What is technical debt, why it is important and how to get rid of it

Technical debt may hinder your company’s chances of creating great software.
This is what it means, what causes it and how to fight it off.

Technical debt lurks in almost every company, a result of hasty decisions, time-to-market pressure and simply the fact that developers are, well, humans. But when technical debt grows uncontrollably, it can affect a company’s ability to innovate, deliver great products and even keep teams motivated. This is what technical debt means, why it is so important and what you can do to prevent it. You’ll learn:

What is technical debt?

Technical debt refers to the extra work that comes along with choosing an easy implementation over an efficient one. It is a quite common phenomenon in software development, when immediate and unconsidered code implementation decisions take place – easy to execute in the short term, but with a negative impact in the long run. 

Software development requires time, critical and analytical thinking to plan and organize solid code so that goals are achieved and sustained in the long term. However, companies are often tempted by the prospect of addressing customer requirements as quickly as possible, often implementing quick fixes, without considering the long-term implications and costs.
This can also occur due to low involvement in the project or lack of resources. Whatever the reason, this prioritization of speed and short-term results over quality often leads to deviations from the originally planned. Then, technical debt arises, triggering unplanned code changes which leads to a backlog that prevents the project from developing. 

However, there’s also technical debt which is created even with careful consideration and correct decisions along the way. There are changes due to technical shifts, to new business needs, legal needs, or other. These changes might require quick solutions that were not be aligned with what was expected or the existing code.  

So, in a way, technical debt is a by-product of software development. 

In some regards, technical debt is remarkably similar to a normal financial debt: they both require the payment of interest. With technical debt, interest takes the form of an extra effort to develop new future codes. It is possible to pay the debt all at once, rewriting the entire code, or pay it in instalments, creating code for every problem that arises as a direct consequence of the technical debt. 

Why is Technical Debt so important? 

Technical debts can generate a series of problems with important financial consequences. The time and money needed to fix software can add up to astronomical numbers. 

The sum of several wrong decisions quickly turns into a large technical debt up to a point when it is no longer possible to avoid. In the end, the team will wind up doing twice the work. In extreme scenarios, every line of code may need to be redeveloped from scratch, making all the previous work useless.  

Shortcuts and assumptions can help in the short term, but they end up disrupting systems, causing delays throughout the various versions of the project. This undermines the team’s motivation, which reduces the companies’ effectiveness. 

In short, technical debt leads to late and incomplete deliveries, degradation of trust, inferior quality and waste of resources. For the team, it generates frustration, low productivity, constant friction and mistrust.

What are the several types of technical debt?  

Technical debt can be classified into 4 main groups. 

  • Irresponsible and purposeful technical debt. The developer team doesn’t have time to create a complete and stable solution, and uses a fast alternative, disregarding quality. It is the same as simply saying: “We don’t have time.” 
  • Prudent and purposeful technical debt. The team is under strong deadline pressure and chooses, consciously and informed, to deliver a faster and lower quality solution, proactively assuming the consequences. Put simply, it is the same as saying: “We have to deliver now and deal with the consequences.” 
  • Irresponsible and unintentional technical debt. The team is unaware of the basic principles of good code, without foreseeing the consequences that fast and careless work can cause. This is what happens when someone goes “Tests? What tests?” 
  • Prudent and unintentional technical debt. The team delivers a solution that, over development, seems to be the best one, but once it is completed, they detect vulnerabilities that could have been avoided. Something like saying: “Now we know how it should have been done.” 

In each case, the output is very much the same. Technical debts lead to unreadable code, code duplication, tangle of dependencies, outdated documentation, unnecessary complexity, and a biased team. 

What are the root causes of technical debt?  

Imagine a company that is launching an app. The dev team, already under pressure, encounters a complex problem and applies a quick fix to meet the deadline. Not a big deal, right? They can just revisit it later, before it causes any troubles. Well, this is they create exactly how tech debt. Technical debt can be caused by much more than just sloppy developers or faulty code.

Sometimes, it might be unavoidable, because of software upgrades, releases of newer versions of programming languages, company expansions, budget limitations, outdated legacy systems, and more. Here are the 6 most common root causes of technical debt. 

Poor quality code

Inferior quality code is one of the most frequent causes of technical debt. Developers may want to try out the latest tools without fully mastering them or before the project is properly planned.

Poor leadership

The operational team may not fully understand decisions that are taken by managers, creating technical debt, such as resorting to unnecessary or inappropriate tools or libraries.

Employee turnover

Another source of technical debt is employee turnover. Programmers who are new to a project often must carry on the work developed by their previous colleagues.

No sharing

When a programmer does not share work-related information with the entire team, he is blocking collective collaboration and generating friction in the project flow, creating technical debts.

No testing

When software is not tested, the result is rarely positive. Testing allows the team to identify and resolve code problems before the final implementation, at which point the resolution is less feasible. 

Whatever the cause, the impact can be tremendous on a team’s morale and productivity, as well as in the overall quality of the software. And no one is truly immune. Take Twitter, which initially built its front end through Ruby on Rails, then quickly replaced it with a Java server to improve search performance. Although the shift allowed the team to reduce the latency time in searches, it also accumulated significant technical debt, making it difficult to add resources and jeopardizing search reliability.  

Instagram was also a victim of technical debt. In 2010, they launched the iPhone app on a single server, and in just 6 hours, the backend was overloaded. To provide a high-speed response, they moved the database in just 3 days to Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, but the consequences of this quick fix meant they eventually had to redo the code from scratch. 

How to get rid of technical debt? 

Developing a plan for managing and avoiding technical debt is essential for fast, fluid, and high-quality teamwork. Here are some ways you can keep technical debts at bay.

Define a clear initial strategy

Before starting a project, anticipate and define all the technical details involved, as if it were a roadmap. Identify every requirement and specific feature and anticipate, quantify and expose potential risks and how to respond to them. By doing so, you will avoid redoing the work.

Implement DevOps

Implement DevOps practices to achieve shorter development cycles and more frequent deployments. When both development and operations teams are coordinated, the project is less error-prone and achieves a more effective response.

Go agile

Some might argue that Agile prioritises speed over quality–and to them we say: that’s because they don’t understand Agile like we do. A faster pace does not mean careless work, and Agile is not synonymous with “quick and dirty”. Instead, the Agile approach (in development and in mindset) is technical debt’s nemesis, with frequent iterations of work, tackling small chunks of work at a time, testing automation, modularization of architecture, and so on. 

Raise awareness of the importance of avoiding technical debt

If everyone is aware of the consequences of technical debt, including management and commercial teams, there will be greater collective involvement to avoid them. Quantify the undesirable effects to reinforce how much everyone benefits from keeping technical debts at bay. 

Invest time on a strong Architecture

Just as important as a sterling code is a strong architecture that allows you to start with a lightweight design and grow over time, step by step, and to actively track and manage (unavoidable) technical debt. The choice of coding platform should consider how legacy systems will be integrated since this is one factor contributing to software entropy technical debt.  

Resist quick fixes to save time

Quick fixes are often not the best long-term solution, and as far as technical debt is concerned, this couldn’t be truer. In fact, delaying the launch of a product can make it a success, rather than releasing it on time with troublesome flaws.  

Bad code equals technical debt, eventually. Having a skilled developing team who follows rigorous business processes is crucial to avoid code debt. Technical debt is also very common in companies that don’t have high-level technical management or a CTO.

Test, test, test 

Obviously, the war on technical debt includes implementing a proactive QA practice that prioritizes effective testing like identifying app defects after every activity or task or even testing automation. 


Waiting around for things to fall apart is never a good strategy. Regularly re-writing components in software, in order to remove redundancies and optimize performance, might seem the very definition of technical debt–but, in this case, it is not. Refactoring code as a precaution will help increase its endurance over time, avoiding technical deb. Rather than wait for things to fall apart, savvy teams pre-emptively act to improve the code’s immune system. 

Motivate the team 

According to a recent study, a company’s culture and management mindset play a key role in eliminating technical debt. In fact, motivation, encouragement, incentive, and reward programs have proved effective in keeping the development of software projects free from these frictions, while guidelines based on force and authority, as well as penalties, leave much to be desired. 

In short, the challenge is to develop digital solutions in line with the needs and the market, properly planned to achieve long-term goals. Any faults detected must be repaired with adequate performance in mind and not just meeting deadlines. As a result, technical debt is kept under control and more complex problems are avoided. Achieving this balance between quality and time is a demanding but achievable goal.

Partnering up to stay away from technical debt 

It is not always possible to avoid technical debt, but when these occur within controllable frontiers, they do not generate severe consequences. The most important thing is to ensure that the team is not introducing debt irresponsibly, making it difficult (or impossible) to manage. 

With these tips, you can save time in the future, keep a highly motivated and productive team and hold up your customers’ trust. 

At Near Partner, our team of technical debt experts can go through your system and work on old “debts” while your teams devote resources to tackling future problems. Managing technical debt keeps businesses on a trajectory of innovation and growth. 

And if outsourcing is still a big question mark for you, and you are not sure how to choose the best partner, download our free e-book on Outsourcing 101. 

Need help to develop your product, migrating to new systems, or even some counseling on how to tackle technical debt in your organization? Get in touch! At Near Partner, our team of experienced developers is used to (and eager!) tackling all kinds of development issues, opportunities, and solutions with customers. So far, we’ve gotten great results, happy customers, and a growing team of talented programmers. 

Drop us a message and start tackling technical debt.

Pedro Veloso

I'm a serial entrepreneur and a (quasi-serial) father. I'm particularly fond of technology, solving problems and team culture, and my life lies at the intersection of those interests.