September 27, 2020

Technical Debt - How to manage it ?

What is Technical Debt ?

Technical debt is a concept in software engineering and there are many definitions out there, but in an essence it is software built yesterday that is a burden today. The software can be code, process, architecture, tool or documentation. We can use the financial debt metaphor to explain technical debt and it's the interest you pay for taking easy short term approaches over longer and right approaches.

Ward Cunningham coined this term in 1992 to explain refactoring while he was working on one of the products done using Smalltalk. This has gained steam in late 2000's with Tech industry growth and Martin Fowler defines it as build of cruft that makes it harder than it would ideally be to modify and extend the system further.

What incurs Technical Debt ?

Here are some ways that generally incur tech debt.

What are the disadvantages of it ?

Like financial debt, there can be some serious consequences if we don’t pay back the debt.

Not all tech debt necessarily becomes a big problem and some times unlike financial debt, you don’t have to pay back. For instance, if the code base is never changed or touched in the future there is no point in fixing the debt.

How to manage and get rid of it ?

To manage tech debt we first need to identify it. There are some tools and indicators that can help in identifying it. Tools like Sonar can find code violations and code coverage tools can help in identifying it. If there are many todos and fixmes in the code or if the code is too complex to touch that it breaks many things, it is a pointer for tech debt. The other indicators are if a team is taking more time to deliver features with same team members over period of time, if we have a system, solution or tool that breaks in production too often or produces more bugs are all pointers for tech debt.

After identifying the debt, we need to quantify and size it with rough estimation of how small, medium or high it is in terms of cost and effort. All the size estimates should include priority, business impact and also take into account probability of code be read or changed in future. Here is a take at how we can size and address the debt.


To get rid of technical debt you need commitment, discipline and perseverance. Everybody has a role to play in this right from developers, product owners to leaders. Developers should be disciplined to constantly refactor the code when they see debt in the code. Product owners should maintain the backlog of tech debt and ensure they are allocating capacity for clearing it. IT Leaders should have commitment and vision to set right priorities and allocate budget for this and they should be responsible for educating non IT leaders about problems with Tech debt. Also, keep in mind that tech debt is not a bad thing if it is managed properly and not all debt has to paid back.

Further Reading