What is Technical Debt?
In 1992, American computer programmer and co-author of the Manifesto of Agile Software Development, Ward Cunningham, coined the metaphor “technical debt” during a Smalltalk meeting with his managing advisor. According to Cunningham, technical debt is similar to financial debt as it can grow, incur interest, and have a costly impact on organizations if it is not remedied in a timely manner. But what is technical debt? And how can organizations best manage it?
Cunningham notes technical debt as the direct cost of refactoring a piece of code or system to keep it working. For instance, a software developer may create a quick, alternative fix to several lines of code to maintain a project timeline or the operating integrity of a software or application. These fixes temporarily work, but they are not efficient to support long-term software operations and may lead to other issues in the future. In software development, technical debt or code debt occurs when a developer uses easy-to-administer coding or design solutions to rush production.
Remediation of technical debt is critical to a healthy, functional application or system. And in many instances, automated remediation (as offered by Instana) can relieve developers of the headache of fixing broken or temporary lines of code. Let’s explore technical debt in greater detail and map out the strategies for remediation.
The Types of Technical Debt
The first step of the remediation process is understanding the varying types of technical debt that can occur in a software system. There are three main categories of technical debt: architectural, design, and code debt.
- Architectural debt is caused by poor design decisions or a lack of planning during the initial stages of development. This type of debt can have a significant impact on the overall performance and scalability of a system.
- Design debt is caused by not following best practices or established design patterns. It can lead to code that is difficult to understand and maintain.
- Code debt is caused by poor coding practices such as not following established coding standards or not properly commenting code. It can lead to code that is difficult to understand and maintain.
Hidden Technical Debt
Technical debt is oftentimes hidden just below the surface of the visible budget of an amazing new application or system.
What is Technical Debt Interest?
Technical debt interest involves the extra maintenance costs incurred by the presence of technical debt in a system. Similar to loan interest, technical debt interest can compound and have an adverse effect on systems operations. Understanding how compounding technical debt interest impacts your operations begins with understanding the cost of technical debt.
Calculating the Cost of Technical Debt
According to Mckinsey & Company, “Some 30 percent of CIOs we surveyed believe that more than 20 percent of their technical budget ostensibly dedicated to new products is diverted to resolving issues related to tech debt. Furthermore, they estimate that tech debt amounts to 20 to 40 percent of the value of their entire technology estate (before depreciation). Tech debt continues to rise in the majority of organizations we examined. Furthermore, almost half of the firms that completed modernization programs were unsuccessful in reducing technology debt.”
When calculating your organization’s technical debt, you must first consider your technical debt ratio (TDR). TDR is a ratio of the cost to fix a software system [the remediation cost] to the cost of developing it [development cost].
Technical Debt Ratio = (Remediation Cost / Development Cost) x 100%
A more comprehensive calculation would include the consideration of development costs, lines of code, cost per line of code, and the remediation cost. As TDR is typically relative to the amount of time required to remediate, IT teams typically prefer technical debt that is below 5 percent.
Strategies for Remediating Technical Debt
There are a number of ways to monitor and remediate technical debt. Depending on your organizational priorities,
Strategy One: Focus on Business Value
One effective strategy for technical debt remediation is to focus on the areas of the system that have the highest business value. This will ensure that any improvements made to the system will have the greatest impact on the overall performance and scalability of the system. Instana’s real-time observability delivers context-rich information and sequence correlation between each step of an end-to-end transaction. Real-time Observability is:
- 1-second metrics stored for 24 hours
- Full end-to-end traces for every transaction without sampling
- 3-second context notification for each metric and trace
All of the elements of the Real-time Observability platform are designed specifically to precisely capture all of the information you need and automatically combine it with pertinent context to ensure immediate usefulness.
Real-time Observability also leverages automation for near instantaneous installation to for deliver immediate results. It also automatically scales with microservices-based applications, so you don’t end up with gaps in your end-to-end observability as your application and service topology inevitably change.
Strategy Two: Focus on Continuous Improvement
The new enhancements saw that the minimal configuration alerting baseline and configurations provided for front-end web applications are now extended to all applications. The new metric simplified its reporting characteristics to the industry best practice. The new four blueprints that allow you to define your Smart Alerts within Instana are:
- Slow calls
- Erroneous calls
- HTTP status codes
- Unexpectedly high or low number of calls
It’s also important to consider the bigger picture, not only the technical debt but also the business value, the cost of remediation and the benefits of the changes. In addition to back-end observability, Instana offers IT teams the ability to manage technical debt utilizing end-user monitoring. EUM enables developers to test the functionality of an application or system from the perspective of a user.
In conclusion, managing technical debt is a critical process that requires an observability tool with intelligent monitoring capabilities. By identifying and prioritizing the most critical areas of the system and implementing a process for continuous improvement, it’s possible to keep the overall level of technical debt low and ensure that the system remains maintainable and scalable over time. We invite you to try our smart observability and alerting features – Play with Instana or sign up for a free, 14-day trial.
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