How much does it cost to maintain code your company has created? Does it matter? For some companies, these maintenance costs, known as technical debt, can eventually overtake innovation costs and can harm the enterprise, according to analysts.

Jim Highsmith, executive consultant for ThoughtWorks, defines quality of code in two ways: First, that the program does what it’s been created to do; and second, that the adaptability of the product can change over time. Adaptability, he said, is what “reduces tech debt in the long term.”

Highsmith said that code becomes unmaintainable as companies try to continually deliver new features without going back and adjusting existing lines of code. Gradually, then more rapidly, this causes the lines of code to degrade over time, he said.

Bill Curtis, senior vice president and chief scientist at CAST Software (a provider of software that breaks down code line by line and measures technical debt per line of code), said that the adjustments are natural in the development process, particularly in an iterative one.

“In fairly short cycles [like in the agile world, developers] don’t have time to go back and change elements of the code, or fix things they wish they had done differently. It’s not a matter of the code working properly; it’s more a matter of easier maintenance,” Curtis said.

Maintenance is a regular part of owning code, but Highsmith said some companies “spend 50–75% of their resources” on it—most of which is caused by high technical debt.

High tech debt impacts time to market and market capitalization. This causes an inability to predict how long a new release will take, and this ultimately causes an inability to predict earnings, he said.

Israel Gat, practice director for agile project and product management at the Cutter Consortium IT advisory firm, said in his report, entitled “Revolution in Software: Using Technical Debt Techniques to Govern the Software Development Process,” that enterprise companies “borrow a little time through a design or coding shortcut with the intent of paying it back as soon as possible.” This, he said, does not always happen, though.