Software Development

Make technical debt explicit

This is a rehash of a topic I posted about back in 2008 but it is just as relevant today.

When you work towards a release or some other looming milestone. There’s that urge to leave stuff behind, cut some corners – you know, just a wee bit, no harm done – so we can ship the damn thing already. Mostly you’d fight that urge. But sometimes you’d want to make a conscious choice to make a shortcut because, well, sometime delivery is more important.

A little drop in quality in a single piece of code will not do much harm…for a while. There are, however, two problems with going this approach. One is that it is a slippery slope, i.e. it is probably not just one piece of code that gets this treatment in your code base. The second problem is that if low quality code is left alone to fester and then you add additional layers on top of it, it will be harder to change the original code later as more code need to be refactored. The term the industry came up for this low quality code you leave behind is “Technical Debt” . This is a good metaphor since as I mentioned before it gets worse with time and you need to pay it back.

Technical debt is going to be part of our code bases whether we like it or not – what we want to make sure is that we manage it. The best way to manage it is to make it explicit – make technical debt part of your product backlog – every time you get the urge to add a //TODO comment add that into the backlog.

Having the technical debt on the backlog has several benefits such as:

  • It will not be forgotten – it will be documented…
  • It will not be hidden – The true state of the product will be in the open for management/product owner to see. As a manager I want to know the true state of the product. If I know what I can and can’t have I can get ready for that. If I think everything is rosy and then the system blows up in my face, that’s not so good..
  • It will be managed – The importance/relevance of the “debt” will be reevaluated every time the product backlog get prioritized.

Technical debt will occur in your project, whether it is agile, “water-falled” , incremental or what not. Don’t ignore it.

Reference: Make technical debt explicit from our NCG partner Arnon Rotem-Gal-Oz at the Cirrus Minor blog.

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