Automated testing is another valuable tool for managing and reducing technical debt. By automating the testing process, organizations can ensure that their software is functioning correctly and that any changes or updates do not introduce new problems. For instance, a company could use automated testing tools to regularly test its software for bugs, performance issues, and security vulnerabilities.

4. Consistent Coding Standards

Adhering to consistent coding standards can help to prevent the accumulation of software debt. By establishing and following a set of coding standards, teams can ensure that their code is consistent, readable, and easier to maintain. For instance, a development team might establish standards around naming conventions, code formatting, and commenting.

5. Maintaining Documentation

Maintaining documentation is crucial to avoid documentation debt. By keeping accurate, up-to-date documentation of their systems, processes, and software, organizations can ensure that team members and users have the information they need to work effectively. For instance, a software development team might use a tool like Confluence or Notion to centrally store and manage their documentation.

6. Debt Quadrant Analysis

Finally, debt quadrant analysis can be a useful tool for managing and reducing technical debt. This involves categorizing technical debt into four quadrants: 

  • Prudent and deliberate
  • Reckless and deliberate
  • Prudent and inadvertent
  • Reckless and inadvertent

By understanding where their Technical Debt falls within these quadrants, organizations can prioritize their efforts and develop effective strategies for debt reduction.

Learn more in our detailed guide to technical debt reduction

Understanding Technical Debt with CodeSee

When left unaddressed, technical debt can quickly spiral into an uncontrollable mess. This is where CodeSee comes to the rescue. 

CodeSee automatically generates a visual model of your codebase, providing you with valuable insights into your technical debt. This visibility allows you to pinpoint the areas that require immediate attention and prioritize tasks accordingly, making it easier to tackle the challenges that technical debt presents.

Learn how to better understand your technical debt with CodeSee

Related Content: Read more in our guide to technical debt in agile

Start your code visibility journey with CodeSee today.