The True Costs of Technical Debt (and How to Avoid it)

Developing software is a constant exercise in prioritization and deprioritization.

In the heat of a new build, engineering teams may cut corners or take shortcuts to meet demands and timelines. They might decide to prioritize new features over maintenance of existing features, or fixing known bugs. Or perhaps, under time pressure, software development teams may write ‘dirty’ code that is difficult to maintain over time, knowing they can come back and fix it later. 

Decisions like these –  while sensible, and even necessary in the short term – can lead to long term consequences for technology systems, AKA “technical debt.”


What is Technical Debt?

The term “technical debt” is used to describe the cost of making technical decisions with a short-term mindset. While short-term solutions provide temporary fixes that allow products to go to market more quickly, they often create problems that ultimately hinder growth. In the long term, these decisions often lead to re-work and complications as technical debt accumulates and worsens over time.

Our team recently returned from LiveRamp’s RampUp Conference, where technical debt was a pressing topic for technology leaders. Many CTOs lamented the amount of precious engineering capacity wasted to addressing technical debt. Lauren Nemeth, Twilio CRO said “retiring technical debt still represents 40% of my company’s engineering efforts.” Imagine the growth potential available to Twilio if even just half of that capacity was restored.


Four Consequences of Technical Debt

Getting ahead of technical debt is incredibly important, because it impacts a company’s ability to grow over time. Companies drowning in technical debt can’t move as nimbly  – every step forward feels like 2 steps back.


 Lack of Agility

As technical debt accumulates, it becomes more difficult to update the system, making it almost impossible to move nimbly. Before teams can focus on new features, they must first resolve legacy issues. This can get in the way of meeting customer needs, contributing to churn and low customer satisfaction. 

Unfortunately, many teams with a lot of technical debt decide it’s easier to start from scratch than to dedicate resources to resolving the debt. This leads to additional delays and costs, and a negative impact on the bottom line.


Higher Costs

Speaking of the bottom line, technical debt can destroy it. Because the longer issues remain unresolved, and the more that’s built on top of those issues, the more difficult they are to fix. Resolving technical debt is often an arduous and costly process. It can require significant time and resources, especially from your most experienced and talented (translation: expensive) engineers. 

But there are also indirect costs related to technical debt. Fixing deep-seated issues often requires delays in service, or periods where systems have to be shut down completely. Delays like this impact customer satisfaction, and may ultimately result in lost customers.


Decreased Quality

Long term, technical debt that goes unchecked leads to low quality software. Systems laden with technical debt are difficult to maintain. The quality and sustainability of the code suffers as a result, leading to more bugs that require more time to fix. Buggy software leads to poor user experience and frustrated customers who are likely to look elsewhere for smoother solutions.


Limited Innovation Potential

Accompanying lack of agility is the inability to innovate. Inflexible products that aren’t future-ready can’t be easily updated to respond to market demands. In an increasingly competitive technology landscape, it’s never been more important to beat competitors to market with in-demand features.

And it’s not just about improving core technology – it’s also about integrating with others. Customers today are looking for seamless digital interactions, making integration top of mind for key decision makers. Technical debt can make integration more difficult, and sometimes impossible.


How to Avoid Technical Debt

There is no quick fix for technical debt, but technology leaders can develop practices to help mitigate it. Here are five best practices to implement to ensure systems remain debt-free:

  1. Get Consistent with QA: Regular quality assurance testing can help your company identify and get ahead of technical issues. Get in the habit of regularly evaluating software with unit, integration and acceptance testing. 
  2. Prioritize Code Reviews: Though it can be time consuming, it’s important to make sure thorough code reviews happen regularly. Code reviews help technology leaders identify areas where technical debt may be accumulating. Take care to ensure the code base meets business requirements, and that it remains maintainable, and scalable as systems grow. 
  3. Plan for Scalability: Building technology requires a balance of speed, and scalability. While cutting corners and taking shortcuts to reduce costs and speed timelines is tempting, chances are, it will result in technical debt in the long term. Plan for scalability from the beginning by using modular and flexible frameworks. 
  4. Double Down on Documentation: Your mantra should be “Too much documentation is never enough.” Documenting the code base, as well as key processes and practices will help teams move more cohesively, and reduce technical debt in the process. Plus there’s the added benefit of easily getting new hires up to speed! 
  5. Regular Refactoring: Part of planning for scalability is building in regular refactoring processes. Refactoring allows engineering teams to improve the code without changing its functionality. It improves code quality, making it easier to maintain and scale over time.


Build With Aqfer to Start – and Stay –  Debt Free

Whether building novel technology or upgrading existing systems, build with Aqfer to stay debt free. Our Build-It-Together approach contributes a high quality, fully vetted fundamental data architecture layer to your IP. From individual use cases like identity resolution or secure data collaboration, to designing complete data infrastructure to support your front end, Aqfer solutions are purpose-built to help you grow with confidence.