Technical debt is a term that’s increasingly being used in the world of DevOps, but what exactly does it mean? Essentially, it’s the accumulation of small development deficiencies that will require rework down the line. It can arise from a variety of causes, such as the pressure to deliver new features quickly, which might result in your team having to sacrifice the cleanliness and polish of the code. But these small pieces of incomplete code, like monetary debt, accrue interest over time, manifesting as challenges in software modifications or difficulties in adding new features.

Causes of Technical Debt

One of the main causes of technical debt is the disconnect between the development and business sides of an organization. Development teams often feel the pressure to maintain a high feature velocity, sometimes at the cost of proper service planning. Not planning for the end of the service lifecycle, for example, can result in what is called “senile services.” These are services that may not be doing much but remain critical to business operations and can produce more technical debt later on. They might be challenging to migrate, or they may be the product of unknown shadow or zombie APIs. The result is that your development could be held up by more efficient ways of working, thus incurring more technical debt.

Symptoms of Excessive Technical Debt

Without careful monitoring, technical debt can slow down your development and deployment processes, degrade your product quality, and limit your ability to innovate in a changing market. Some signs of excessive technical debt can include increasing cost and/or time to fix the technical debt, a consistent increase in the time taken for each release and deployment, and higher rates of employee turnover due to frustration from working on legacy systems and dealing with frequent breakages.

When is Ignoring Technical Debt Acceptable?

While the negative impacts of technical debt are real, it is not always necessary, or even practical, to address it immediately. There are a few scenarios where it makes sense to let debt accumulate. For example, if the cost of addressing technical debt is significantly higher now than in the future, if the debt is not impacting your immediate and short-term business needs, or if you have an emergency release like a major security vulnerability fix. Keeping the big picture in mind when making the right tradeoffs is critical, and well-managed technical debt can be an effective tool to shorten the lead time, allowing for the prioritization of important deployments.
This brings us to a key point: the context that separates “good” technical debt, which lets us ship, and “bad” technical debt, which needs attention. This separation comes down to understanding the actual impact on customers and the team. Ignoring some technical debt isn’t so bad after all, so long as you have shared context to guide your decisions.

When Ignoring Technical Debt Becomes a Challenge

Ignoring technical debt becomes problematic when it starts to impede an organization’s ability to function effectively. When this happens, it’s a clear sign that you need to address the debt and start with a clean slate. If unaddressed, accumulated technical debt can result in poor business performance and lost revenue, as the technical debt essentially becomes a financial debt. As a result, the product and brand’s image may suffer, leading to lost opportunities.

Managing Technical Debt

Managing technical debt requires a proactive and collaborative approach. Here are some strategies that could help:

Identify the types of debt: Not all technical debt is created equal. Distinguish between the debt you accept at the moment as something to fix later on and the inadvertent debt you discover
Analyze and automate: Analyze the origins of your debt and look for ways to tighten workflows or automate certain tests and processes. This can help reduce common errors and hidden bugs, preventing them from snowballing into technical debt.
Develop new policies and standards: These should clarify when debt makes sense and when it causes unacceptable damage. For instance, releasing an immediate security patch could be considered acceptable, while allowing errors that will eventually cause considerable downtime would not.
Communicate the cost: It’s crucial that decision-makers and the DevOps team understand the implications of technical debt on product quality and developer retention. When another high-speed deadline comes your way, ensure that these key stakeholders are aware of the risks. If they fully understand the potential cost, they might be more likely to adjust delivery dates or provide funding for additional developers.

In conclusion, technical debt, when managed effectively, can be a tool for optimizing delivery speed and innovation in the short term. However, it is essential to strike a balance and not let it accumulate to the point where it begins to degrade product quality, slow down development, or harm team morale. By proactively identifying, analyzing, managing, and communicating about technical debt, DevOps teams can navigate this challenging aspect of software development and maintain the health of their infrastructure.

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