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5 Approaches to Project Management to Reduce Technical Debt

We’ve all had those projects. Messy projects that force developers into uncomfortable and unmanageable situations. The unfortunate reality is that software development takes time. So when a client wants a rushed project, it could negatively impact the quality of the coding and the overall quality of the project.

With development projects, you can expect some setbacks. However, you want to limit the number of setbacks that might occur. These messy setbacks are known in the industry as technical debt, and, as surprising as it might be, technical debt can be reduced.

By being proactive and communicating with your developer team, you can take steps to reduce technical debt in any development project.

What is Technical Debt?

Also known as tech debt or code debt, technical debt is when the code of a software program is either broken, obsolete, or messy to the point where it eventually breaks the software. Technical debt can lead to faulty code, mistakes, glitches, and the software being inoperable.

There are three main types of technical debt: bit rot, accidental/outdated design, and deliberate.

In many ways, taking on some technical debt can be good for the project.

Deliberate Tech Debt

Deliberate tech debt is a strategic tech debt that refers to those projects that are rushed for a business use case. Deliberate technical debt often affects those companies who are growing quickly, and they’ll find that they are often reworking or managing technical debt in order to improve.

If a company wants to quickly expand and rush a development project, then they might take on technical debt in order to meet the market demand, seize an emerging opportunity, or test a product. However, each brand needs to be strategic so that technical debt does not subsume the business entirely. And, much like financial debt, too much debt can be debilitating to the project.

In addressing deliberate tech debt, you should have a plan in place to get rid of it when you can. Agile project development might not work for this approach. Keep track of this debt so that the specific tech debt can be addressed before it turns into accidental or outdated tech debt over time.

Accidental/Outdated Design Tech Debt

Accidental or outdated code debt is extremely common when a brand rushes a design and neglects to improve it. If a brand wants to just push out a quick mobile app, then they might not care to reduce technical debt or they might fail to account for repairing tech debt once the app is up and running.

Other times, the design is outdated and the system needs to be reconfigured. If the design is flawed, then the team needs to go back into the code to make it workable. Or, if a team wants to insert a new function, then the code would need to be fixed as well.

It’s natural that you’d need to significantly refactor part of the system, but speak with your software developer team early on. They might alert you to potential problems that would come up with a certain feature, including technological advances that you can’t foresee.

Bit Rot

Bit rot is when the code starts to break down. A component of the app will break down due to small, incremental changes that have been made to that component over time. While the system might have worked initially, the continual changes have made the feature unusable. This is often the case with copy-pasting code or cargo cult programming.

This is probably the easiest type of tech debt to avoid but it’s also the most common. Bit rot might occur because of messy projects. If the project is rushed during the initial code development and tech debt isn’t tracked, then changes need to be made to the code later on. You might not catch the potential for bit rot if the errors were accidental or if the project is handed off as a legacy project.

5 Approaches to Project Management to Reduce Technical Debt

Both the client and the software developer need to work to reduce the amount of tech debt a project incurs. Confused and complex clients might make matters worse, so it’s important to educate the client around the potential problems that might happen.

Consider implementing the following five approaches for more streamlined project management:

1. Assess the Major Costs and Risks Associated with Each Project

Look at costs and liability. While each type of project could incur liabilities, there are times when large monetary gains or data privacy is involved. Clients who operate in more sensitive industries like fintech or the medical industry have to consider data privacy laws and user verification. In these industries, technical debt could be extremely hazardous and cause issues, which could incur huge financial losses.

The client might be held accountable for certain issues associated with the technology. If this is the case, then you’ll have to reconsider what your company can be held liable for. Be sure to account for this in the initial contract.

2. Provide Clear Estimates and Communicate Clearly With Your Client

While clients can come in with their own expectations, a development team must take it upon themselves to instill project management best practices with the client. Before a project starts, consider common risks associated with certain projects, budgets, and time allowances. With this knowledge, you will be able to inform the clients of potential setbacks.

When implementing a feature like GPS into a mobile application, your team knows that certain coding parameters need to be followed. As the level of complexity rises, you should be prepared to inform the client of the potentials for bit rot.

3. Categorize Your Debt or Potential Debts

In addition to the three major technical debts that could happen, there are additional debts that a software company can experience. A team from the Software Engineering Institute outlined 13 different kinds of debts that a software company can experience, including:

  • Architectural
  • Build based
  • Code-based
  • Defective products
  • Design debt
  • Documentation debt
  • Infrastructure
  • People-based
  • Procedural debt
  • Requirement debt
  • Services
  • Test automation
  • Test debt

If you’re really concerned, dive into the guidelines produced by the research team and educate your PM or management team to avoid and/or categorize these debt types.

4. Stay on Top/Raise Awareness of Your Debt

As is the case in situations outside of software development, many people want to avoid looking at or addressing debt. Some teams might avoid addressing debt at the beginning of a project and then go about blaming the client. It’s bad business practice to do this, especially with first-time clients, and since the client is not expected to know that this type of debt could happen.

By tracking debt early on, teams are able to reduce the amount of time spent managing code debt later. By making tech debt a priority, your team will feel more obligated to address issues throughout the cycle of a project, or confront potential problems early on.

5. Instill Good Coding Practices

Avoiding tech debt altogether is impossible, but your team should be adopting coding best practices so that tech debt doesn’t become a nuisance. Good coding practices include refactoring, maintaining high percentages of code covering, favoring pull requests and code reviews, opting for abstractions, and avoiding tight couplings.

If you can consider these coding practices, then you can quantitatively identify when these practices are being used and when they are not. This can then be turned into a metric so that your team can clearly see when “tech debt” metrics are higher or when they are lower.

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