In the world of software development, it’s not uncommon for teams to feel like they’re constantly running to catch up. There are always new versions of programming languages and frameworks to learn, new tools and services to test, and new bugs to fix. In a fast-paced environment like this, how can you be sure that your team is striking the right balance between moving fast with agility and leaving enough time for thoughtful code refactoring?
It’s a challenging question with no universal answer. Every company has their own unique set of challenges, resources, and processes. If you’ve been working in software development long enough, you’ve probably heard the term “technical debt” before. If not, don’t worry we have you covered! In this article, we’ll break down what technical debt is as well strategies for balancing technical debt and agile processes at your company.
What is Technical Debt?
Technical debt is a metaphor used to describe the costs of poor engineering practices. Investing time in clean code, testing, and continuous integration can help you avoid these costs in the short term, but almost every engineering team incurs some amount of technical debt over time. The term was coined in the 1990s by Jim Waldo, who was studying the shelf life of software. We’ve used it ever since to describe the long-term costs of being too hasty in our engineering decisions. As a team accumulates more and more technical debt, it becomes increasingly difficult to make changes to the codebase.
You may need to account for earlier engineering decisions you made by adding additional code. Code that’s written in a rush often has to be fixed more often, too, which is why the term “technical debt” has been used to refer to this phenomenon since at least the 1980s. In short, technical debt is the time and effort that engineers have to spend either correcting their past mistakes or implementing workarounds for the problems they created in the first place.
Strategies for balancing agile processes and technical debt
There are many ways to balance agile processes and technical debt, but you can’t do them all at once. Instead, you need to decide which strategies are right for your company and then prioritize them wisely. We’ve listed some critical tips for managing technical debt while maintaining an agile process.
Very few firms employ engineers with the foresight that they will be excellent from the get-go. No one is perfect, but many engineers come to the table with significant experience, especially in the tech industry. Teams can become set in their ways by picking up bad habits as they gain experience. A great way to combat this is to periodically rotate engineers who are working on agile teams. This will force them to look at their processes with fresh eyes and give them an opportunity to re-evaluate their current level of technical debt.
Define a Minimum Quality Standard
Many companies are pairing agile engineering practices with lean management philosophies. While this is a great way to start the process of managing technical debt, it can quickly become an unsustainable strategy. Lean management is focused on driving efficiency through ruthlessly removing waste from your workflow and processes. What happens if you need to build a function that takes more than a few days for an engineer to finish?
You must eventually reduce your engineering efforts, but you wouldn’t like to return to a ‘big bang’ approach. To help you navigate this tricky line, define a minimum quality standard for the types of features that drive the most value for your customers. This gives you room to be efficient in your engineering efforts while still leaving time for engineers to implement quality code.
Establish a Dedicated Refactoring Process
Once you’ve established a minimum quality standard, establish a dedicated refactoring process. The key to refactoring is to be strategic about which pieces of code you’re going back to correct. For example, many companies like to refactor their database tables after a set period of time. This gives engineers a chance to go back to their code and re-evaluate selected components.
It also gives the engineering team a chance to re-evaluate their data strategy for those tables and consider whether the current schema is still applicable. Make sure that you give your team members the autonomy to decide which parts of their codebase need refactoring. Don’t make your engineers fix code that isn’t broken or that the team understands in a different way.
Reward Engineers Who Take Time to Refactor
There are many ways that companies can reward engineers for refactoring code and other engineering efforts. One example is to give engineers credit towards their vacation time. If you allow engineers to take time off between projects, you can allow them to take a portion of that time to refactor code.
Another way to reward engineers who are taking time to refactor is to give them more authority over project scoping. When you’re managing project scoping at your company, you will need to decide which features are more important. Engineers who are taking the time to refactor their code can often be an unbiased voice in this conversation.
Incorporate Technical Debt Rituals Throughout the Day
Finally, incorporate technical debt rituals throughout your day. Engineers can simply write down one bad piece of code or bad engineering decision they see throughout the day. You can also encourage teams to regularly review their technical debt and engineering decisions to see if there are any quick wins that they can make. This can be as simple as having engineers walk around and point out bad code as a part of their daily standup meetings.
Technical debt is a real and present danger for engineering teams. You must carefully balance investing time in clean code with delivering new features to your customers in order to avoid it.We’ve broken down key strategies that you can use to manage technical debt and agile processes at the same time. From rotating agile team members to establishing a minimum quality standard and more, there are a multitude of ways to stay agile while still investing time in code quality.