Content By Devops .com
Technologists are always espousing new, trendy development solutions. More robust frameworks, increased delivery, better integration. But rarely do these proponents consider the long-term side effects of introducing new technologies. As a result, technical debt is an all-to-common occurrence in most companies.
Nearly a third of IT budgets are dedicated to addressing technical debt. Devoting so much effort to maintaining legacy code leaves fewer resources to support the status quo, let alone develop new solutions. In fact, a recent study found that 69% of IT leaders identify technical debt as a significant threat to their companies’ ability to innovate.
“The Growing Threat of Technical Debt,” a report from OutSystems, surveyed 500 IT leaders about this conundrum. Below, we’ll explore the top causes of technical debt and consider ways to prevent it from getting out of control.
What is Technical Debt?
Technical debt seems counterintuitive. Isn’t technology supposed to help organizations become more productive? Why would it be a burden? Well, technical debt often arises from hasty decisions taken in the short term that have long-term consequences. It’s also often the result of a company juggling many competing technologies, some of which have become outdated.
Technical debt can carry a hefty price tag. But this debt isn’t so much measured in the cost of hosting legacy technology or running broken code, but in the hours lost maintaining and patching it. The report found that, on average, businesses devote 28% of their IT budgets to addressing technical debt. This number increases to 40% within large enterprises.
There is not one single factor causing technical debt. Many issues within an organization contribute to the problem, including reliance on stale technology, pressure to deliver in the short term, constant change, developer churn and incorrect architectural decisions.
The top cause of technical debt is too many development languages and frameworks, cited by 52% of respondents as a big or critical problem. Legacy technology can weigh an IT department down. But, it’s not necessarily only old tech getting in the way—it could be that IT is supporting too many competing agendas.
The second top cause is a high turnover rate within developer teams. In today’s competitive climate, quality engineers are in short supply, and hiring can be challenging. It is thus difficult to attract and nourish steady engineering talent. If developers frequently leave for greener pastures, especially before documenting their procedures, best practices can easily be lost and efficient use of technology is stunted.
The study found that other common causes include accepting known defects to meet deadlines, using outdated programming languages and frameworks and dealing with challenges in serving new markets or segments. At times, teams release software with known defects simply to meet deadlines. The sheer size of a large organization can lead to increased technical debt, and not addressing it compounds the issue further.
In terms of industries, the report found the health care and social assistance category hit hardest. In this sector, 35% of IT budgets go toward addressing technical debt, on average. The next most-burdened group is the financial category, which was at 29% according to the report.
The Costs of Technical Debt
What are the costs of technical debt? There’s a high price to maintain, reduced hours for innovation and a detrimental effect on overall software performance. Team dynamics could also incur adverse reactions from sustaining technical debt.
Technical debt requires an disproportionately high amount of time to maintain. On average, engineers spend 33% of their time dealing with technical debt, found Stripe’s “The Developer Coefficient” study. This equates to about 13.5 hours of an average work week.
The more debt you take on, the smaller the budget left for running status quo operations and building new capabilities. Supporting technical debt not only has financial implications but could stifle future prospects; in fact, 69% of respondents said technical debt limits their capacity to innovate. In today’s acceleration economy, not setting aside resources for digital innovation, could break a business.
“The combination of old code along with the new generation of mobile apps, stack applications and SaaS sprawl are robbing organizations of resources, time and the ability to innovate,” said Paulo Rosado, CEO, and Founder of OutSystems.
Technical debt could also stunt performance. According to the survey, 61% of respondents said it causes a significant drag on their company’s performance. Stale projects could interfere with streamlining customer experiences and digital transformation goals.
Lastly, technical debt could also negatively affect morale. Few engineers take pride in repeating inefficient processes or working with obsolete tech.
Alleviating Technical Debt: Be Intentional
Similar to financial debt, technical debt comes with compounding interest. This interest could grow exponentially if left unchecked. So, what steps can organizations take to reduce their technical debt?
To help alleviate the problem, the report recommends reversing the top two causes of technical debt by stemming turnover in development teams and limiting the number of new programming languages and frameworks you adopt.
Other methods involve taking stock of your holdings to understand the presence and impact of legacy technologies. Next, rethink and redirect your strategy from simply maintaining legacy dependencies to addressing them and replacing them with modern styles.
“A lot of bad tech debt comes from building too much and getting stuck spending more time on maintenance and bug fixes than expected,” said Jon Thornton on the Squarespace blog. ”The key is to be intentional about what you invest time in and aware of the costs you’re taking on.”
Of course, enterprise IT must take on some form of technical debt to function—it’s futile to get rid of it entirely. Therefore, as Thornton advises, be intentional about it and stay aware of the costs you take on. When adopting new technologies, it’s best to consider maintenance implications and plan with longevity in mind.
For more insights, download “The Growing Threat of Technical Debt” report in full here.