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Technical Debt: How Much is it Really Costing You?

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The idea behind the technical debt metaphor is that there is a cost to taking short cuts (intentional technical debt) or making mistakes (unintentional technical debt) and that the cost of not dealing with these short cuts and mistakes will increase over time.

The problem with this metaphor is that with financial debt, we know how much it would cost to pay off a debt off today and we can calculate how much interest we will have to pay in the future. Technical debt though is much fuzzier. We don’t really know how much debt we have taken on – you may have taken on a lot of unintentional technical debt – and you may still be taking it on without knowing it. And we can’t quantify how much it is really costing us – how much interest we have paid so far, what the total cost may be in the future if we don’t take care of it today.

Some people have tried to put technical debt into concrete financial terms. For example, according to CAST Software’s CRASH report

“applications carry on average $3.61 of technical debt per line of code”.

For some reason, the average cost of Java apps was even higher: $5.42 per line of code. These numbers are calculated from running static structural analysis on their customers’ code.

Sonar, an Open Source dashboard for managing code quality, also tries to calculate a technical debt cost for a code base, again using static analysis findings like code coverage of automated tests, code complexity, duplication, violations of coding practices, comment density.

Thinking of technical debt in this way is interesting, but let’s stop pretending that these are hard numbers that we can use to make trade-off decisions. Although the numbers appear precise, they’re arbitrary, guesses. And they assume that technical debt can be calculated by a tool looking at the structure of the code. Unfortunately, dealing with technical debt is not that straightforward.

But if debt is too fuzzy to be measured in detailed cost terms, how do you know what kind of debt is hurting you the most, how do you know when you have too much? Let’s look at different kinds of technical debt, and how much they might cost you, using a fuzzier approach.

$$$ Making a fundamental mistake in architecture or the platform technology – you don’t find out until too late, until you have real customers using the system, that a key piece of technology like the database or messaging fabric doesn’t scale or isn’t reliable, or that you can’t scale out your architecture like you need to because of core dependency problems, or you you made some fundamentally incorrect assumptions on how the system is supposed to work or how customers will use it. Now you have no choice but to start again or at least rewrite big chunks of the system to get it to work or to keep it working, and you don’t have the time to do this properly.

$$-$$$ Error-prone code – the 20% of the code where 80% of bugs are found. Capers Jones says that all big systems have a small number of routines where bugs and problems cluster, code that is hard to understand and expensive and dangerous to change because it was done badly in the first place or it went to hell over time because of the accumulation of short-sighted fixes and changes. Not rewriting this code is one of the most expensive mistakes that developers make.

$-$$ The system can’t be easily tested – because you don’t have good automated tests, or the tests are brittle and slow and keep falling apart when you change the code. Testing costs can make up more than half of the cost of making any change or fix – sometimes testing can take much more time and cost much more than making the fix – and testing costs tend to go up over time as you write more code, as the system adds more interfaces and options.

$-$$ Not taking care of packaging and release and deployment. Relying too much on manual steps and manual checks, leading to mistakes and problems in production, late nights. Like testing, release and deployment costs don’t go away, they just keep adding up incrementally.

$-$$ Code that mysteriously works, but nobody is sure how or why – usually performance-critical or safety-critical low-level plumbing code written by a wizard who has long since left the company. It might be beautiful code, but if nobody on the team understands it, it’s a time bomb – someday, somebody is going to have to change it or fix it, or try to.

$-$$ Forward and backward compatibility adapters and compromises. This is necessary, short-term debt. But the cost rises the longer that you have to maintain these compromises.

$-$$ Out of date libraries and middleware stack – you’ve fallen behind on applying patches and upgrades. Even if the code that you have now is stable, you run some risk of unpatched security vulnerabilities. The longer that this goes on, the further behind you are, the higher the risk – at some point if the software is no longer supported or supportable, and your hand is called.

$-$$ Duplicate, copy-and-paste code. This is one of the bugaboos of technical debt and static analysis tools. Almost everybody has it. But how bad is it, really? The cost depends on how many clones developers have made, how often they need to be changed, how many subtle differences there are between the different copies, and how easily you can find the copies and keep track of them. If the developer who made the copies is still on the team and does a good job of keeping track of all of them, it doesn't cost much if anything.

Known, outstanding bugs in code and unresolved static analysis findings. The cost and risk depends on how many bugs and warnings you have, and how nasty they are. But if they are real problems, they should have been fixed by now. Is a bug really a bug if it isn't bugging anyone?

$-$$ Inefficient design or implementation, “throwing hardware at it”, using too much memory or network bandwidth or CPU. Hardware is cheap, but these costs can add up a lot as you scale out.

$ Inconsistent use of programming idioms and patterns – developers either didn’t understand the existing patterns, or didn’t like them and introduced new ones, or didn’t care and just wanted to get their change done. It's ugly, and it can be frustrating for developers. But the real cost of living with the situation is often less than trying to clean it all up.

$ Missing or poor error handling and exception handling. It will constantly bite you in the ass in production, but it won’t cost a lot to at least get it mostly right.

$0.01 Hard coding, magic numbers, code that isn’t standards compliant, poor element naming, missing comments, and code that needs tidying. This is a pain in the ass, but it’s the kind of thing that is easy to clean up as part of standard refactoring work.

$0.01 Out of date documentation – another issue that is commonly considered in technical debt. But let’s be honest, most programmers don’t read documentation anyways. If nobody is using it, get rid of it. If people are using it, why isn’t it up to date?

Hand-rolled code that could have and should have been done using built-in language features or libraries, or existing framework or common services. It’s disappointing when somebody recognizes it, but unless this hand-rolled code has lots of bugs in it, it’s a sunk cost, not a cost that is increasing over time.

There are different kinds of debt, with different costs. Figuring out where your real costs are, and what to do about it, isn't easy.


Published at DZone with permission of Jim Bird, author and DZone MVB.

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)


David Karr replied on Wed, 2012/02/15 - 3:13pm

Another area that doesn't appear to be directly covered here is infrastructure debt.  We all use server-based tools to manage our development process.  If upgrading that environment is consistently kept at low priority, then more time is spent every single day from those outdated tools.

King Sam replied on Fri, 2012/02/24 - 9:01am

An Excellent post. Creating a list of the specific sources of technical debt was well done. Adding the relative cost of those forms of debt is masterful.

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