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What is Technical Debt?

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Technical debt is something that we often talk about at SimplyPHP. We’ve written an introductory article about it, did a podcast (LINK), and even posted about it on our social media feed. It’s something that most developers are intimately familiar with, even before they have the vocabulary to talk about it. 

While many people see technical debt as a natural part of the development process, the truth is it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. At the very least, it should be used strategically, by companies and developers that understand what they’re getting into, so there are no surprises along the way. 

Today, let’s talk about the basics of technical debt and how it has become such a common element within the development world. Then, we’ll offer some of our best tips for avoiding it in your development process. 

What is Technical Debt?

First, let’s define technical debt and explain how this term came into use. At its most basic, technical debt results from a development team expediting the delivery of a project that realistically needed more time. 

Technical debt can cover a variety of situations, from projects that have irritating bugs to missing documentation that future developers will need to maintain the functionality of a product. In some situations, it can be defined as code that decreases the long-term agility of a project. 

It’s important to note that many developers classify technical debt as something that’s often a necessary evil. Some people ever refer to it as a tool. It’s often used strategically by start-ups or other organizations that need to quickly get a product or even just a proof of concept to market so that it can be validated. In these situations, the organizations may plan to handle their technical debt after the initial product has gone to market, once there’s less stress on their time and finances. 

The Potential Pitfalls of Technical Debt

While technical debt can be used effectively as a tool, developers must never lose sight of it or forget to factor it into the project plans. If you think about technical debt strategically and use it intentionally, it can help offer clients increased value and facilitate a faster delivery date. 

However, you should never forget about the consequences of prioritizing speed over function. Every debt must be paid eventually. No software product is perfect, but if your team is realistic about technical debt and ensures that every team member knows it needs to be addressed, you can use technical debt effectively. 

How to Effectively Handle Technical Debt

When discussing technical debt, it’s important to differentiate between technical debt and software projects that are simply ill-conceived or poorly executed. If a project is a mess right from the beginning, nothing short of a full-scale overhaul can fix it. 

However, there are ways to use technical debt effectively to help expedite projects and get them into the hands of users sooner. Here are some of our best tips for effectively handling technical debt so it doesn’t derail your project. 

  1. Have a frank discussion about technical debt from day one. By having an open and honest dialogue with your client, you can get on the same page with regards to potential technical debt that you’re willing to take on, and where shortcuts can be taken that can be remedied later without negatively affecting the project.
  2. Be realistic about how long remediating technical debt will take. Some people estimate that 25% of development time is taken up with handling technical debt.
  3. Maintain an effective knowledge base that can help you effectively handle technical debt when it comes up. This could be a company wiki or any other internal resource that offers your developers easy access to information on specific projects.

There are many other intelligent tips on handling technical debt, but the most important thing we can tell you today is to listen to your developers and empower them to speak up if they think there’s a better way to approach a problem. 

By being honest about the realities of technical debt and incorporating it into your schedule for every project, you can use it as a tool to create better and more effective products. 

Want to learn more about how we approach development at SimplyPHP? Check out our videos and podcast, or explore our ongoing article series.