Technical Debt in Agile: 7 Strategies Agile Teams Can Use

Technical Debt in Agile: 7 Strategies Agile Teams Can Use

Technical debt refers to the extra development work that arises when code that is easy to implement in the short run is used instead of applying the best overall solution. Technical debt is a common problem in Agile software development processes, because of its inherently high development velocity, and the pressure that affects many Agile teams.

Technical debt can be thought of as a software development version of short-term versus long-term thinking. It's a concept that reflects the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing a quick but potentially problematic solution, as opposed to using a more thorough, but more time-consuming, approach.

Just like financial debt, technical debt incurs interest payments. These come in the form of extra effort that must be paid out in the future because of the quick-and-dirty design choice. We can also view this interest as the lost opportunity to do a task right the first time.

It's important to clarify that not all technical debt is bad. Sometimes, it's necessary to take on a reasonable amount of debt to hit important deliverables or timelines. The key here is to manage the debt effectively and avoid letting it spiral out of control.

This is part of a series on technical debt.

How Agile Can Contribute to Technical Debt 

Agile development can inadvertently contribute to the accumulation of technical debt in a few ways. Firstly, the very nature of Agile, with its emphasis on speed and responsiveness, can lead to hasty coding and short-term workarounds. These often become sources of technical debt as they need to be revised and improved later on.

Secondly, in Agile settings, there's a tendency to prioritize new features over code maintenance, which can also lead to the buildup of technical debt. Developers are often pressured to deliver functionality quickly, which can mean skimping on quality to meet deadlines.

Lastly, Agile's iterative approach may lead to refactoring, where the code is improved and optimized for better performance. If not done properly, this can inadvertently contribute to technical debt.

How Agile Can Help Manage Technical Debt 

Despite potentially contributing to technical debt, Agile methodologies also offer powerful tools to manage and reduce it. Agile promotes regular reflection on how to become more effective, then tuning and adjusting behavior accordingly, which can be applied to managing technical debt.

For instance, Agile methodologies emphasize regular, small releases. This approach allows teams to catch and correct issues early before they become major problems. It also gives them the opportunity to refactor as they go, continuously improving the codebase and reducing technical debt.

Additionally, Agile's focus on collaboration encourages sharing of knowledge across the team, reducing the risk of knowledge silos that can lead to technical debt. When everyone understands the codebase, it's easier to keep the code clean and clear of debt.

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

Strategies for Managing Technical Debt in Agile 

1. Incorporate Debt Consideration into Story Points

In Agile, we use story points to estimate the effort required to implement a user story. But, typically, we only consider the effort to develop the new feature, ignoring the effort to deal with the technical debt that the new feature might introduce. 

It's essential to factor in technical debt into your story points. Start by identifying potential areas where debt could accumulate and estimate the effort required to mitigate it. This might mean assigning more points to a story that is likely to introduce more debt. This approach ensures that your team doesn't underestimate the work involved and that you allocate adequate time for debt management.

2. Prioritize Technical Debt in the Product Backlog

Technical debt in Agile can be a ticking time bomb if not properly managed. One way to keep it in check is by making it a priority in your product backlog. Items in the backlog are usually prioritized based on their value to the end-user. However, the cost of not addressing technical debt can be high, leading to slower development cycles and poorer quality code.

Start by identifying the most significant sources of debt. These could be areas of your codebase that are particularly complex or difficult to maintain. Prioritize these items in your backlog and allocate time in each sprint to address them. This approach ensures that your team regularly pays off its debt and prevents it from spiraling out of control.

3. Dedicated Time for Refactoring

Refactoring is a vital part of managing technical debt in Agile. It involves restructuring existing code without changing its external behavior. The goal is to improve the code's structure and maintainability, thereby reducing technical debt. But in the hustle and bustle of delivering new features, refactoring often falls by the wayside.

To avoid this, dedicate time explicitly for refactoring. This could be a specific time during each sprint or a whole sprint dedicated to refactoring every few sprints. This dedicated time ensures that your team regularly cleans up the codebase, reducing the accumulation of technical debt.

4. Automate Testing and Use Continuous Integration

Automated testing and continuous integration are powerful tools in the fight against technical debt. Automated tests ensure that your code meets its requirements and behaves as expected. Continuous integration, on the other hand, involves regularly merging code changes into a shared repository. This practice helps to identify and fix integration issues early on.

By automating tests and using continuous integration, you can catch and fix issues early, before they become significant sources of technical debt. These practices also free up your team's time to focus on delivering new features and addressing existing debt.

5. Foster Collective Code Ownership

In many teams, code ownership is a significant source of technical debt. When only one person understands a section of the codebase, it becomes a bottleneck. Changes to that code can introduce bugs, and if that person leaves the team, the knowledge of that code leaves with them.

To mitigate this risk, foster a culture of collective code ownership. Encourage team members to review each other's code and understand different parts of the codebase. This approach reduces the risk of single points of failure and ensures that your team can effectively manage its technical debt.

6. Hold Regular Technical Debt Reviews

Regular reviews are a powerful tool for managing technical debt in Agile. These reviews can help your team understand the current state of its debt and identify strategies for paying it off. During these reviews, discuss the sources of your debt, its impact on your project, and the steps you're taking to reduce it.

Hold these reviews regularly—perhaps at the end of each sprint. This regularity ensures that technical debt remains at the forefront of your team's mind and that you're continually making progress in reducing it.

7. Document and Communicate about Technical Debt

Finally, it's essential to document and communicate about your technical debt. This documentation can take the form of comments in your code, entries in your backlog, or dedicated documents. The key is to ensure that everyone on your team understands the current state of your debt and the steps you're taking to reduce it.

Communication is also critical. Regularly discuss technical debt in your stand-ups and retrospectives. This constant communication ensures that everyone on your team is on the same page and that you're all working together to manage your technical debt.

Learn more in our detailed guide to technical debt reduction

Managing Technical Debt with CodeSee

CodeSee's user-friendly interface empowers you to manage technical debt with ease and efficiency. Through the platform, you can effortlessly highlight and automate the process of addressing technical debt. The ability to create multiple focused maps enables you to target specific aspects of your codebase without getting overwhelmed by complexity. 

Additionally, collaborating with your team becomes more seamless thanks to the use of labels and color-coding, fostering effective communication and shared understanding of how technical debt impacts the project's overall progress.

Learn how to better manage your technical debt with CodeSee

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