Technical debt, akin to fiscal debt, is a figurative term hinting at the piled-up unfinished tasks from previous sprints or versions that affect software companies.
What Does Technical Debt Signify?
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Technical debt is the effort needed to rectify the unresolved defects or issues left in the code when a software is launched. It’s basically the gap (in context of bugs) between what was anticipated and what was eventually delivered.
As development teams are engrossed in their projects and bug fixing, unavoidably, new bugs are introduced. While some get resolved; others are delayed for later versions. The growing pile of unattended matters makes it progressively demanding to launch the product on schedule, sans any glitches. This is the gravest outcome of technical debt when not promptly addressed.
This write-up will take you through the concept of technical debt, its relevance for QA teams, and critically, how it can be handled.
Ward Cunningham, the creator of the wiki software, developed this analogy in the 1990s, connecting it with how negative debt affects the financing sector, focusing on the agony of having to pay hefty interest after loan default.
The intensifying challenge of rising technical debt per sprint can be seen in Figure 1.
However, it’s worth pointing out that the meaning of technical debt (also referred to as code or design debt) and the analogous financial term isn’t exactly the same. The former is a vaguer notion, absent mathematical formulas to visually present how interest is accrued.
Figure 1: Illustrating the escalating growth in tech debt across sprints
Contents of This Article:
How Technical Debt Greatly Affects QA Teams
During a common software development cycle, several circumstances can lead to a “technical debt” situation. These include improper documentation, insufficient testing and bug resolution, lack of team coordination, legacy code, delayed refactoring, absence of continuous integration, among other uncontrollable factors.
It’s a well-observed fact that efforts to duplicate code can often lead to an increased workload of roughly 25% to 35%.
However, the aftermath of technical debt becomes most evident in QA testing, where testing teams frequently have to deal with unpredicted deadlines and chaos.
There probably have been innumerable times when your testers were faced with last-minute predicaments where the delivery manager suddenly told them, “Team! We need to have our product ready within a week, sorry for the late notice. Please finish all the necessary tests asap so we can get ready for the demo.”
Essentially, missed tests or adopting a “fix it later” strategy can contribute to a situation likened to technical debt. Inadequate test coverage, gigantic user stories, short sprints, and other examples of hastily taken actions due to delivery pressure considerably fosters the growth of technical debt within QA practices.
An Illustrative Example
An US-based online retailer operating multiple websites and mobile applications encountered a serious technical debt problem, the complexity of their testing soared with every new sprint.
It was primarily due to the abrupt growth in the volume of mobile devices meant to be tested, the requirement of multiple language support, and interaction with numerous social networking platforms.
With an automation coverage below 40%, the technical debt challenge manifested in the following ways:
- Large consumption of time in release testing – Constant increase in browsers, devices, and scripts with each sprint caused continuous delays in the release cycle, impacting time-to-market.
- Rising hiring costs – The requirement for project-supporting testers nearly doubled, leading to an additional cost of $500k.
- Heightened project complexity – The handling of test cases and bugs became increasingly difficult due to the project’s growing complexity.
- Excessive time wasted on pursuing false positives – Again, an outcome of escalating project complexities.
- Surge in test development efforts by as much as 60% – It’s part of the course.
Managing Tech Debt in QA Practices
Many QA managers instinctively consider tech debt as an unavoidable result of concentrating only on the present sprint, striving for test coverage manually, and entirely disregarding automation.
This is referred to as the “quick and dirty approach,” as highlighted in a blog written by Martin Fowler, who developed the technical debt quadrant.
Agile principles propose that we view tech debt as an inability to uphold and abide by QA standards.
In reality, as per a survey conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), insufficient testing methods and tools cost the U.S. economy annually between $22.2 and $59.5 billion. Approximately half of this amount is spent on additional testing by software developers, and the remaining half by software users to prevent failures.
Rather than responding to failures as they emerge, a forward-looking approach is to spot defects after each identifiable activity or task. While it’s possible to do this manually, automated testing control is imperative, given the thousands of test case scenarios typically encountered in an average project.
Undoubtedly, efficient testing can significantly counter technical debt. Therefore, what it implies in practical terms is how capacitated your system is to detect defects in the entire application.
As the given equation suggests, the effectiveness of test cases can theoretically reach 100% if the number of customer-identified defects (namely, post-production defects) is accurately compared to the number of defects identified at each level of testing coverage.
Testing automation, a must-have for a well-constructed testing environment that can precisely measure defects as they surface, aids in minimizing the number of scripts being run by reporting outcomes and cross-referencing them with past test runs. The technique or procedure employed to perform automation is known as a test automation framework.
Typical illustrations of such frameworks are commercial and free tools such as Selenium, MonkeyTalk, Robotium, Borland SilkCentral, HP Quality Center, and IBM Rational Rose.
In the past, organizations and software teams often perceived QA/testing as an auxiliary task for vital business deliverables, rather than as a disciplined practice that needed devoted attention. It’s precisely this peripheral attitude towards QA/testing that resulted in the continuous struggle with technical debt.
Considering the accelerated progress of QA/testing abilities over the past decade, companies are finding it more and more daunting to upgrade their proficiencies and adeptness to achieve current industry benchmarks.
In fact, there’s a rising trend within the industry to rely solely on the highly experienced professionals in testing automation—akin to the expert commandos of testing/QA—known as software engineers in test (SEiT) and software developers in test (SDiT). These professionals are highly sought after owing to their extensive experience in a particular vertical (e.g., e-commerce) or professional category.
At present, most software and product development firms find it difficult to find the qualified technical resources they require given the tighter delivery timelines. The resolution to this issue involves a partnership with an offshore QA automation provider who has a pool of appropriate SDiT/SEiT resources to address the skills shortage.
Other noteworthy features of an outsourcing provider in QA/Testing that are beneficial include a disciplined, agile approach towards project execution, ample industry experience, including reusable automation frameworks and test cases, and above all, a clear intention and capacity to manage remote team issues and cultural differences so that the client isn’t burdened with additional responsibilities in managing contractors.
As with any debt, technical debt can be damaging for enterprises, often the result of the failure to establish a proactive QA practice that clears every backlog in automation.
About the author: The author of this guest post is part of the eInfochips team. The team has developed a unique methodology called Tech Debt Zero, one of the most structured and efficient ways to methodically remove technical debt in QA/automation practices. To understand more about technical debt, watch this video on an approach to minimize tech debt.
We hope that the concept of technical debt is now much clearer to you. Feel free to ask us any questions related to technical debt or how to effectively manage it in practice.