What is tech debt?

Oct 18, 2023

In the bustling world of software engineering, there's a term that often hovers like a cloud over the heads of developers, engineering managers, and stakeholders alike: tech debt. But what is tech debt? Why does it matter? And how can engineering teams navigate its challenges? Let's dive deep into the world of tech debt, its common forms, and the ways it can accumulate over time.

Understanding Tech Debt

Tech debt, in its essence, is the future cost of taking shortcuts today. Imagine borrowing time from the future to meet present needs. It's like opting for a quick fix instead of a more comprehensive solution that would take longer. Just as financial debt accumulates interest, tech debt, when left unaddressed, can compound, leading to longer cycle times, decreased team performance, and potential downtime.

The Many Faces of Tech Debt

Tech debt isn't a monolithic entity. It manifests in various forms:

  1. Code Debt: This arises when the codebase has shortcuts, often resulting from rushed coding sessions or bypassing the code review process.

  2. Design Debt: Here, the software's design isn't scalable or maintainable, perhaps due to neglecting best practices or not leveraging the right frameworks.

  3. Testing Debt: This form emerges when tests are skipped or when they're not comprehensive, leading to potential functionality or performance issues.

  4. Documentation Debt: A lack of adequate documentation can make it challenging for team members to understand or modify the codebase, slowing down the development process.

The Accumulation of Tech Debt

Several factors can lead to the buildup of tech debt:

  • Tight Deadlines: Pressures to deliver new features or meet specific business goals within a constrained timeframe can push engineering teams to take shortcuts.

  • Resource Limitations: Whether it's a shortage of team members, tools, or time, limited resources can lead to suboptimal solutions.

  • Lack of Knowledge: If the engineering team isn't up-to-date with the latest software development practices or frameworks, they might inadvertently introduce tech debt.

Metrics: The Compass in Navigating Tech Debt

Metrics serve as a guiding light for engineering organizations. By closely monitoring specific engineering metrics, such as pull request size, coding times, and review  times, teams can identify signs of tech debt early on. Some crucial metrics include:

  • Lead Time: The duration from the creation of work until its completion.

  • Code Churn: The frequency with which code is modified after its initial release.

  • Pull Request Size: The amount of code (lines of code) involved in a pull request.

  • Review Time: The time between a pull request review starts and code is merged.

Addressing Tech Debt

Confronting tech debt requires a concerted effort from the entire engineering team. Here are some strategies:

  • Regular Code Reviews: Ensuring that every piece of code undergoes a thorough code review process can help identify potential issues early on.

  • Refactoring: Periodically revisiting and refining the codebase can enhance its maintainability and reduce tech debt.

  • Continuous Improvement: Cultivating a culture where the team is always on the lookout for optimization opportunities can prevent tech debt from piling up.

BuildPulse: Your Ally in Managing Tech Debt

For teams aiming to manage and mitigate tech debt effectively, BuildPulse Engineering Metrics emerges as a game-changer. With its comprehensive metrics and developer copilot feature, BuildPulse not only aids teams in pinpointing tech debt but also automates routine tasks, ensuring timely and efficient reviews.

In conclusion, while tech debt is an inherent aspect of software engineering, it doesn't have to be a looming specter. With a clear understanding, proactive measures, and the right tools, engineering teams can manage and reduce tech debt, ensuring their software remains efficient, scalable, and maintainable.