Technical Debt in Software Development: Strategies, Insights, and Best Practices

Technical Debt in Software Development: Strategies, Insights, and Best Practices

What is a Technical Debt?

In software development, we use the term technical debt, which refers to the extra work that comes from choosing an easier, short-term coding solution rather than the best overall approach. It’s a trade-off between quick implementation and long-term code quality.

Many organizations adopt technical debt to meet deadlines, but it can compromise the software’s quality, leading to higher costs and challenges in future changes. Unlike a bug, it refers to the quality of the code’s structure and design, affecting both the software’s maintainability and evolvability.

Studies show that technical debt, over time, accrues interest, leading to decreased productivity for developers and potential issues for users, such as bugs or usability problems. Studies also show that technical debt can account for as much as 30% of wasted developer productivity, and in extreme cases, it can lead to development crises.

But, if we properly understand and manage it, it can become a strategic asset. It gives us flexibility in uncertain business and technical situations, which lets us faster features delivery in the short term. It also helps us to identify and plan for its long-term implications.

Its impact goes beyond the technical aspects, affecting the long-term sustainability, scalability, and overall agility of the development process. Understanding this broad scope is crucial for effectively managing Technical Debt in any software project.

When is Technical Debt Useful?

Technical debt, while generally viewed as a negative aspect of software development, can be strategically useful in specific scenarios:

High Business Risk Situations

In the early stages of startups or when dealing with high-risk projects, deliberately incurring technical debt can be a tactical choice.

This approach allows for rapid development and quicker market entry, which can be crucial for businesses operating in competitive or innovative environments.

The key here is an obvious strategy to address this debt once the company is stable or scales ensuring long-term sustainability.

Prototyping and Experimentation

When exploring new ideas, creating prototypes, or testing the feasibility of different concepts, it can be a useful tool.

It lets developers build and test functionalities quickly without worrying about the strict standards of production-quality code.

The critical consideration in this context is to ensure that these prototypes, which are full of development debt, should not go directly transitioned into production settings.

Instead, we should use them as temporary experiments to validate ideas, after which we should develop a more robust and sustainable code base for the actual product.

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Managing Technical Debt

Managing technical debt well is crucial for maintaining a good balance between short-term usefulness and long-term codebase health. Here are some important strategies:

1 - Identification and Assessment

The first step in managing technical debt is recognizing its existence and understanding its impact. For this, we should regularly review and assess the codebase to identify areas where shortcuts have been taken or best practices don’t follow.

2 - Prioritization

Once technical debt has been identified, it’s essential to prioritize which debts we should address first. This prioritization should be based on factors such as the impact on the system’s performance, the cost of potential future bugs, and the ease of resolving the debt.

3 - Strategic Refactoring

Refactoring is restructuring existing code without changing its external behavior. Strategic refactoring targets specific areas of the codebase that contribute most significantly to the technical debt, improving code quality and maintainability.

4 - Allocating Time and Resources

Allocating dedicated time and resources for addressing technical debt is vital. We can include this in regular development cycles. For example, a certain amount of time should be allocated for refactoring and improving code quality in each cycle.

5 - Technical Debt Documentation

Keeping a record, including its cause, potential risks, and planned resolution, helps in tracking and managing it effectively. This documentation is valuable for new team members and for future planning.

6 - Automated Code Analysis

Using automated code analysis tools can help identify problematic areas of the codebase more efficiently. These tools can flag coding standards violations, complex code structures, and potential security vulnerabilities.

7 - Continuous Monitoring

Managing technical debt is an ongoing process. To ensure that new debts are not accumulating at an unsustainable rate, continuous monitoring and reassessment are necessary.

8 - Cultural Change

Cultivating a culture that understands the importance of code quality and long-term sustainability is crucial. This involves training, mentoring, and establishing practices that discourage the unnecessary accumulation of software debt.

9 - Stakeholder Communication

Communicating the importance and impact of technical liabilities to stakeholders is crucial for obtaining their support. Demonstrating how code debt can affect product quality, customer satisfaction, and development speed can help in securing the resources for its management.

Managing Technical Debt in Agile Software Development

Agile methodologies have revolutionized software development, emphasizing adaptability and customer satisfaction. However, agility and speed can sometimes lead to accumulating software development debt if not managed properly.

Code debt in Agile settings can be a strategic tool, but it requires a careful approach to ensure it doesn’t spiral out of control.

Proactive Management

Agile teams can take proactive steps to manage Technical Debt:

  • Education and Culture: Creating awareness about the consequences of technical debt and establishing a culture that prioritizes code quality.

  • Organization and Process: Ensuring that the organization’s processes support the identification and remediation of the code debt.

  • Guidelines and Visualization: Using coding standards and visual tools to track and understand the accumulation of code debt.

Continuous Management Approaches

In the Agile framework, continuous attention to technical excellence is critical:

  • Semi-automatic identification: Using tools like static code analyzers to detect potential debt early.

  • Code Reviews and Retrospectives: Regularly reviewing code and processes to find and fix debt incrementally.

  • Technical Leadership: Having a dedicated role or individual focused on maintaining code quality and addressing debt.

Reactive Approaches

Despite proactive and continuous efforts, some technical debt will inevitably arise. Teams can reactively manage this debt by:

  • Impact Mapping: Understanding the potential effects of the debt on the system.

  • Roadmap Evaluation: Assessing the project’s progress and incorporating debt repayment into the roadmap.

  • Dedicated Resources: Allocating specific resources to address the most pressing technical debt.

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The Maturity of Technical Debt Management

Software maintenance debt management can vary significantly in its maturity and sophistication within different organizations.

Level 0 – Unaware

At this initial stage, an organization is not aware of the concept of technical debt. There is no recognition or understanding of the impact that hasty coding decisions can have on the long-term health of the software. The organization does not make any efforts to track or manage technical liabilities.

Level 1 – Aware

The organization notices technical debt and its potential consequences. However, at this level, there is still no formal strategy or tools in place to manage it. Awareness is the first step towards developing a more mature approach.

Level 2 – Considerate

At this stage, the organization not only acknowledges technical debt but also starts considering it in its decision-making processes. This might involve informal discussions among developers or team leads about the trade-offs between quick fixes and long-term code quality.

Level 3 – Managed

Technical debt management becomes more systematic and structured. The organization implements specific processes and guidelines for tracking and addressing technical debt. This could include dedicated time for refactoring, code reviews focused on reducing debt, and more detailed planning to avoid accruing unnecessary debt.

Level 4 – Quantified

The organization develops methods to quantify development shortcuts, often using metrics and models. This quantification allows for a more objective assessment of code debt and aids in prioritizing which debts to address first based on their impact and cost.

Level 5 – Optimized

At this level, the organization integrates the management of the technical debt of the regular workflow. The organization optimizes its processes to prevent unnecessary accumulation of debt and effectively manages existing debt. This requires using proven methods, training developers, and constantly getting better.

Level 6 – Fully Automated

The pinnacle of software debt management maturity involves the use of automated tools and systems in managing and deciding about software debt. These tools can automatically detect, track, and sometimes even refactor code debt without human intervention, allowing for the most efficient and effective management.

Progressing through these levels involves increasing awareness and systematic approaches to managing software debt. In addition, it requires integrating technology and automation into the process.

As organizations move up these levels, they can more effectively control and mitigate the risks associated with software debt, leading to healthier, more maintainable, and scalable software systems.

Tools and Metrics for Technical Debt

Effectively managing software debt involves using a variety of tools and metrics that can help identify, quantify, and address issues related to code quality and architectural decisions.
Here are some key tools and metrics that are widely used:

1 - Static Code Analyzers

Tools like SonarQube help to identify code debt. They scan code for code smells, which are patterns that might show a deeper problem in the code. These tools can also track metrics, such as code complexity, duplication, and test coverage, offering insights into areas that may require refactoring.

2 - Architectural Smell Detection

Tools like Arcan specifically target architectural debt, which is a subset of technical debt relating to the software’s overall design and structure. These tools can identify issues like cyclic dependencies, unstable dependencies, and modularity violations, helping teams understand and address potential problems in their software architecture.

3 - Debt Estimation Metrics

Tools often include features to estimate the cost of resolving development debt, usually represented in terms of time or effort required. This estimation helps us prioritize which debts we should address first, based on their impact and the resources required to resolve them.

4 - Code Review Tools

Tools like Gerrit or GitHub’s pull request system can facilitate code reviews. These platforms allow more experienced developers to review changes and provide feedback, helping to prevent new code debt from being introduced and identifying existing debt.

5 - Issue Tracking Systems

Systems like JIRA can be configured to track development shortcuts alongside regular development tasks. Creating tickets for the technical debt makes it visible and allows for prioritization within the regular workflow.

6 - Test Coverage Tools

Tools like Istanbul or JaCoCo provide insights into the test coverage of a codebase. A high test coverage often shows an inverse relationship with technical debt, as it shows thorough testing of the code and fewer hidden issues.

7 - Complexity Metrics

Metrics such as Cyclomatic Complexity measure the complexity of a software’s code. High complexity often correlates with higher software debt, as complex code is harder to maintain and understand.

8 - Dependency Analysis Tools

Tools like Maven or Gradle can be used for analyzing dependencies in a project. Understanding and managing dependencies is crucial to prevent architectural debt.

9 - Custom Metrics and Dashboards

Organizations might develop their metrics and dashboards to track aspects of technical debt that apply to their projects or industries.

Using these tools and metrics, teams can comprehensively understand their technical liabilities, prioritize effectively, and take informed actions to manage and reduce them.

This proactive approach ensures that the software stays robust, can handle growth, and is easy to maintain in the long run.

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In summary, mastering the technical or development debt in agile software development is a dynamic and essential process. It includes a blend of proactive, continuous, and responsive methods, deeply rooted in education, organizational culture, and the strategic use of tools.

As teams progress through the maturity levels of software debt management, they not only maintain sustainable, high-quality software development but also transform technical debt from a challenge into a strategic advantage.

This journey ensures agile practices contribute to robust and adaptable software, aligning short-term gains with long-term quality and efficiency.

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