Marc Kresin

Silent Killer of IT Projects -
technical debts and their impact

Are technical debts undermining your software’s health & your team’s morale?

What are technical debts?

Technical debt in IT and Software Development is a concept that compares the eventual consequences of poor system design or software architecture to that of financial debt. It’s a metaphor that reflects the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing an expedient, short-term solution over a more enduring, possibly time-consuming one. The term was coined by Ward Cunningham, one of the authors of the Agile Manifesto, and it serves to communicate the trade-offs between rapid delivery and long-term value in software development.


Just as financial debt can accumulate interest, making the total amount owed much larger over time, technical debt, if not properly managed, can compound and make future changes to the software more costly or impossible. Technical debt can manifest in various forms:

1. Code Debt: This occurs when developers write code that’s easy to implement in the short term but is not optimal. Examples include duplicate code, magic numbers, large classes, long methods, and god objects.

2. Design Debt: This arises when the software’s architecture is not robust enough to support future development and scaling. It might involve over-engineered solutions or insufficient modularity, leading to tightly coupled components.

3. Documentation Debt: Incomplete or outdated documentation can result in debt, as new developers or teams are unable to understand and maintain the software effectively.

4. Testing Debt: Skimping on testing, whether it be unit, integration, or other automated tests, can result in debt. It creates a risk for defects and increases the cost of future changes.

5. Infrastructure Debt: This form of debt appears when the environment where the software runs is not kept up to date or configured correctly. This can lead to deployment issues, scalability problems, and security vulnerabilities.

6. Technical Skills Debt: This can accrue when the team lacks knowledge or training on current best practices, leading to inefficient or outdated development practices.

7. Dependency Debt: Using out-of-date libraries or platforms can contribute to debt. These dependencies may no longer be supported or could be incompatible with newer systems.

Managing technical debt involves identifying it early through code reviews, refactoring, and prioritizing it within the development process. By acknowledging and addressing technical debt, teams can maintain a healthier codebase, reduce future bugs, and improve team morale, leading to a more sustainable pace of innovation and development.

Why are technical debts important for your business, IT and software development?

Technical debts are a crucial concept in IT and Software Development because they represent the future cost of overlooking best practices in favor of expedient solutions. The importance of managing technical debt comes down to the balance between the speed of development and the long-term sustainability of a software product. It is important because it has a direct impact on the maintainability, scalability, and overall quality of the software, as well as the effectiveness of the development team.

Ignoring technical debt can have several significant consequences:

  1. Increased Maintenance Costs: As technical debt accumulates, the system becomes more complex and harder to understand. This leads to increased time and resources spent on maintaining the existing codebase, as developers must navigate a labyrinth of quick fixes and workarounds.
  2. Reduced Code Quality: Over time, a codebase riddled with technical debt is likely to experience a degradation in quality. It becomes brittle, such that even small changes can introduce new bugs, and robustness is compromised, leading to potential system failures.
  3. Slower Feature Development: The presence of technical debt can dramatically slow down the implementation of new features. As developers spend more time fixing bugs and addressing the consequences of previous shortcuts, less time is available for adding value to the product.
  4. Decreased Team Morale: Technical debt can be demoralizing for a development team. Constantly dealing with the fallout from previous decisions can sap developers’ enthusiasm and creativity, leading to burnout and reduced productivity.
  5. Higher Risk of Failure: Ignoring technical debt increases the risk of project or system failure. As the system’s complexity grows unchecked, the likelihood of critical issues arising increases, which can lead to costly downtime or, in the worst case, complete system failure.
  6. Compromised Agility: Technical debt can hinder a team’s ability to respond to changes in the market or customer needs. A codebase that is difficult to change is less agile, making it harder for the organization to pivot or adapt when necessary.
  7. Diminished User Satisfaction: The impact of technical debt isn’t limited to the development team; it can also affect the end-users. Poor system performance, bugs, and a lack of new features can all lead to user frustration and attrition.

Adding more technical debt as a result of operational practices can compound these issues. If the development process continuously favors short-term solutions without regard for long-term consequences, technical debt will snowball, magnifying the problems:

  • Exponential Growth in Costs: The more debt is added, the more expensive it becomes to add new features or even maintain existing functionality. The cost of change increases non-linearly with the amount of debt.
  • System Inflexibility: As the debt grows, the system becomes less flexible. It may become so rigid that even simple requests require significant effort to implement, limiting the system’s ability to evolve.
  • Lost Competitive Edge: In a market where speed and adaptability are key, a high level of technical debt can cause a company to fall behind its competitors, who may be investing in maintaining a cleaner codebase.

In summary, technical debt is an important consideration in IT and Software Development because its management (or mismanagement) can have profound implications for a project’s success and a company’s bottom line. The consequences of ignoring technical debt are manifold, impacting not just the technical aspects of a project, but also the financial health, market position, and morale within the development team. It’s essential that companies recognize the importance of addressing technical debt proactively to ensure the longevity and success of their software products.

Teufelskreis technische Schulden in IT und Software-Entwicklung

What is the vicious cycle of technical debts?

The “vicious cycle of technical debts” is a detrimental loop that many IT and software development projects can fall into, leading to a degradation of code quality, increased costs, and decreased customer satisfaction. Here’s an explanation of each step in the cycle:

  1. Lack of Resources for Development: Projects often start with constrained resources, including time, budget, and personnel. This scarcity creates a pressing need to deliver new features quickly to meet business objectives or market demands. However, the limited resources mean there’s insufficient time allocated to ensuring the quality of the development work. This haste prioritizes speed over quality, setting the stage for the accumulation of technical debt.
  2. Quick Rather Than Quality Solution: To cope with the pressure of delivering new features rapidly, teams may opt for quick-fix solutions that are easier and faster to implement in the short term. These solutions often involve shortcuts, hacks, or choosing technologies and approaches that are not ideal but expedient. While such decisions can yield immediate results, they compromise the foundation and integrity of the codebase, leading to the accumulation of technical debt.
  3. Defective, Insecure Solution: The reliance on quick-fix solutions results in a codebase that is riddled with defects and security vulnerabilities. These solutions are not future-proof, making it increasingly difficult to add new features or scale the system. As the codebase grows more complex and fragile, it requires more effort to maintain and extend, exacerbating the technical debt.
  4. Cost Increase & Unhappy Customers: The accumulation of technical debt leads to a significant increase in maintenance costs. Resources that could have been allocated to developing new features are instead consumed by the need to fix bugs, address security issues, and refactor poorly designed code. This shift in resource allocation not only increases lead times for new features but also impacts the overall quality of the product. As a result, customers become unhappy due to the decreased quality and delayed delivery of new functionalities. The dissatisfaction may lead to loss of trust and business, further straining the project’s resources.

This cycle closes as the increased costs and customer dissatisfaction lead to even fewer resources being available for new development. With the pressure to deliver new features still present, teams are pushed back into making quick, suboptimal decisions, perpetuating the cycle.

Breaking this vicious cycle requires a strategic approach to managing technical debt, including allocating time for refactoring, investing in automated testing, adhering to coding standards, and making conscious decisions about when to accrue technical debt and how to pay it off. Prioritizing the long-term health of the codebase alongside immediate business needs is essential to escape this detrimental loop.

Gartner Turning technical debts into technical wealth

What is the Gartner Iceberg Model for technical debts?

The Gartner Iceberg Model for Technical Debts is a conceptual framework that helps organizations understand and manage the hidden and visible aspects of technical debt. This model likens technical debt to an iceberg, where the visible part above water represents the known issues that are often acknowledged and tracked by development teams. In contrast, the much larger, unseen portion below the waterline represents the hidden debts that are not immediately apparent but have the potential to cause significant problems if left unaddressed.
The visible portion of the iceberg includes easily identifiable issues such as bugs, known design flaws, and deprecated technologies. These are the aspects of technical debt that teams are typically aware of and may already be addressing through regular maintenance and refactoring efforts. However, the true danger and challenge of technical debt lie in the hidden portion, which can include poorly understood legacy code, tightly coupled architectures, insufficient documentation, and a lack of comprehensive testing coverage. These hidden debts can significantly hinder an organization’s ability to innovate and respond to market changes effectively.
The Gartner Iceberg Model emphasizes the importance of bringing visibility to the hidden technical debts. It suggests that organizations should employ strategies such as code reviews, documentation reviews, and architectural analysis to uncover and understand these hidden issues. By making the invisible visible, teams can prioritize and address technical debts in a more systematic and effective manner.
Moreover, the model advises on the adoption of best practices such as continuous integration, automated testing, and adherence to coding standards to prevent the accumulation of new technical debts. It also highlights the need for a cultural shift within organizations, where technical debt is recognized as a critical factor that impacts not just the IT department but the business as a whole.
In conclusion, the Gartner Iceberg Model for Technical Debts offers a valuable perspective for organizations striving to navigate the complexities of technical debt. By acknowledging both the visible and hidden aspects of technical debt, organizations can take proactive steps to mitigate risks, improve software quality, and enhance their competitive edge in the digital landscape.

How to detect, manage and prioritize technical debts in agile or classic project management?

Technical debt is an inevitable part of software development, but when managed effectively, it can be kept at a level that does not hinder the growth or performance of your IT organization. Detecting and managing technical debt are critical skills for maintaining the health of your codebase and the efficiency of your development team.

How to Detect Technical Debt

  1. Code Reviews: Regular code reviews are a frontline defense against accumulating technical debt. They provide an opportunity for team members to scrutinize the code for potential issues and discuss possible improvements.
  2. Static Code Analysis Tools: Tools like SonarQube, PMD, or Checkstyle can automatically detect issues in the code that may contribute to technical debt, such as code smells, security vulnerabilities, and coding standard violations.
  3. Refactoring Sessions: Regularly scheduled refactoring sessions can help identify areas where the codebase may have deviated from best practices.
  4. Testing and Test Coverage Analysis: Automated tests, along with tools that measure test coverage, can highlight sections of the code that are under-tested or potentially risky.
  5. Performance Metrics: Monitoring software performance can indicate where technical debt may be impacting efficiency and user experience.
  6. User Feedback and Bug Reports: Often, technical debt will manifest as bugs or usability issues. Tracking these reports can point to underlying debt.
  7. Developer Feedback: Developers are often the first to notice when certain parts of the codebase are problematic. Their input is invaluable in identifying technical debt.

Managing Technical Debt in Agile

In Agile methodologies, managing technical debt is a continuous process:

  1. Backlog Grooming: Include technical debt as items in the product backlog. This visibility ensures that these issues are considered alongside new features and improvements.
  2. Sprint Planning: Dedicate a portion of each sprint to addressing technical debt. This could be in the form of refactoring, updating documentation, or improving automated tests.
  3. Definition of Done (DoD): Expand your DoD to include criteria that prevent the accumulation of debt, such as passing all tests, adhering to coding standards, and completing code reviews.
  4. Retrospectives: Use sprint retrospectives to discuss what technical debt was encountered and how it was addressed, and to make plans for ongoing debt reduction.

Addressing Technical Debt in Waterfall Projects

In a classic waterfall model, addressing technical debt requires a different approach:

  1. Phase Reviews: At the end of each phase, conduct a review to identify any technical debt incurred. Document these issues for resolution in the appropriate future phase.
  2. Milestone Planning: Include specific milestones for addressing technical debt. This ensures that time is allocated for these tasks before the project moves on to subsequent phases.
  3. Change Control: Use a change control process to assess the impact of any changes on technical debt, ensuring that new debt is not introduced without a plan to address it.

How IT and Software Development Organizations Should Deal with Technical Debts

  1. Educate and Create Awareness: Ensure everyone in the organization understands what technical debt is, how it can impact the business, and why it’s important to manage it.
  2. Culture of Quality: Foster a culture that prioritizes quality code and design. Encourage developers to take pride in their work and to consider the long-term implications of their coding decisions.
  3. Allocate Resources: Set aside time and resources for managing technical debt, just as you would for any other critical business activity.
  4. Incorporate into Risk Management: Treat technical debt as a risk to be managed. Include it in your risk assessments and mitigation strategies.
  5. Monitor and Measure: Establish metrics to monitor the level of technical debt in your projects and make these metrics visible to stakeholders.

Prioritizing the Resolution of Technical Debts

  1. Business Impact: Assess how the technical debt impacts the business. Prioritize debt that affects critical features or could lead to significant financial loss if not addressed.
  2. Risk Level: Focus on debt that poses the highest risk to your system’s stability or security.
  3. Cost of Delay: Consider how the cost of not addressing the technical debt will accumulate over time. Prioritize debt that will become more expensive to fix in the future.
  4. Developer Morale: Addressing technical debt that is a known pain point for the development team can provide a significant morale boost.
  5. User Experience: Prioritize technical debt that negatively impacts the end-user experience.

In conclusion, the management of technical debt should be a deliberate part of your software development and maintenance strategy, whether you’re using Agile, Waterfall, or another methodology. By detecting and prioritizing technical debt, you can make informed decisions about when and how to address it, balancing short-term agility with long-term sustainability. With a proactive approach, technical debt can be kept at manageable levels, allowing your IT organization to remain dynamic, competitive, and primed for growth.

Why ignoring and not actively managing technical debts is a risky bet for the health of your business?

Ignoring and not actively managing technical debts can have wide-ranging consequences for an organization’s agility, time to market, lead times, risk management, team motivation, retention of key contributors, and overall costs. When technical debt is left to accumulate, it acts much like unchecked financial debt, with compounding interest that becomes increasingly difficult to pay off over time.

Agility: One of the core principles of Agile development is the ability to respond to change quickly and efficiently. High levels of technical debt severely impede this agility, making it harder for teams to adapt to new requirements or pivot when business needs change. With a tangled codebase full of hacks and workarounds, each change requires navigating through a minefield of potential issues, which can slow down or even halt progress.

Time to Market: In today’s fast-paced business environment, the ability to bring new products or features to market quickly is a significant competitive advantage. Technical debt adds friction to the development process, causing delays that can extend the time to market. As more debt accumulates, the additional overhead in dealing with it means that new features take longer to develop and release, which can result in missed opportunities and lost revenue.

Lead Times: Lead times – the period between the initiation and completion of a production process – are critical in software development. High technical debt leads to longer lead times because it typically results in more complex and less maintainable code. This complexity means that even small changes can require a disproportionate amount of time to implement correctly, further extending lead times and delaying delivery.

Risks: Ignoring technical debt increases the risk profile of a project. As the debt grows, so does the likelihood of critical system failures, security vulnerabilities, and defects that can have serious implications for the business. Additionally, the longer technical debt persists, the greater the risk that it will become too costly or complex to resolve, potentially leading to the need for a complete system rewrite.

Team Motivation and Retention: Dealing with the consequences of technical debt can be demoralizing for development teams. Continuously having to work around problems, fix bugs, and struggle with a poorly designed system can sap motivation and lead to burnout. This environment can also make it difficult to retain key contributors, who may become frustrated with the constant firefighting and lack of progress and seek opportunities elsewhere.

Costs: The costs associated with technical debt can be substantial. There are the direct costs of the additional development time required to address the complexities introduced by debt, as well as the indirect costs from delayed releases, reduced quality, and increased customer support calls. Over time, the total cost of ownership for a debt-laden system can skyrocket, consuming resources that could have been used for innovation and growth.

In conclusion, the consequences of ignoring and not actively managing technical debts are profound and multifaceted. They extend beyond the technical challenges to impact the strategic, financial, and human aspects of an organization. Recognizing and addressing technical debt is not just a matter of code quality; it’s a business imperative that affects an organization’s ability to remain competitive, innovative, and attractive to top talent. By proactively managing technical debt, organizations can ensure that their software development efforts support their business goals rather than hinder them.

What happens if you are not actively managing your technical debts?

If you simply ignore and don’t start proactively to manage and reduce your technical debts, you might end up in the situation of mutually reinforcing factors leading to exponentialle growing technical debts

Wechselseitig verstärkende Faktoren führen zu Wachstum der technischen Schulden

Creating transparency about existing technical debts, assigning a certain percentage of your IT development capacity definitely will pay off after a while. If you don’t act and work on technical debt, the pressure on you to increase productivity will steadily grow. Customers will be not happy. The sore temptation to look for more shortcuts, quick and fast solution will make things only worse. Measure how much IT budget actually is used for maintenance and bug fixing? And how much budget really is used for new features and innovation? For sure you need perseverance to follow this path. Also you need to explain to your customer why a certain percentage of the budget can’t be used for new features. Potentially your customers feel some of your pain – long leadtime or high defect rates. Business and IT are in the same boat, so align with your business colleagues.

How to avoid adding more and more technical debts to your IT and Software Development?

Avoiding technical debt in Software Development and IT is about adopting best practices and procedures that promote code quality and maintainability from the outset. While it’s unrealistic to expect that all technical debt can be prevented, it’s certainly possible to minimize its accumulation by following a proactive and disciplined approach to development.

Best Practices and Procedures

  1. Clear Coding Standards: Establish and enforce coding standards across your team or organization. Consistent coding practices help ensure readability and maintainability, making it easier for any team member to understand and work on the codebase.
  2. Code Reviews: Implement a robust code review process where peers review each other’s work before merging changes. This helps catch potential issues early and shares knowledge across the team.
  3. Refactoring: Make refactoring a routine part of your development process. When developers notice areas of the code that could be improved for clarity or performance, they should feel empowered to make those changes.
  4. Automated Testing: Invest in automated testing, including unit tests, integration tests, and end-to-end tests. A comprehensive test suite can serve as a safety net for changes and helps ensure that new code does not introduce regressions.
  5. Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment (CI/CD): Use CI/CD pipelines to automate building, testing, and deployment processes. This ensures that changes are validated quickly and reduces the chance of human error.
  6. Documentation: Maintain up-to-date documentation for your codebase and architecture. Good documentation helps new team members get up to speed and supports maintenance efforts.
  7. Training and Skill Development: Invest in ongoing training and professional development for your team. Keeping skills current helps avoid the accumulation of technical debt due to outdated practices.
  8. Architecture and Design: Spend time on architecture and design before diving into coding. A well-thought-out architecture reduces the risk of costly changes in the future.
  9. Agile Practices: Embrace Agile practices like iterative development, which allows for regular reflection and adjustment. This helps teams stay focused on delivering value while maintaining quality.
  10. Technical Debt Backlog: Keep a backlog of known technical debt items, just as you would for product features or bugs. This makes debt visible and ensures it’s considered during planning.

Metrics to Measure Progress on Technical Debt

  1. Code Churn: Code churn refers to the amount of code that has been changed, added, or removed. High churn in parts of the codebase can indicate instability and the potential presence of technical debt.
  2. Code Complexity: Metrics like cyclomatic complexity can indicate how complicated a piece of code is. Complex code is harder to maintain and more likely to harbor debt.
  3. Static Analysis Warnings: Tools like SonarQube can provide insights into potential code quality issues. Tracking the number of warnings over time can help gauge progress in reducing technical debt.
  4. Test Coverage: Code coverage metrics provide information on what percentage of the codebase is covered by automated tests. Increasing coverage can reduce the likelihood of technical debt.
  5. Bug Rates: Monitoring the rate at which bugs are reported can help identify areas where technical debt may be causing issues.
  6. Time to Resolve Issues: If it’s taking longer over time to resolve issues, this could indicate that technical debt is making the codebase harder to work with.
  7. Deployment Frequency: If the frequency of successful deployments decreases, it may be a sign that technical debt is affecting your team’s ability to deliver changes smoothly.

By adhering to best practices, promoting a quality-focused culture, and tracking the right metrics, organizations can significantly reduce the accumulation of technical debt. This preventative approach allows for more sustainable development practices, ultimately leading to better software products and a more efficient and motivated development team.

Summary of technical debts challenge

Technical Debts and Their Impact” delves into the concept of technical debt in IT and Software Development, drawing a parallel to financial debt to underscore the future costs associated with quick but poor system design choices. Originating from a metaphor coined by Agile Manifesto author Ward Cunningham, technical debt describes the trade-offs between rapid deployment and long-term value, emphasizing the importance of managing this debt to ensure software maintainability, scalability, and overall quality.
Technical debt can take various forms, such as Code Debt, where quick fixes lead to suboptimal code; Design Debt, where architecture cannot support future growth; Documentation Debt, resulting from outdated or missing documentation; Testing Debt, due to insufficient test coverage; Infrastructure Debt, from outdated or poorly configured environments; Technical Skills Debt, from a lack of current best practices; and Dependency Debt, stemming from the use of outdated libraries or platforms. Managing these debts requires early identification, regular code reviews, refactoring, and prioritization within the development process, all contributing to a healthier codebase and improved team morale.
The significance of technical debt extends to business operations, where it impacts maintenance costs, code quality, feature development speed, team morale, project risks, agility, and user satisfaction. If left unmanaged or if more debt is accrued due to operational practices, the costs can grow exponentially, systems may become inflexible, and companies might lose their competitive edge. The blog post argues that proactive management of technical debt is crucial for the success and longevity of software products.
Detecting technical debt involves several strategies, including code reviews, static code analysis tools, refactoring sessions, and performance metrics, while management in Agile includes incorporating debt items in backlogs, dedicating sprint time to debt reduction, and using retrospectives for planning debt reduction strategies. In contrast, Waterfall projects require phase reviews, milestone planning, and change control processes to address technical debt.
Organizations are advised to educate teams about technical debt, foster a culture of quality, allocate resources for managing debt, include it in risk management, and establish metrics to monitor debt levels. Prioritization should consider business impact, risk level, cost of delay, developer morale, and user experience.
Avoiding the accumulation of technical debt focuses on best practices such as enforcing clear coding standards, conducting code reviews, regular refactoring, investing in automated testing, implementing CI/CD pipelines, keeping documentation up-to-date, and promoting training and skill development. Adopting Agile practices, maintaining a technical debt backlog, and monitoring progress with metrics like code churn, complexity, static analysis warnings, test coverage, bug rates, issue resolution times, and deployment frequency are key to minimizing technical debt.
In summary, managing technical debt is a strategic imperative for IT organizations, requiring a balanced approach between short-term efficiency and long-term project health. By recognizing and addressing technical debt proactively, organizations can support their business goals and maintain a dynamic, competitive edge in software development.

Clear actions and steps to handle technical debts

To effectively deal with technical debt as described in the blog post, consider the following action items:

  1. Establish Clear Coding Standards: Create a set of coding guidelines that all team members adhere to, which will help in maintaining a readable and maintainable codebase.
  2. Conduct Regular Code Reviews: Implement a process where peers review each other’s code for quality and adherence to standards before merging any changes.
  3. Schedule Refactoring: Regularly set aside time for refactoring to improve code clarity and performance, making it part of your routine development cycle.
  4. Invest in Automated Testing: Develop a comprehensive suite of automated tests, including unit, integration, and end-to-end tests, to catch regressions and ensure new code meets quality standards.
  5. Implement Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment (CI/CD): Use CI/CD pipelines to automate the building, testing, and deployment process, minimizing human error and validating changes quickly.
  6. Keep Documentation Updated: Ensure that the software documentation is always current, which will help new and existing team members understand and maintain the system.
  7. Promote Continuous Learning: Provide opportunities for team members to update their skills and knowledge to prevent technical skills debt.
  8. Prioritize Architectural Design: Invest time in designing a robust and scalable architecture before coding to minimize design debt and support future growth.
  9. Maintain a Technical Debt Backlog: Keep a prioritized list of known technical debt issues, alongside feature development and bug fixes, ensuring visibility and tracking of these items.
  10. Monitor and Measure Technical Debt: Establish metrics to monitor the level of technical debt, such as code churn, complexity, static analysis warnings, test coverage, and bug rates.
  11. Regularly Assess Business Impact: Evaluate how technical debt impacts the business, focusing on items that affect critical features or could cause significant financial loss.
  12. Allocate Resources for Debt Management: Set aside specific resources and time for addressing technical debt, just like any other key business activity.

By following these action items, an IT and Software Development organization can proactively manage technical debt, maintain a healthier codebase, and ensure that software development efforts align with the overall business objectives. This strategic approach not only improves the software’s quality and maintainability but also sustains team morale and the company’s competitive advantage.

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