Home » Effective Strategies for Managing Technical Debt in Long-Term Software Projects

Effective Strategies for Managing Technical Debt in Long-Term Software Projects

by Mirela Lazar
21 minutes read
Top strategies for managing technical debt in long term software development projects

Controlling technical debt throughout long-term software development projects to prevent code quality, system performance, and potential expense’ increases is crucial. Technical debt or the necessary additional work, because easier solutions were chosen, can add up and cause a giant if not paid attention to. Over time, as projects are modified and new functionality is implemented, it becomes a burden in development, creates issues, and makes maintenance more complex. Thus, the assessment of technical debt is vital for the ongoing well-being and functionality of software systems.

In a recent survey conducted by DZone, it was found that 72% of software development teams have technical debt in their respective projects. Also, 40% of respondents said technical debt hinders their capacity for innovation and delivering new features.

In this article, we will examine top strategies for technical debt management so that your software remains sound, versatile, and able to satisfy the growing needs of clients. 

Use Code Analysis Tools

One of the most effective ways of dealing with the accumulation of technical debt is the use of code analysis tools. Static code analysis tools like SonarQube, Code Climate, and PMD help you understand the state of your code by reporting code smells, complexity, and duplicity. These tools help to distinguish the code segments that need to be refactored, as they indicate the problematic areas within the code to the developers. For example, SonarQube provides measurable and graphical results that help measure and prioritize technical debt and fix problems before they worsen.

It is clear that code analysis tools have many advantages. A study by Cast Software also illustrates that organizations that adopt automated code analysis tools are set to benefit from 20-30% enhanced code quality and 15-20% less code maintenance costs. In addition, these tools can enhance the process of maintaining code quality because they can be interconnected with development processes, including the use of CI/CD processes.

The actions suggested by code analysis tools and the establishment of a constant process of code improvement are essential for controlling technical debt and the state of the software’s code over time.

Automate Testing

Adopting automated testing practices is critical for sustaining code quality and eliminating technical debt. JUnit, Selenium, and Appium are some of the tools that provide a strong foundation for creating and conducting automated tests on different environments and operating systems. It checks whether every new feature or change follows the quality standards set, hence eliminating the introduction of code smells, poor performance, and other technical debt indicators.

Early Bug Detection

Automated tests are more frequent and methodical in their execution, thus detecting issues before reaching the later stages of development. Regardless of the type of check, it can be unit tests with JUnit or end-to-end tests with Selenium or Appium. Such checks allow problems to be caught at an early stage before they spread to the production environment.

Thus, bug detection reminds you of an early diagnosis, and if you do not make it, then numerous issues may accumulate ahead of you. This kind of strategy drastically minimizes technical debt.

Ensuring Code Quality

  • JUnit is a common Java framework that offers the possibility to create and run unit tests. These tests confirm the proper functioning of individual elements (methods or classes) of the program.
  • As for the second type of testing, Selenium and Appium are used for UI testing. Selenium is used for web applications, while Appium is an extension of Selenium for mobile (Android and iOS) and even (Desktop) environments.

These tests confirm that the application presents the expected result to an end user for a given set of inputs. They verify communications, movements, and looks so that users have an exceptional experience, as they are a great way of monitoring a project’s code quality while coding to prevent regressions and undesired consequences. 

Refactor Regularly

Schedule time to refactor often, as this will allow you to enhance the code’s quality without altering the program’s external behavior. Refactoring is a technique where the existing code is redesigned to be clearer, faster, and simpler than before. In this manner, the refactoring eliminates these problems systematically so that the code remains solid and easy to manage. Having dedicated hours in each development sprint for refactoring can help avoid a backlog of technical debt and create a healthier code base over time. 

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Eliminating Code Smells

Code smells are indicators that signal potential problems with the code base. These problems do not lead to errors at the developmental stage but make future development tougher and the chances of bugs higher.  Every refactoring cycle helps mitigate code smells since complexities such as duplications are worked on by refactoring the code appropriately. In this way, developers remove additional unwanted layers and make the code more comprehensible.

For instance, think of the nested functions or methods that are way too lengthy than is worthwhile. These areas can actually be refactored in order to provide cleaner and more maintainable code. 

Improving Maintainability

Technical debt builds up over time because of the convenient or quick fixes made while developing the software. Refactoring allows teams to pay this debt and enhance the internal organization of the code. Clean code is easier to comprehend, extend, and maintain than code that is not well-structured. Hence, through refactoring, the development teams can maintain that the code base does not gather technical debt.

Think of refactoring as maintaining a house. This is important since it prevents structural problems and makes the building strong for the longest time.

Adopt Agile Methodologies

Scrum and Kanban are some of the most globally adopted frameworks that have revolutionized software development through the pursuit of flexibility, adaptability, and continuous improvement. Unlike the conventional approach that WFM uses, the Agile process delivers value in smaller iterations called sprints. 

Scrum

Scrum is actually one of the most organized and systematic frameworks of Agile methodology. It defines roles, ceremonies, and artifacts that promote good collaboration and openness within the team. Scrum teams operate in sprints that are defined by a fixed duration, where by the end of the cycle, the team delivers usable features. Sprints are carried out periodically, and at the end of each sprint, a review and adjustment are made; hence, technical debt is paid gradually. Thus, Scrum puts a great emphasis on collaboration and responsiveness as the product evolves according to feedback and changing requirements. 

Kanban

Formally known as lean manufacturing methodology, Kanban relies on the constant work in progress. Teams manage the amount of work that is in progress, use maps to observe the workflow, and aim to deliver the most value. A key aspect of Kanban is to always hold retrospectives to analyze how the processes are going and what changes should be made. Because Kanban integrates debt management into the working process, the issue does not become exacerbated over time. This approach is most suitable for iterative development, and it aids teams in sustaining a friendly velocity. 

Maintain Comprehensive Documentation

Documentation is very crucial in software development and this is why the following documentation techniques are very important. This way, teams do not find themselves having to pay enormous documentation dues, easing the teams’ knowledge transfer. Whenever new people are onboarded in a certain project, clearly documented code allows them to get a feel for the environment within the shortest time possible and get to know why such a decision was made or how to proceed with certain systems.

Also, it minimizes the potential for the project to incorporate technical debt via miscommunication or the lack of adequate details. Hence, it is valuable to expend the effort to keep documentation uncluttered, coherent, and well-constructed, as this benefits the team and fosters smooth development.

Track Technical Debt

Regarding technical debt, tools such as SonarQube and CAST are unarguably important. 

SonarQube

  • Comprehensive Code Analysis: Code quality analysis is well developed in SonarQube, with available options such as code smells, duplication, and complexity. From the code analysis, it identifies specific areas that are incurring technical debt.
  • Metrics and Insights: SonarQube offers the feature of technical debt, and through it, teams can prioritize their work in the right manner. It quantifies things like the percentage of code coverage, the ratio of defects, and the lead time to enable code quality to be kept high.
  • Historical Trends: This means that the teams can get a bird’ s-eye view of all technical debts over time, which makes managing the debts less problematic.
  • Integration: SonarQube also seems to interact well with other DevOps tools, version control systems, and project management tools.
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CAST

  • Code Quality Assessment: CAST assembles code and compares its quality with guidelines from the industry (for example, OWASP and CWE). They assist in determining sectors where more technical debt may be generated because of non-conformities.
  • Hotspot Identification: CAST investigates the application to identify hot spots; these are prospective zones of technical debt. This can help highlight specific areas of a program for the developer and allow them to concentrate on these sections.
  • Monitoring and Documentation: CAST has detailed historical data regarding the technical debt from the beginning of the project until the time of this writing. It also helps in tracking documentation on debts on behalf of the company.

Foster a Culture of Collective Code Ownership

In successful software development teams, many will probably agree that collective code ownership is not just a good practice but rather a philosophy. The cross-functional code ownership approach makes the team members responsible for the whole codebase, thereby fostering a culture of togetherness.

Quality Assurance

This is because everyone will feel a sense of ownership and hence participate in code reviews, testing, and even bug fixing. It also ensures that the duties of checking and preventing technical debt are spread across the team, thus preventing it from being overlooked.

Knowledge Transfer

Communication is open to interdependency, including the sharing of ideas, practices, and expertise of group members within the domain. As a result, the new members learn from the experiences shared within the team, which mitigates knowledge loss since it is shared across the team.

Risk Mitigation

With collective ownership, no one is particularly burdened with the responsibility of maintaining these key parts. The team is always in charge of the technical debt to eliminate situations where some developers are held up or dependent on others.

Conduct Regular Code Reviews

Code reviews are essential in software development, and they must be done on a regular basis. They serve as the checks and balances of the code base by providing security and optimality. The code review allows teams to remove bugs or issues that they have found, which can help prevent the release of unstable code to customers. They also help the team to share knowledge; for example, junior developers can learn from their seniors due to these reviews. Moreover, code reviews ensure that the code is looked at from the perspective of coding standards and recommended practices, resulting in better code quality.

Implement Continuous Integration and Delivery (CI/CD)

A major feature of the contemporary application development process, Continuous Integration, and Continuous Delivery are integral concepts. 

Continuous Integration (CI)

CI calls for the constant practice of including small code changes in a common version control repository. Developers check in their code more often, which helps to facilitate better integration and improve the quality of the code being checked in. The lack of a good automated build, pack, and test procedure allows for good integration.

The results coming in the form of early bug detection, enhancing collaboration, and increasing velocities of feedback cycles are some of the benefits of using it.

Continuous Delivery (CD)

CD also expands CI by involving code delivery in several stages (for instance, production, testing, and development). These are environments that receive code updates or changes without the need for manual intervention. This ensures consistent and reliable deployments.

Some of the benefits of using it are risk reduction, speed of getting products to market, and efficient paradigm to operations. 

CI/CD Tools and Automation

CI/CD tools use environment-specific parameters and manage service APIs (web servers, databases). Much of the time, it is vital to test often, for instance, regression tests or performance tests. A few teams even go the extra step of practicing continuous deployment, which deploys directly to production once it has gone through builds. 

Invest in Training and Skill Development

Continued training and building the skills of the employees is crucial for keeping a strong and performing development team. This way, with people and knowledge debt, organizations are able to provide continual learning opportunities.

There has to be professional development for developers since they must be updated on the current market trends, resources, and standards. Periodic training improves them, hence contributing more to the company. This is because trained, and especially cross-trained, team members are in a better position to produce good, maintainable code. Training bridges gaps in expertise and ensures that the client’s staff meets the current standards.  

Use Metrics to Quantify Technical Debt

In this subject of assessing and quantifying technical debt, several metrics can be considered.

Defect Ratio (New Bugs vs. Closed Bugs)

This metric measures the ratio of the new bugs or errors identified in a particular cycle, such as the sprint or release cycle, to the new bugs or errors that were successfully closed or resolved in a similar cycle. It assists in identifying the best testing approach to be used and minimizes the occurrence of production bugs.

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Formula: Defect Ratio = New Defect / Old Defect. 

Debt Index

The debt index takes into account the ratio of solved problems to total problems, with the problems of greater importance considered more effective. It helps developers and managers understand the global state of the code base and the measures taken to deal with technical debt. 

Code Coverage

Code coverage determines the percentage of code that has been tested by automatic test cases. Higher code coverage implies good testing and, at the same time, shows where testing is lacking. It helps to implement a detailed check and minimize the chance of the hidden problem’s presence.

Cyclomatic Complexity

Cyclomatic complexity involves counting the number of linearly independent paths through a program’s source code. A control flow graph is used to assess testing effort and potential risk due to control flow complexity by calculated CBO. The second advantage is that lower complexity makes it easier to maintain assets, and the associated costs are lower as well. 

Maintainability Index

The maintainability index compares the ease of performing maintenance work. Issues such as code density, size, and comments are considered in the creation of this index. Lower complexity and higher maintainability entail easier code management and less effort to maintain it. 

Communicate and Collaborate on Technical Debt

Technical debt is the cost of more extensive reallocation that results from taking the reasonable and expedient way out instead of the superior method that would require more time. In other words, it means getting something done quickly, which, while it can indeed hasten the progress in the short run, is detrimental in the longer run since one will have to work extra hard to ‘repay’ the debt incurred in the form of fixing problems that emerged due to the initial recklessness.

Technical debt management is also a collaborative affair in Agile Scrum methodologies, and everybody is encouraged to speak out. Promote sharing of the detected technical debt with the other members of a team and product owners on how it can be dealt with. Thus, teamwork allows for strategic management of technical debt, which ultimately makes the process of software development more efficient and future-proof.

Use visualizations. Technical debt reports can be presented using dashboards and charts depicting the status and potential effects. Graphics assist in decision-making by explaining the swaps and the order in which to pay back the loans. These visualizations could also show where the technical debt starts to pile up and facilitate rational decisions.

Plan for Technical Debt in Project Roadmaps

Managing technical debt requires proactively including the repayment activities in the technical project timelines and sprints. In this way, technical debt management is transformed from a one-time process where it is considered at the end of a project to the ongoing consideration of this problem during the development of a product. Here are some key points to consider:

  • Roadmap Integration: When planning timelines for projects, it is advised to set a proportionate amount of time to work on technical debt. This helps ensure that regular tasks are assigned to reduce the debts and that they entail the other project goals.
  • Sprint Planning: While defining what should be done in sprint planning, add technical debt points of interest together with new features and bug squashing. This means that these tasks must be completed according to their importance and relevance to the existing situation. Thus, incorporating debt into sprints keeps the teams in balance between adding more new features to the product and fixing existing ones.
  • Visibility and Accountability: Ensure that the technical debt reduction tasks are communicated to all parties involved and are easily seen. Monitor and evaluate the work and alter the focus according to the findings. Transparency helps maintain accountability since it helps the organization avoid any form of bad debt.

Effective Technical Debt Management

Effectively managing technical debt is essential for the success and longevity of software development projects. Regular use of code analysis tools such as SonarQube, testing through JUnit and Selenium, and refactoring plays a great role in maintaining the quality of the code and preventing it from becoming inefficient when scaling.

Integrating these strategies within the development lifecycle provides the necessary checks and balances to ensure that the delivered software solutions are innovative and meet clients’ future needs.

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