Technical debt is something that software developers live with every day. If you don't take necessary, proactive steps, it can go from a small, nagging problem to a suffocating force of nature in no time at all.
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How to Define Technical Debt in Jira
Before we explore how you can avoid accumulating large amounts of technical debt, let's cover technical debt as a concept to give you a more nuanced understanding of the problem.
Technical debt can be defined as the direct and indirect costs your organization incurs from additional work that needs to go into software development. The more code you need to refactor, especially for modules are written in a legacy format, the more you add to your ongoing debt total.
Sometimes, business realities force software professionals to incur technical debt. Take this developer, quoted in a 2012 study that focused on this balancing act:
"Some shortcut has been taken or some less-than-desirable implementation has been done [so] we’ve acquired some amount of the work that can or should be done at some point in the future. The reason why I believe it comes into being is simple business situations.… The business reality forces us to make choices at points in time to be able to get the broader outcomes of delivering a solution."
Once your organization starts letting technical debt pile up, it’s very difficult to get out from under that burden. It’s the Agile equivalent of only making those minimum credit card payments - doing so won't resolve the issue and, eventually, bleed your resources dry.
Technical Debt: The Visible Versus the Invisible
There are several obvious ways that technical debt can manifest itself in your organization. Some are more common (typically more visible), while others may not be as immediately visible as part of your day-to-day.
There are several obvious ways that technical debt can manifest itself in your organization.
Adding new features, enhancing existing ones and vanquishing any bugs in the software are among the most common. However, less visible issues that can also make up an organization's technical debt include:
- Formatting issues when developing code. This typically results from teams not using the right tool or working with uniform templates.
- Poor code design. This involves code that serves varying logic instances, having parts of codes tasked with handling too much, and other architectural or structural flaws that lead to a lack of flexibility and stability.
- Overwrought code complexity. Basically, the longer the path length needed to perform an operation or task, the more complex the code will become - oftentimes needlessly so.
- Bad testing practices. Gaps in this stage of the QA process will reduce your scope of how the software behaves in a given situation, which in turn makes it very hard to diagnose problems when they appear.
- Ineffective or missing documentation. Rushing or skipping this software development best practice ensures that team members and stakeholders won’t have a thorough understanding of the software and, as a result, can’t drive evolution going forward.
- Scheduling or release rollout issues. This usually translates to new feature adoption delays and potentially doing harm to your customer satisfaction rate.
- Relying on outdated/legacy technology. Incompatibility issues, plugin or API performance, and the inability to publish updates are just a few of the issues associated with using outdated software.
- Inefficient Agile development processes. If your operations is getting in the way of your team following the Agile methodology, then it’s likely time to reassess how you work, not just what you’re working on.
Each of these overarching issues can add up to massive amounts of technical debt that your organization has to deal with. It’s not just the time, energy and money you’ll waste - it’s also the opportunity cost associated with new feature rollouts.
Let’s move to how you can minimize your ongoing technical debt tab and avoid having it dictate your day-to-day priorities.
Create and Manage One Backlog, Then Prioritize
The creation of one general backlog for both technical debt-related issues and the development of new features can streamline the development process significantly.
One way to take control of your technical debt is to funnel all ongoing issues into one general backlog alongside new features that are currently in the works. Then, prioritize your upcoming projects or sprints from that global list.
If problems related to your current technical debt aren’t part of the same backlog as new features developments, assigning relative urgency to one or the other becomes much tougher.
Remember: your team’s time is valuable. You should be able to divide up tasks based on a transparent hierarchy instead of reactive decision-making. If you’re going to devote time to a project, those efforts deserve to go to the most important backlog items first.
A great tool to use here is a reporting dashboard that visualizes your data using customizable filters or labels. This streamlines the process of provisioning your global backlog among developers or teams.
Insight's new Reporting feature can help you tame your technical debt in Jira with its flexible, real-time data visualization. Read more now!
Educate Product Owners on the True Cost of Technical Debt
A strong, two-way knowledge transfer culture between developers and product owners can go a long way to reducing preventable instances of technical debt.
Even with a single backlog and dashboard views for your ongoing issues or projects, you won't be able to minimize your technical debt without all stakeholders having a clear understanding on the problems at hand and the solutions needed to fix them.
This is especially true of product owners or managers. They're often the ones who end up prioritizing backlog items prior to Agile scrums or sprint assignments - therefore, their ongoing project knowledge is crucial to your team's success.
As a developer, it's important to communicate clearly in as much detail as possible. This even extends to the use of metaphors, as per The Liberators' Christiaan Verwijs:
"Technical debt is a powerful metaphor. Use it as such. The consequences of writing hacks & workarounds to ‘help us now, but hurt us later’ are very abstract and incomprehensible for people who are not developers themselves. They simply lack a useful mental model. Continuously emphasizing that ‘X should be improved’ or ‘Y is bad code’ is not going to create understanding. In fact, it will probably put you in the ‘guy who always complains’-box at some point."
The moral of the story: It's how you work - not just what you work on.
Use Agile to (Re)Define What it Means to Be “Done”
There are plenty of options that can help your team solidify what it means to be “done” and how that definition will help you produce stronger deliverables at each project stage.
Theoretically, the iterative nature of Agile should emphasize quality over completion speed and facilitate the refining process for existing features.
However, if Agile software development was that simple, then technical debt wouldn’t even exist. Ensuring a quality output, no matter how your team operates within that structure, is often much harder than it looks.
The question becomes: What gaps in the Agile method allow for technical debt accumulation in the first place? The answer, at least in part, lies in a team’s definition of “done.”
On paper, "done" in Agile terms typically means one of two things - either you’re ready for QA testing or ready to ship. For more on which one should be your preferred target, let’s turn to the Atlassian blog:
“For traditional teams, "done" means good enough for QA to begin. The problem with that definition is that bugs creep in early in the release cycle–and continue to creep in. So by the time QA gets their hands on it, the product is saddled with layers upon layers of defects. Agile teams, however, define "done" as ready to release, which means developers don't move on to the next story or feature until their current item is practically in customers' hands.”
The implementation of feature branches and augmenting your automated testing are just a couple of options that can help you make the concept of “done” (as in ready-to-ship “done”) a realistic and reachable goal for your development team.
Establish Realistic Deadlines to Minimize Technical Shortcuts
Grounding your deadlines in a real-world environment can be a godsend when you're looking to minimize stress, technical hiccups, and more.
We’ve all been there: Your team inches closer and closer to meeting a tight deadline. Suddenly, tasks start taking longer than expected to complete. Scrambling ensues and, unfortunately, shortcuts are taken to meet those original delivery dates.
As much as everyone wants to be the first to take a new feature to market or build that add-on that will finally put your app ahead of the competition, overreaching when setting iterative deadlines is a mistake that always leads to a sacrifice in quality.
It’s about putting your team in control of their own destiny, instead of having their actions dictated by a deadline that looms like a date with a firing squad.
In practice, it’s better to take a step back and tinge that ambition with a little more realism. Is this doable? What are some of the risks involved in pushing for a tighter deadline?
Some ways to avoid getting in over one’s head include:
- Discuss potential roadblocks beforehand with product owners and be upfront about any long-term obstacles that could get in the way of project completion
- Given your resources, know exactly what you can and can’t accomplish in a given sprint or period of time
- Devote the appropriate amount of personnel and/or hours needed to properly finish a task, and
- Allow yourself a buffer period in case of extreme circumstances or emergencies.
By taking steps to minimize reactive responses to the different projects you take on, you’ll be empowering your team to do their best work at all times.
Taking Steps to Avoid Accumulating Technical Debt
The negative impacts of accruing technical debt are obstacles that plague software development teams around the world on a daily basis.
From code issues to testing or QA inadequacy to general neglect of software development best practices, those direct and indirect costs to your organization will be as far-reaching as they will be long-lasting.
That said, a lot of those errors are relatively simple (if time-consuming) to fix.
Some solutions that can alleviate a sizeable portion of technical debt include:
- Condensing all your projects (including issues related to technical debt) into one backlog to facilitate prioritization
- Educating product owners and other stakeholders on the true cost of technical debt
- Going back to basics with the Agile method to (re)define what it means to be “done”
- Establish realistic goals and deadlines to minimize the need for taking shortcuts technically.
Being more efficient and, at the end of the day, being real with how you work as an organization will go a long way to avoiding racking up huge amounts of technical debt.
If bad habits are starting to fester under the surface of your development timeline, nip those in the bud now - before the mess becomes an unmanageable one.
From CMDB templates to detailed, visualized reporting that's updated in real-time, Insight gives you the tools you need to organize your Jira environment and streamline your operations. Get started with the app today!
Originally published Jun 4, 2019 8:59:00 AM