It is no secret that our nation is facing a period of economic turmoil and it is wreaking havoc on the technology industry. However, despite this, companies must maintain their current product development cycles and levels of innovation.

While keeping up the pace during these times can lead to near-term success, it often results in long-term consequences that companies must pay for down the line.

One of those consequences is technical debt.

The Growth of Technical Debt

Over the last several months, technology companies have, unfortunately, needed to reduce their workforces and cut costs. This means that engineering teams must accomplish more with fewer resources. They still must bring their software and applications to market as quickly as possible and keep up with trends, market demands, and competition. To do so, engineering teams often must accrue technical debt.

There are several activities that can result in the accumulation of technical debt, the most common being: 

  • Impulse buying: When there is a reduction in staffing, many companies purchase software tools to make up for it. While these tools can be extremely helpful because they provide engineering teams–or companies with limited engineering expertise–with out-of-the-box low-code/no-code options that can easily address certain areas of development, they are not always the best answer. Sometimes they are just quick fixes that end up costing companies time and money down the road because the workaround code used cannot easily be changed.
  • Impulse release: Rushing to release without thinking through a plan. This leads to indirect debt, as you tend to put things off into your backlog, creating an environment that leads to frequent updates. One day when your code breaks, it could result in a situation that you’re not prepared to handle.
  • Environmental changes: Most of the software or applications in existence today have hundreds of integrations. When the technology specific to those integrations changes–sometimes weekly or monthly–it can become a great burden for development teams with limited staff. They must balance the need to address those updates while trying to innovate, meet production schedules, etc. This can result in certain updates being prioritized over others. For example, updating to every new release of everything. In fact, it’s often better to find a balance between an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality and keeping things fresh.

Technical debt from activities like these typically occurs over time, just like credit card debt. This debt becomes a burden for engineering teams–who must dedicate their precious time to resolving it rather than focusing on innovation–and companies that are experiencing issues because of all the resources needed to address it.

In fact, from a corporate perspective, 30% of CIOs shared with McKinsey that more than 20% of their technical budget (which is planned originally for new products) is diverted to resolving issues related to technical debt. These same CIOs estimated that technical debt amounted to 20-40% of the value of their entire technology estate.

To break it down even further from an engineering perspective, 43% of application development leaders recently reported that their teams spend more than 40% of their time on maintenance. This routine maintenance work can include not only regular updates needed for integrations and operating systems, but also to recoup technical debt. 

These statistics should sound an alarm bell for companies, and they should begin to think about what can be done to limit technical debt.

An Approach to Managing Technical Debt

For companies and engineering teams to address technical debt within their organization, they must:

  • Bridge the disconnect: There is a clear disconnect between engineering teams and company leadership. To make leadership understand the impact of technical debt, engineering teams must be more specific in framing it through the unambiguous issues that may arise as a result. This includes user experience and developer productivity. Some showstopper user issues can be addressed by user training/FAQ’s which otherwise would take months for engineering teams to address within the product. Foster a culture of transparency and collaboration and prioritize issues that must be addressed.
  • Acknowledge the consequences of accelerated development: Company leadership must meet the demands of its stakeholders, but it comes at a high price. The acceleration of product development in economic times like these will always result in steep consequences down the line. They must think about what they need to achieve and what it will take to feasibly get there, but also realize that they will eventually have to pay greatly for their lack of dedicated resources. This starts by acknowledging the fact that their engineering teams are the experts and have greater insights into the eventual consequences and the price that will have to be paid. At the least, leadership should document the technical debt being incurred for future reference.
  • Focus on the quality of the product: Find the balance between agility and quality. Be aggressive in ensuring the quality of the product and force the team to have automated code-coverage testing, functional testing, and enough code reviews throughout the development cycle to catch flaws. Do not wait for the entire solution to be complete to perform code reviews. Failing to do this creates backlogs of issues that increase tech debt. It may seem like too much, but establishing correct practices early in development pays off tremendously in the future.
  • Understand varying levels of technical debt: Company leadership must understand that not all technical debt is necessarily bad, and that they should rely on their engineering teams to know the right balance. Rather than instituting a top-down approach, leadership should let the engineers use their expertise to determine what gets done and what doesn’t (yet) as well as what tools they use to get those things done. Let them take an approach that gives them complete control over their code, offers the flexibility to make updates, and empowers them to be creative.

Technical debt is an ongoing challenge that might never fully go away, but companies and engineering teams can begin to change how they perceive and address it. It is more important now than ever for these groups to ensure that they are on the same page, fully understanding the impact of technical debt.