Software Engineering

10 Years of Analysis in Technical Debt and an Agenda for the Future

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Technical debt is a widely known software program engineering concern that refers back to the tradeoff between the short-term advantages of speedy supply and the long-term worth of creating a software program system that’s simple to evolve, modify, restore, and maintain. Technical debt in a code base contains these structural components that, if not reworked, contribute to accumulation of elevated operation and upkeep prices. On this weblog submit, we look at the evolution of the sector of technical debt and establish open analysis questions that may drive future developments.

Researchers and organizations in authorities and trade acknowledge that if you don’t actively handle technical debt, it is going to handle you. The U.S. Division of Protection has affirmed the significance of technical debt by particularly citing it within the Nationwide Protection Authorization Act of 2022. Part 836 of this act authorizes the U.S. secretary of protection to provoke a research of technical debt in software-intensive techniques that features analyses and actionable, particular steerage and suggestions for statutory or regulatory modifications.

Our work in technical debt is based on the precept that in the event you don’t make one thing seen, you received’t handle it. Avoiding the destructive outcomes related to accumulating technical debt requires organizations to embrace technical debt administration as a core software program engineering apply. Simply utilizing the phrase “technical debt” is just not an engineering apply. Now we have lengthy beneficial that technical debt be added to an points backlog to investigate how and the place structure necessities may be failing and that or not it’s managed as an integral a part of product-development actions.

In Search of a Metric for Technical Debt

Though there are a number of metrics in use right this moment that intention to quantify technical debt from completely different views—and there’s no one-size-fits-all metric—we’re gratified by the affect that our work on technical debt metrics has had on the sector of software program engineering. The Worldwide Convention on Software program Structure (ICSA) just lately awarded us with the Most Influential Paper Award for a paper we wrote in 2012, In Search of a Metric for Architectural Technical Debt, together with our colleagues Philippe Kruchten and Marco Gonzalez-Rojas of {the electrical} and laptop engineering division on the College of British Columbia. Within the paper, we detailed how technical debt is rooted in software program structure and described how an architecture-focused and measurement-based strategy to creating a metric primarily based on propagation price helps strategically handle technical debt. We demonstrated this strategy by making use of it to a system-development effort that was then underway.

The technical debt idea has confirmed to be a helpful assemble for speaking the tradeoff between speedy supply and long-term system sustainability. Its affect is obvious in Agile at scale and DevSecOps practices, in addition to in authorities acquisition practices, such because the Adaptive Acquisition Framework and the Sensible Software program and Techniques Measurement Steady Iterative Growth (Agile) Measurement Framework.

Sadly, our use of the time period architectural technical debt within the title of our paper has been taken by some to suggest that there’s a taxonomy of varied sorts of technical debt, of which architectural technical debt is only one. We subsequently hear and browse of documentation technical debt, safety technical debt, and so forth. It is very important make clear that this interpretation was not our intention. Our view is that technical debt is rooted in architecture- and design-related points and the rework that these points trigger. When not managed, technical debt will increase the probability of safety points and defects that additional improve the accumulating penalties.

Technical Debt is Rooted in Structure Rework

The essence of our strategy—each once we wrote the paper and now—is that this: The worth of the delivered options and the influence of price that can be incurred should be taken under consideration in decision-making associated to delivering a product. Making technical debt seen supplies the required info for making knowledgeable selections about managing the potential influence of rework over time. Within the curiosity of creating debt seen, our paper introduced a dependency-analysis framework for measuring structure rework as a proxy for technical debt.

Our colleague and co-author Philippe Kruchten posed a helpful means of characterizing components in a software-development undertaking all through the event lifecycle. These components are depicted in Determine 1.


Constructive-value points are proven on the highest row of Determine 1. The inexperienced represents the options and performance that the undertaking should ship for its stakeholders, which is seen on the discharge schedule and drives the group, the gross sales, the success, and the shopper satisfaction. The yellow represents the architectural infrastructure and design constructs which might be important for the longevity, construction, and conduct of the system and for attaining its supposed high quality attributes. Options are seen to the consumer and the structure is invisible to the world exterior of the event workforce, although each add constructive worth.

Equally, we’ve the negative-value points proven within the backside row of Determine 1. The crimson represents defects which might be seen to the consumer and should be managed as shortly as potential to keep away from jeopardizing the system. The black represents technical debt that is a component invisible to the skin world ensuing from not getting the total structure necessities proper. Technical debt accumulates because the product is constructed and key selections are deferred or poor work is completed.

The dependency framework we described in that paper takes under consideration how structure permits performance and the way builders can ship performance whereas additionally attending to the structure within the brief time period and the long run. Within the paper, we in contrast two paths, proven in Determine 2.


Determine 2: Comparability of Growth Paths

We discuss with Path 1, proven in blue in Determine 2, because the ship quickly path. It begins by delivering worth however more and more incurs rework (proven within the lighter shade of blue). We name Path 2, proven in crimson, the architecture-savvy or scale back rework and allow compatibility path. This path initially incurs a better price, however the price of the rework is extra constant as the required structure is in place to assist subsequent iterations.

The purpose of making a path comparability is to make the tradeoffs seen and specific. Path 1 represents the case of when the system is new and its enterprise worth is being explored and found. In such circumstances, it’s paramount to ship some performance and to check it within the discipline. As using the system proves beneficial, the system begins to develop. Within the instance we describe within the paper, following the preliminary technique created uncontrolled implementation prices, requiring a major re-architecting effort, which was suboptimal for the long-term sustainment of the system. Performing such evaluation on potential rework because the system grows can allow well timed selections about when to begin re-architecting the system or when to pay again the curiosity on the borrowed time of the sooner design selections. Our strategy provided issues on the structure degree for making rework specific at every launch.

Our paper additionally demonstrated how software program architects can make the most of a change-propagation metric to calculate and justify the price of taking over technical debt. The quantification of rework is just not trivial, nonetheless, particularly on the subject of structure. Whereas nobody metric alone may also help builders optimize improvement price over time, structural structure evaluation and associated practices present the attitude wanted to make the price of implementing the chosen choices specific.

Comply with-Up Analysis

Our paper influenced quite a few analysis strategies and software program instruments within the 10 years since its publication, a lot of which have been validated in industrial case research with software-development firms. Any such follow-up work takes under consideration how structure permits performance and obtain the steadiness between delivering performance and being attentive to structure in each the brief and long run. Examples of this work embrace the next:

Future Work in Technical Debt

As time has handed, the physique of labor on understanding and managing technical debt and structure evolution has grown. On the SEI, we plan to research how empirical information and evaluation can be utilized to enhance iterative and incremental structure practices to handle technical debt.

A big quantity of analysis stays to create a technical debt quantification framework that isn’t solely repeatable and dependable, but additionally cognizant of domain-specific system challenges. We encourage researchers in each software program structure and metrics to extra deeply discover the connection between the construction and conduct of structure patterns and the way metrics behave.

Sooner or later, it will likely be vital to obviously set up the validity of rising methodologies for quantifying technical debt. Not all present metrics for characterizing and quantifying technical debt are confirmed and never all are trivial to make use of. Whereas instruments are growing in sophistication, they have a tendency to deal with the issue of structure conformance slightly than on the architectural points of quantifying rework.

Key open analysis questions within the discipline of technical debt analysis embrace the next:

  • How can we quantify rework utilizing completely different metrics to information how and when to refactor techniques to resolve technical debt?
  • How can we refactor techniques, particularly accurately incorporating related metrics and gear assist?
  • How can we relate rework quantification to operational practices?
  • How can we seize the empirical information that’s coming from trade and authorities, analyze them, and use them to tell the right use of iterative, incremental structure practices and enhance these practices together with managing technical debt.

We might welcome the chance to work immediately with organizations fascinated by collaborating with us on this work. Please contact us at

We additionally encourage researchers to contemplate engaged on in search of solutions to the questions above and to change into concerned within the annual TechDebt Convention. This convention connects main software program engineering researchers and practitioners to debate approaches for managing numerous sorts of technical debt, to share experiences and concepts, and to establish key challenges for trade and academia. It supplies a possibility to vet concepts amongst distributors, trade builders, and researchers in technical debt administration.

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