This is part of the “Practical Programming” series in which I try to say something profound about the craft of programming.
Technical debt is a very important factor in any software project yet you might never even encounter it until you start working in the field and having long-term projects. Even then, technical debt is something that creeps up. It’s not a bug, nor a feature you forgot or a meeting you dozed off in. It is more of a feeling, a state, a cup that slowly fills up until it overflows.
My definition of technical debt is the difference between the code right now, and the code if it was written perfectly by a thousand coders with unlimited time. This debt includes missing documentation, no tests of any kind, no release process, no design, no consistency in the code and other such issues that are usually regarded as secondary to actual working code. The metaphor is aptly named because it also has interest – the more the technical debt grows, the harder it is to scale development, be it adding new features, adding new developers to the team or being efficient in solving bugs. In the end you go broke and declare code bankruptcy – a rewrite.
(Some great resources that explain it in more depth: Martin Fowler’s article, c2 wiki page)
Let’s unwind the stack of metaphors and get back to why is technical debt a problem – to create a functional program all you need is code that compiles, but to create a sustainable development environment you need code, design, documentation, tests, deployment procedures, etc. This difference is the technical debt of your project. If a lot of those basic things are missing from your project it’ll get tougher and tougher to make even the smallest change without ruining something. As with any debt the interest will keep on climbing until it will be obvious that a rewrite is easier than fighting the code. This step always comes. You can ignore it and expect developers to work around these problems but eventually this will stop being cost efficient – bugs will pop up everywhere taking time from developing new features and new features will be buggy and produce unexplained behavior (the old “compile it and let’s see what happens”).
There are several ways to lessen the burden of technical debt. The easiest is just slowing down the development process and allowing time for basic software development practices. This is definitely the preferred way to do your projects (hehe). The other side of that is rewriting the whole code base, adding 1 to the version number and starting a marketing campaign – “new packaging”.
I’ve recently had to think about it and I’m advocating a hybrid solution – allocating time in each development sprint to pay the technical debt of a specific class or package in your code base. I have summarized my approach to five easy steps:
- Documentation – create a page for the package using whatever documentation repository you use. Document the following about the code:
- How should it work? This means a general overview of the correct working procedure for the code and comments, if there are any, about how the current implementation differs from this ideal.
- Class level documentation – a few words about each classes’ responsibilities and the interactions with other classes. If there are more than 3 classes a diagram might be needed.
- Other things that will need to be documented: XML and other data exchange formats, client server interactions, security measures, relevant databases, etc.
- Code Documentation – Document the code itself:
- Documentation for classes and all public functions. Use your platform’s most popular documentation framework.
- Document algorithms and private functions as needed.
- Add a header to the file. A header should contain who is responsible for the code (usually the author), a date and a short description of the file’s content. Some places will also want the license added to the code.
- Uni-test the code – Write at least one unit test for every public function in the class. Try to hit the major code paths. This will make refactoring easier because you’ll have the safety net of knowing the tests pass, and having one unit-test makes the mental barrier of adding more way smaller.
- Make easy and safe refactorings::
- Magic values into global constants. Strings to external files for easy L10N
- Don’t Repeat Yourself (DRY) problems – if some code is copy pasted make it into a helper function / its own module / whatever. Sometimes this needs to be said… I know.
- Run Lint on your code and see what is easy to fix.
- Code Review – Review the code and document the major changes you’ll need to do to make it more robust. Create tasks, put them in the backlog and allocate time for them to be fixed along-side bug fixes and features. This might seem like cheating because you’re still deferring the problem, but knowing what needs to be done is half the battle. If you have it among your other tasks it is easy to schedule it and consider it part of development instead of some concept that doesn’t contribute to the push forward.
Is there a way to write software without getting in debt? Probably, but it might not be practical. Let’s not have perfect get in the way of good enough and ask is there a way to write software without getting into much debt? Of course. The best way is identifying those moments where you are deciding between a “quick and dirty” solution and a slower but better solution, and understanding that the “quick” in “quick and dirty” is only short-term and it might be slower in the long run because of the effects of technical debt.