What Is Technology Debt?

Debt can be defined many different ways and its true even in the technology arena.  In today’s fast-paced tech environment, technology debt has become a fact of life, especially among software developers.  A good example is during the Covid19 pandemic, we heard about the New Jersey unemployment processing system needing to find COBOL programmers which is a 40+ year old programming language that is no longer being utilized in modern systems.  That is a serious technology debt that should have been addressed long ago.

Technology debt is like financial debt or monetary debt in a number of ways. The longer it’s not being paid, the worse it can get, and it can catch up with you. The longer technology debt is left behind or overlooked for the longer time, it can impair your business operations in the long run.  Here in this post, we will explore the realities of technology debt, why does it happen, should you avoid it, and what – if anything – you can do about it.

computer coding

What is technology debt?

 Technology debt (also called technical debt, design debt, or code debt) is a programming concept that demonstrates the implied cost of ongoing updates or additional rework by choosing an easy or limited solution that offers quick results over a better approach that would take a longer time to develop.

Through technology debt, your business sees results from the short-term approach. However, your IT department will actually spend more time maintaining the technology, instead of developing your business.

Often, technology debt comes from creating quick and easy code that’s all right for the short term, but it can’t support you in the long term. The implied cost of doing such quick code includes time, money, and resources that you will need in the future (by reworking a quick and easy code into the best overall solution).

Technology debt can also be just like an aging home.  Some components of your house become out of date and need updating and upgrading.  Its not your “fault” per se, things change and need updated and upgraded.  The can be true of components of any software system.

Reasons for technology debt

There are a few reasons why software developers choose (or may be forced to use) the quick and easy way over the best solution when they code:

1) Doing it in a rush

Rushing off the software to get it into the market is probably the most common reason for technology debt. Developers facing the dreaded “how long will it take” question may end up taking the coding shortcuts to get the job done quickly. They take the “easy route” in a hurry, which can cause an array of problems – from bugs to spaghetti code – in the long run.

2) Doing it on purpose

On some occasions, developers might choose the quick and easy solution for strategic reasons. What makes this different from choosing technology debt on purpose is the level of understanding needed. You should be aware of how much it will cost, and when do you intend to pay it. It is like taking out a technical loan, which can be beneficial.

3) Bad code or Poorly Documented Code

Every software developer or programmer, at some point or another, may make mistakes from time to time. They may come across a poorly written code – and when this happens in code, technology debt begins to accumulate. Bad code is not scalable, and the problem will need some fixing in the long run.  Even if the code is fairly solid, if its not documented such that new developers can quickly work with it, it can be difficult to maintain.

4)  Not upgrading and keeping up to date

This one happens all the time.  You have a component of your system that is in need of an upgrade or a migration to a newer technology.  It’s easier to keep the old technology and not invest in the update.  Like our Cobol example from earlier, it eventually catches up with you and the debt will either have a high cost to maintain (the proverbial interest) or it will be very expensive to replace.  The software development team should be actively working to improve and upgrade the system as development is being done.

Is technology debt a bad thing? Should you avoid it?

In many cases the lack of foresight and planning ultimately leads to technology debt. The people in charge demand to have the results in the short term. It is not until much later that they begin to consider the (often hidden) costs of forcing these results.

In some cases, contrary to the foreboding-sounding name, technology debt is not inherently bad. Sometimes, for instance, you may need technology debt to realize specific projects in a given budget and timeframe. While technology debt can be useful in the short term, the long-term impact of it can hamper your ability to process information and prioritize technology needs.  And just like financial or monetary debt, it can cause serious problems in the long run if you don’t pay it back.

Choosing quick and easy coding may enable you to get the product sooner, especially if you need to maintain your customer base. It can also function as a placeholder for a planned feature or cost that you may want to hold off until the next period.

You also can’t strive to have the “perfect system which may be nearly unattainable. Therefore, you don’t always have to avoid technology debt. What you must avoid is taking out a technical loan without prior consideration or planning. Instead, you should be aware of the costs and make sure that you have clearly lined out your intentions of paying it back.

What to do if you have technology debt

Whether technology debt happens by choice or by accident, it’s crucial that you need to take the following strategic steps to pay it off:

1) Do it sooner than later.

Keep in mind that technology debt often occurs due to choosing a quick but weak code, which means it’s a temporary fix. The sooner you rework your code, the sooner your software can become favorable to your customers. Otherwise, leaving the weak code for too long can lead to customers finding faults in your software or business.  If it’s a component of the system that is becoming dated, unsupported or obsolete having a plant to address it is important.

2) Make paying off the debt as a team effort.

Make sure that everyone in your team (regardless of position) contributes to reworking and updating the system. Promoting teamwork can definitely boost the office atmosphere. It can also enable newer team members to see more of the existing codebase.

3) Do it in bits, and do it often.

While you’re reworking or upgrading your system, don’t try to have it all in one go. This will put undue pressure on you and your team. As a result, it will create the same rushed environment that has caused technology debt in the first place. Instead, set time aside in every sprint or go for several sessions for addressing some of the debt.

The most important thing about technology debt is being aware of it.  Know when you incurring a debt by your current choices and makes sure reviewing your system for any new debt that might be building up due to obsolete technology.