7 Effective Strategies for CTOs to Reduce Technical Debt

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Rafael Timbó
By
Rafael Timbó
|
Chief Technology Officer
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Discover how to effectively measure, manage, and reduce technical debt.
Published on
October 25, 2023
Updated on
April 11, 2024

If deadlines didn’t exist and programmers could tweak codes until they were perfect, no one would have to deal with coding errors or flaws. Then again, if deadlines didn’t exist, software likely would never get released; developers would continue tweaking and editing, trying to perfect products. 

Technical debt comes as a compromise between quality and efficiency or speed to market. Developers borrow on code quality — knowing they’ll have to improve it later to fix it — in order to create software on a schedule. 

Having technical debt doesn’t mean that you produce bad code or sub-par software. Some amount of technical debt is inevitable. The problem comes when you don’t repay that technical debt in a timely manner. Like financial debt, technical debt accumulates with interest; the longer it takes to repay that debt, the harder it becomes to manage it, and the more clunky your software engineering program becomes as a result. 

Read on to learn how to reduce technical debt and incur less tech debt in the future. 

What Is Technical Debt? 

Technical debt, also known as tech debt, describes the amount of extra work developers have to put into a project due to taking shortcuts while coding. The term “technical debt” implies that when developers do things to simplify their coding or software development processes, there is often a long-term consequence. That consequence, or debt, needs to be repaid, or the overall software may suffer as a result. 

Just as financial debt borrows from future finances to pay expenses now, technical debt borrows from future programming efforts to solve current problems. Consider, for example, when programmers write code without including annotations. Writing code this way is much faster, and when you’re up against a deadline, it’s easy to get sloppy with in-code annotations to save yourself time in the short term. However, if you do so when you reference the code later, it will take a lot longer to interpret what you did before and solve problems or build on your successes. 

And, like with finances, technical debt comes with interest. In the above example, it might not seem like a big deal if you typed code without annotations to have it ready for an upcoming stakeholder meeting. If, after the meeting, you go back and add notations, it won’t be that hard to do; the interest on that debt is relatively low. Alternatively, it becomes much more challenging if you forget to repay that debt promptly and try to add annotations six months later. You incur more interest by taking more time to repay your debt. 

How to Measure Technical Debt

Certain key performance indicators (KPIs) provide metrics to help you measure technical debt, which is the first step to managing it. One of the easiest KPIs to measure is new bugs versus closed bugs. If your new bugs are outpacing your closed bugs, you need to double down on technical debt management. 

Another strategy for measuring and tracking technical debt is to look at development cycle time. Cycle time refers to the time your team takes to make changes to existing code. If you have a long cycle time, that’s a good indication that — even if there are no inherent bugs in your code — your code is being written clunkily, which is its own form of technical debt (code debt). 

Related: Technical Debt in Agile

Tips for Reducing Technical Debt

According to a CodeScene report, the average company spends 23% to 42% of its development time dealing with technical debt. Managing tech debt can seem impossible, especially when resources are limited. However, addressing technical debt becomes manageable when you have a strategy to prioritize your debt, tackle it in a timely manner, and limit the amount of interest you have to pay. 

Below are seven strategies to reduce technical debt.

1. Track & Prioritize Tech Debt As You Notice It

Keeping technical debt under control is impossible if you don’t know how much debt you have. 

Luckily, tools like Jira, Azure Board, and GitHub Issues allow everyone on your team to submit support tickets when they encounter bugs, which can help you consolidate known issues in one place. 

You can then take this a step further by prioritizing issues. An action/priority matrix can be a good strategy for setting priorities. Once you’ve set your priorities, you will know where to focus your energy whenever you have time to work on repaying your technical debt. 

2. Implement Refactoring Into Your Process

Refactoring code involves simplifying the code you’ve written in a way that doesn’t change what the code does. Creating a matrix, for example, and calling items within that matrix is much simpler than creating redundant codes for each item in a list. 

For programmers, refactoring is as important — and easy to avoid — as editing is for writers. But cutting down on clunky coding makes your program easier to read, alter and less likely to be buggy. By making regular refactoring part of your coding process, you naturally reduce technical debt, and you should see development cycle times shorten as a result. 

3. Embrace Automated Testing

Automated testing is much faster than human testing, so you can run more tests on software before your launch date. By running more tests, you’re more likely to encounter bugs early on — preferably pre-launch — which allows you to take on and reduce technical debt when the interest on that debt is still relatively low. 

4. Implement Pair Programming

When two programmers work together at a single workstation, they can perform code reviews of each other’s work, making it cleaner and more error-free. One programmer might catch missing punctuation, while another may have encountered an easier way to write a line of code.

While many CTOs are reluctant to use two programmers when they’ve only used one in the past, believing it could double the time it takes to receive a viable product, the research on this approach shows something else entirely. 

According to a collaboration between the University of Utah and North Carolina State University, pair programming takes about 15% longer than individual programming, not twice as long. Moreover, the amount of extra time spent creating the initial code is more than repaid because pair programming leads to significantly fewer defects; the study estimates that the amount of time programmers would spend resolving issues caused by programming alone would be fifteen times longer than the time “wasted” by simply pair programming to begin with. 

5. Invest in New Programming Technology

Outdated technology makes the entire programming process slower, which makes programmers more likely to cut corners to make deadlines and less likely to spend time trying to reduce technical debt. Investing in new programming technology makes programming more efficient and less vulnerable to attack, allowing your engineering team to accomplish more in a shorter time frame. 

6. Address Skills Gaps

Although tech debt is often intentional, with programmers choosing to save time now and make up for it later, some tech debt is unintentional. Programmers with skills gaps may use lengthy or inefficient workarounds to accomplish goals, which can lead to future tech debt. Assessing programmers’ coding skills and addressing gaps through continual training, mentoring, or pairing inexperienced programmers with more experienced programmers can lead to a better overall product while also future-proofing your company and preparing it for the day when your novice programmers become your top programmers. 

7. Plan Debt Repayment Periods

Set aside specific days or times when your team only focuses on resolving known issues, adding notations, and refactoring existing code. Planned debt repayment periods are a smart way to manage tech debt because they allow you to tackle numerous problems without adding new debt. Over time, these planned repayment periods lead to high-quality products. 

How to Avoid Technical Debt

One of the best practices to manage tech debt is avoiding incurring new debt while paying off your current debt. Here are some strategies to avoid technical debt: 

  • Have a system in place: Systems, including regulations for how you notate code or when you can use coding AI, prevent your team from taking shortcuts that cost time and money. 
  • Discuss technical debt as a team: Openly discussing the concept of technical debt and brainstorming strategies for technical debt reduction can help you prevent more debt in the future. 
  • Clean as you go: Create a culture where developers fix minor errors (such as missing annotations or known bugs) as they notice them rather than saving these errors for later. A “clean as you go” mentality ensures that debt repayment days can be saved for more significant errors that take more time to solve. 

Hire Skilled Developers & Reduce Technical Debt

Understanding technical debt and how to manage it becomes easier when you have dedicated developers skilled at addressing issues as they crop up. Revelo can help match your business with some of these skilled, time-zone-aligned developers with the technical and soft skills necessary to bolster your development team. 

Revelo even offers onboarding support, including payroll, benefits administration, taxes, and local compliance, so you can focus your time on managing your team. We also provide engagement and retention support throughout the developer’s time with your company to ensure needs are met. 

Hire tech talent with Revelo today and begin to manage tech debt like a pro. 

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