Recognising technical debt in your development approach

Pritesh Pattni

‘Technical debt’ is a widely used term in the software development industry. It’s also a term that often carries a wide definition and, depending on the context, can be seen as positive or negative. Our article on this issue sets out our interpretation of the types of technical debt development teams should be aware of, the reasons why they occur, and how you can use existing technology – specifically low code – to avoid technical debt in the first place.

Why does technical debt matter?

Our conversations with software teams tell us that, in a highly competitive commercial environment where the most important thing is to get to market first, technical debt is a growing threat. An inconsistent, or laissez-faire approach to technical debt is often driven more by the business or commercial leads than by the IT or software department. This puts increasing strain on IT and development teams which in itself contributes to missing project milestones or reducing the quality of code.

First, let’s define technical debt.

Technical debt refers to the consequences of taking shortcuts or making suboptimal design and implementation decisions during the development process. Just like financial debt, technical debt accumulates interest over time and can become costly to manage and maintain.

In fact, there have been many attempts to define technical debt. For some practitioners, it’s always an intentional act, much in the way that taking on a financial debt is an intentional act – you need to get something done immediately, and you are prepared to take the impact further down the line in order to achieve that immediate goal.

For others, technical debt can also be accrued unintentionally – perhaps by using an inexperienced project manager, or not considering the whole scope of the project at the outset.

For us, technical debt is about making decisions today – on whatever basis – that will negatively affect the quality and performance of your product and its commercial viability in the future.

How does technical debt occur?

Initially, technical debt was defined by the strategic approach developers took. In 2014, however, a group of academics in Salvador, Brazil, published a paper called ‘Towards an Ontology of Terms on Technical Debt’. In this paper, they highlighted 13 types of technical debt:

  • Architecture Debt
  • Build Debt
  • Code Debt
  • Defect Debt
  • Design Debt
  • Documentation Debt
  • Infrastructure Debt
  • People Debt
  • Process Debt
  • Requirement Debt
  • Service Debt
  • Test Automation Debt
  • Test Debt

This list helps us to see how, in pursuing budget, time or release goals, development teams can actually build up several types of technical debt throughout a project. In some cases, debt in one area may lead to debt in another, and this can become a cycle that is hard to break.

What are the costs of technical debt?

In 2022, McKinsey Digital published an article that looked at how to measure the way technical debt impacted organisations.

Historically, measuring this issue has been tricky – unlike financial debt, technical debt is difficult to see and therefore difficult to quantify. So while organisations know they have it, they can’t really say how it affects the bottom line.

McKinsey spoke to CIOs about this issue, and discovered that those CIOs estimated that: ‘technology debt amounted to around 20-40% of their entire technology estate’. The consultancy company’s research showed that there is a significant relationship between business performance and technical debt.

This echoes our own experience – technical debt costs organisations in several ways. Certainly, there are the direct costs of recoding or redesigning software to take account of earlier sidesteps. This may mean hiring more development staff, with the resulting overheads. There is also a time cost – the time you save early on in a project will need to be spent at a later date.

There may also be a reputational cost. For example, rushing to get your solution out of the door is fine, but delivering a clunky, unfriendly or buggy solution will have an impact on your reputation and on your ability to win new business.

And finally, there’s the cost of missed opportunities – if you had spent slightly more time on getting elements of your solution absolutely right, perhaps you could have increased your market share, tapped into a new niche, been able to price more profitably or developed new and useful skills within your team.

Using low code to reduce technical debt

Technical debt doesn’t have to be an ‘accepted’ part of every development. There are better and more productive ways to do things. Low code allows you to work within a standard architecture and framework. This limits the opportunity for technical debt from the very beginning of your project and allows your product to evolve without the need for huge rewrites or redesign.

By effectively managing technical debt, a company can strike a balance between meeting short-term deadlines and achieving long-term strategic goals in its development process. By harmonizing contemporary application development platforms, organizational structures, and team priorities, you can gradually reduce your debt without compromising ongoing project timelines.

With the right tools and methodologies, you no longer have to face the dilemma of choosing between speedy development and robust implementation. OutSystems enables companies to not only rapidly build applications using a visual, model-driven development environment and reusable components but also ensures the security, resilience, and scalability of cloud-native, enterprise-grade applications.

OutSystems ensures that the developed apps remain future-proof and minimizes technical debt with features such as an Architecture Dashboard that actively monitors for it and TrueChange, an AI-powered automation layer that swiftly detects and addresses performance and quality issues. While many companies struggle to tackle this problem, OutSystems empowers businesses to proactively halt technical debt in its tracks and create applications that remain consistently relevant and up-to-date.

At ISB Global Smart Solutions, we are an long standing OutSystems partner and have in-depth experience of using their high performance low code platform both for our own industry-leading solution and business critical applications for clients. Talk to us to find out how we can help you manage – and avoid – technical debt in the future.

Just get in touch with us today to find out more.

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