If you’ve ever worked on a project of any size or age, you’re well aware of how tough it is to avoid and deal with technical debt. It continuously slows you down and turns programming into a chore rather than a creative endeavor. Most people believe technical debt is unavoidable, however, with practice. It may be prevented or alleviated to a great extent.
What Is Technical Debt and How Does It Affect You?
When you try to alter or build upon a project, technical debt is simply old, sloppy, obsolete code that gets in the way. Range from poorly designed/written code, such as a 500-line function with six layers of nesting, to the lack of testing, to ancient code, such as a jQuery component inside an essentially React application. Because this code is so old or poorly written, it takes you longer to grasp it and work around it while making updates, reducing your efficiency. This technical debt usually compounds itself because each modification now takes longer to complete. Still, your deadlines never get longer, so you have to develop more clumsy code to complete it on time, resulting in additional technical debt.
Most people think of debt in a more traditional financial sense when they think about technical debt. An excellent first instinct is because debt is in the name, but technical debt is not the same as financial debt. Consider a library of books for a better illustration.
Each book is alphabetized by author and categorized by genre in the library. It is straightforward to find what you are looking for when the library, However, this does not last forever. Some patrons enter the library, select a book, and leave it on the table or return it to the incorrect location. As a result, future people will spend more time seeking that book. If this happens only once or twice, it isn’t a significant concern. Still, if it happens again, it may quickly turn into a total mess with no order, making finding a specific book take orders of magnitude longer than it used to.
There would never be an issue if everyone always put the book back in the correct position, but locating the right place to put a book back is a tedious procedure, which is why many people choose not to do it. Fortunately, libraries regularly, which means that all misplaced and left-out volumes are returned to their proper locations on a fixed timetable, preventing the library from becoming too disorderly and ensuring that everyone can quickly find the book they need. The only problem is that restructuring the entire library takes a long time and is far more time-consuming than simply placing the book back in the appropriate location each time, which is where the concept of debt comes from. We are saving time in the short term by not placing the book back in the correct location, but it will take us longer to solve this in the long run because we will need to put the book back and locate where.
When you first start working with a codebase, it’s like working with a newly organized library: it’s clean and easy to deal with. You eventually begin adding features to the codebase, and some of them are hurried out. These rushed features are typically not as well designed/written, may lack tests, and are not clean code in general. It’s the same as returning a book to the wrong shelf at the library. You’ve decided to save time now by hastily writing the feature, even though you know it will take more effort to repair later. The codebase becomes more challenging to work with with more features, like how a library becomes more challenging to browse through as more volumes are misplaced. Eventually, you’ll need to clean up your code and pay off your technical debt. It almost always is a time-consuming procedure that will take far longer than if correctly from the start.
How Can Technical Debt Be Reduced?
Let’s speak about how we can reduce technical debt now that we know what it is.
MORE TIME SHOULD BE SPENT
The simplest solution is to devote more attention to each feature. It’s nearly certain that if you spend 20 hours on quality instead of 10 hours, the part will be better and leave less technical debt. Unfortunately, this is not always possible. Spending a little additional time on a feature, if possible, is a good idea, but most organizations don’t have the resources to do so.
WRITE TEST QUESTIONS
Writing more tests is the following most straightforward technique to reduce technical debt. This does take some extra time, although it can be minor depending on the size and complexity of the feature. These tests will make future code changes much easier since if anything fails by accident, the tests will catch it right away. Tests also serve as excellent documentation for what a piece of code is supposed to perform, so even if the code is difficult to read and messy, the tests can shed some light on what’s going on.
LEAVE THE CODE IN BETTER CONDITION THAN IT WAS FOUND.
Even if you do everything possible to keep technical debt to a minimum, your project will still have some technical debt. This could be due to other coworkers, your faults, or a variety of other factors. As a result, you’ll almost certainly run into technical debt while working on additional projects. This is an ideal moment to make minor modifications to the code and decrease the technical debt. This may be as simple as adding a few tests to a piece of code you’re working on that doesn’t have any or simply refactoring to enhance the names of functions and variables.
These adjustments don’t have to be substantial, and they probably shouldn’t be. Instead, you improve the code around you by 1% each time. This will result in code that is considerably easier to work with over time without requiring a significant amount of repair. When hunting for their book at the library, this is the equivalent of someone returning a random book they found to its proper location.
REFACTORS OF LARGE SIZE
Technical debt can build-up to the point where it slows work to a halt and prevents you from making the adjustments you want. This is the equivalent of an utterly disorganized library. When this happens, the only option is to halt new features while cleaning up old technical debt. This is where all of the application’s significant refactorings and redesigns take place. Unlike the prior method, these improvements will be extensive in scope and take a long time to complete. It’s like the library closing for the night to reorganize all of the volumes.
Most people dread huge refactors since they frequently wait until it’s too late, and the debt is massive to do it. This would be like a library never closing and then having to close for days or weeks to correct all of the unorganized books. Instead, we should strive to emulate a library by taking smaller, more regular breaks to do these refactorings. It can make a significant impact if you can dedicate a single two-week sprint, or even just a single day in your sprint, to causing major refactors. Your technical debt will be minimized, and your business will not be forced to close for weeks or months at a time.
Technical Debt Can Be Beneficial
Let’s talk about when technical debt is valid now that we know how to mitigate it.
TO SAVE TIME
As we all know, technical debt is a strategy for saving time now in return for time later. If you’re working on a tight timeline, such as a massive product launch, it can be worth saving time now rather than later. However, since most of us do not operate under such tight deadlines, it is not always evident that conserving time today is worthwhile.
To understand whether saving time is worthwhile, we must first recognize that technical debt is nearly impossible to avoid because no code is perfect. Even if you spend an endless amount of time writing and improving a feature, there will nearly always be something wrong with the code. Finding a balance between how much time you spend on a part and how messy it is is crucial when dealing with technical debt.
Let’s imagine you’re working on a feature that will take 5 hours, 10 hours, or 50 hours to complete. Because you skipped testing and hacked it together in 5 hours, you’re leaving behind a lot of technical debt. The code goes some technical debt at 10 hours because a few tests are missing, and the design isn’t ideal, but it’s still pretty excellent. Finally, the code is nearly perfect after 50 hours. You’ve written all of the tests, and the design is fantastic.
The 50-hour option may appear the greatest if you care about lowering technical debt, but the extra 40 hours you spend on this feature could be better spent on other parts. The 10-hour option is most likely the greatest one to take because it only leaves a tiny bit of technical debt and saves you a lot of time. Suppose you combine this 10-hour option with some of the strategies above to lessen technical debt. In that case, you can invest a few hours here and there in the future as the code is altered to reduce technical debt and achieve a result that is comparable to the 50-hour option.
WHEN THE CODE HAS NEVER BEEN CHANGED
Consider the following scenario: you have an old jQuery application that you want to rewrite in React to use some React-specific capabilities. Your temptation might be to convert everything at once, but in practice, it’s probably preferable to convert components as they’re needed, starting with the application’s core. This results in technical debt because you now have outdated code, but this isn’t a big deal if the code isn’t going to change.