How to Reduce Technical Debt in 5 Steps

By Paul Bredenberg • Published June 29, 2024

Technical debt is a normal byproduct of creating software. But ignoring it could eventually cause your system to collapse. So how can you reduce it?

Technical debt, much like the upkeep of a house, is an inevitable aspect of any software project. Just as a homeowner might delay fixing a leaky roof or ignore the creeping rust on plumbing, developers often defer addressing suboptimal code, take shortcuts under tight deadlines, or fail to replace legacy systems that no longer serve their purpose. Over time, these issues accumulate, compounding into more significant problems that require substantial effort and resources to resolve.

Ignoring your home maintenance might save time and money in the short term, but eventually, the cost of repairs—and the risk of more severe damage—becomes unavoidable.

Technical debt works the same way. As your project evolves and new features are added, technical debt slows down progress, introduces bugs, and makes it difficult to maintain or modify the software. Proactive management, regular maintenance checks, and thoughtful investments in quality can keep your software in good health, preventing the need for extensive overhauls down the line.

It's important to address and reduce technical debt because the longer you ignore it, the costlier it becomes. Just like paying off financial debt, you need to allocate time and resources to pay down technical debt. And you need to start with a plan.

Here are five steps you can begin today that will reduce your technical debt now and in the future:

Step 1: Understand and Document

A homeowner documents damage that needs to be repaired on his home.

  • Initial Audit: Begin by conducting a thorough audit of your current technical debt. Just as you would conduct a thorough home inspection to identify issues such as leaky pipes or faulty wiring, you should understand and document your technical debt. Take a moment to recognize what technical debt has accumulated over time. This is an ongoing process, and a step that should be revisited regularly as part of your regular maintenance. Document the areas of technical debt, explaining why each exists and detailing its current impact on the project, as well as potential obstacles it may pose to future development.
  • Prioritize Issues: Think about which of your documented issues might have a bigger impact on your project's health. Consider things like how they might affect performance, stability, or future updates. Prioritize these issues based on their severity, potential risks, and business impact, the way you would fix a leaky pipe before replacing a squeaky door. Put these fixes on your to-do list and weave them into your project's roadmap and development timeline.

Step 2: Communicate and Monitor

  • Stakeholder Communication: Inform all stakeholders about the identified technical debt. Explain the impact of technical debt on current and future projects, and outline your plan for addressing it. Talk about the challenges you’ll be facing. Clearly explain the trade-offs between reducing technical debt and delivering new features.
  • Set Up Monitoring: Implement monitoring tools to track your codebase’s health and gather continuous feedback. This helps in making informed decisions and keeps stakeholders updated on progress.

Step 3: Refactoring

  • Strategic Refactoring: Refactoring involves restructuring your existing code without changing its external behavior. Break down larger refactorings into smaller, manageable tasks. Use version control tools to track and manage changes during the refactoring process. Most importantly, write tests before refactoring to ensure that changes don't introduce new issues.
  • Continuous Progress: Start by refactoring high-priority areas identified during the audit. Focus on making incremental improvements rather than large-scale changes to avoid overwhelming the team. If you were renovating your house, it would make sense to tackle one room at a time, such as fixing the plumbing in the bathroom this month and painting the living room next month, to avoid overwhelming disruptions. Integrate these refactoring tasks into your regular development cycles, addressing technical debt incrementally alongside new feature development.

Step 4: Automated Testing and CI/CD Pipelines

  • Build Automated Tests: Automated tests are like smoke detectors in your home; they catch issues before they become major problems. Establish a thorough suite of automated tests (unit tests, integration tests, etc.) to catch regressions and validate changes. Regularly run these tests to check your code’s health and stability.

  • Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment: Implement CI/CD pipelines to automate the build, testing, and deployment process. These tools can automatically check your code's health and point out areas that need attention. When issues come up, address them early to prevent additional technical debt from accumulating. Automate routine tasks to help maintain consistent coding standards and take a little weight off your team. This is like hiring someone to do routine home maintenance, such as cleaning gutters and mowing the lawn.

    A couple of developers sitting side by side discussing their code

Step 5: Code Reviews and Knowledge Sharing

  • Implement Code Reviews: Just as having your chimney checked and cleaned each season prevents a house fire, conducting thorough code reviews will improve your code's quality and prevent larger issues. Encourage your team to review each other's work, and promote a culture of constructive feedback and knowledge sharing.
  • Foster Learning: Much like everyone living under one roof should cooperate and communicate to best maintain the house, encourage knowledge sharing within your team. Foster a culture of learning throughout the development process. Conduct training sessions, seminars, or workshops to address specific technical debt issues. Use code reviews as an opportunity for team members to share knowledge and best practices.

Bonus Tips

  • Keep documenting! Maintain up-to-date documentation that explains codebase structure, design decisions, and usage instructions. This helps new team members understand the code and reduces the risk of introducing new debt.
  • Analysis Tools: Just as homeowners use tools like smart thermostats and security cameras to identify potential issues, use code analysis tools to identify code smells, performance bottlenecks, and potential security vulnerabilities.

Technical debt repayment requires a balance between short-term feature development and long-term codebase health. Following these steps will create a structured approach that allows you to address technical debt systematically, while maintaining clear communication with stakeholders and integrating improvements into your regular development workflow.

Technical debt is normal; it’s actually a byproduct of successfully getting an idea off the ground! But allowing it to accumulate will eventually bring you crashing back down. By being aware of the tasks you've postponed and actively working to reduce them, you can keep costs down and build software that is more efficient, easier to maintain, and better suited for future growth.

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