Technical debt, like financial debt, is incurred by borrowing from the future to complete projects in the present. But what is technical debt, exactly? In project management or software development, technical debt is a metaphor for the cost or consequence of prioritizing delivery over performance. 

For project managers, technical debt can accrue when you ignore best practices and requirements to meet project deadlines. It is the cumulative cost of resolving issues that arise because of an earlier decision to take a quicker route instead of the best or most efficient.  

Where does the term "technical debt" come from?

The term “technical debt" was coined by Ward Cunningham, an accomplished software developer and one of 17 authors of the Agile Manifesto, which includes the Agile manifesto values and principles. He used the term to explain what happens when the quality of software programming is sacrificed to meet project goals in the short term.

What is technical debt in Agile?

Agile enables project managers and teams to respond to technological innovations, implement feedback, and tackle issues and problems that arise. In an Agile environment, continuous improvement and introspection is key.  

However, in an Agile environment, there can be pressure to go to market quickly, meaning that trade-offs will inevitably occur. 

Ward Cunningham explained his debt metaphor in the context of rushing out software but never incorporating new learnings after the fact. “If you develop a program for a long period of time by only adding features and never reorganizing it to reflect your understanding of those features, then eventually that program simply does not contain any understanding and all efforts to work on it take longer and longer. In other words, the interest is total. You’ll make zero progress.” 

What is technical debt in Scrum? 

Scrum is an Agile project management framework where a team is led by a Scrum master. For Scrum teams, daily standup meetings provide a transparent environment for technical debt to be understood and addressed.

Scrum teams may tackle technical debt during sprint reviews using information and feedback from stakeholders or customers. Other measures to tackle technical debt in Scrum include: 

  • Developing a system where you allocate 15% - 20% of your team's capacity to handle maintenance, refactoring, and problem-solving during each sprint
  • Adapting your team's definition of "Done" to consistently meet product quality and standards
  • Creating a standard procedure on how to manage new projects in a way that avoids incurring excessive technical debt

How to measure technical debt 

You can't manage what you don't measure. Without clear metrics, quality assessment, and regular product testing and reviews, you can’t realize whether your technical debt is increasing or under control.

When you take shortcuts in any project, it's crucial to measure the impact and understand what time and resources will be required to resolve any issues that may occur.

How to avoid technical debt

An ideal option is to proactively prevent your team from becoming overly reliant on technical debt. The following steps will help you avoid technical debt:

  1. Educate your team. The more aware team members are, the less likely it will be that they will pursue low-quality solutions. 
  2. Have a clear project plan. Before diving into a new project, it is vital to create and share your project plan to clarify the project goals and metrics. What qualifies a task as "Done"? Who tests and approves deliverables? What does good quality look like? Is there a clear acceptance criterion for the project? Knowing the answers to these gives you the roadmap needed for successful implementation and reduces technical debt. 
  3. Test all deliverables: Test and review all project deliverables to identify gaps and as early as possible. This provides time and room for your team to eliminate errors and reduce technical debt. 
  4. Keep lines of communication open. Lack of clarity in communication is a major cause of errors and project deviations, which increase technical debt. You can address this by maintaining open communication channels where all team members can collaborate easily. 

Is all technical debt bad?

Not all technical debt is bad. In fact, some technical debt is necessary because of resource, time, and other constraints. Sometimes it makes sense to take a software development shortcut if it helps your team produce the project deliverables on time, in order to enter a market sooner or respond to your customers' needs quicker.

A major benefit of taking on technical debt is the opportunity to receive and analyze feedback on a project quickly before spending too much time and resources on it. 

How to manage technical debt in Wrike

Powerful project management tools like Wrike help you gain a big-picture perspective of your project, monitor your project progress, identify and manage technical debt, employ Agile estimation techniques, and allocate time and resources to addressing shortfalls.  

Are you ready to plan and execute a new project on time without compromising on quality? You can start with a free two-week trial of Wrike.