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In the fast-paced world of software development, there is a fine line between “doing it fast,” and “doing it right.” Deadlines and time-to-market often dictate a pace that can lead engineering teams to implement features or code fixes in the easiest way possible. The benefit of this is that a product can release fast and entice users to their functionality before a competitor has the chance to usurp said prospective users. The downside, however, is a lurking foe that software teams often ignore to at their own peril: technical debt.
For those unaware, technical debt is a software development concept that implies a future cost of additional work caused by choosing easy solutions to a piece of functionality or project in the short term. In other words, it’s the result of quick and simple solutions over perfect code.
There is one very important thing to keep in mind: creeping technical debt is unavoidable. In at least one point in your codebase’s future, the decisions of the past will come back to haunt you in some fashion. Technical debt is not always incurred from bad decisions, though. Sometimes it is the result of aging systems or outdated practices implemented before they became outdated.
Thankfully, there are concrete strategies and tactics that can be employed early and often to help minimize technical debt when it does eventually rise up from the ashes of decisions-past like a phoenix of bad code design. Let’s go over a handful of steps you can take to assure that technical debt will be kept at the bare minimum. By no means is this a comprehensive list of ways to avoid technical debt, but these next strategies should be kept in mind before going into your next application’s planning phase.
First, spend a sizable amount of time making sure that any pull requests undergo a fairly rigorous code review. This keeps your focus on consistency and quality when it comes to code additions, and allows as many eyes as possible to review the new code, making sure that it meets a standard for ensuring minimal future technical debt. The more eyes that see a piece of code before it is merged into your application, the better. It is far too easy to miss small problems that may come back to haunt you later when you are the only set of eyes that scans your code.
Secondly, employ continuous integration to automate testing on code additions. This prevents faulty code from being merged into your codebase and gives you a means of protection against smaller code-breaking issues arising in the future. Continuous integration also acts as a sort of “automated code review,” as your test cases can scan for issues that arise on a regular basis during code pushes. You can view this as a sort of insurance policy on easy-to-catch bugs making it into your application, and it will absolutely cut down on the bug fixing later.
Finally, deploy to a testing environment. It is often impossible to catch all issues in the debugging process, so by using a test environment, you can see how your changes will reflect on the codebase before it is ever live for the user, making sure that you will catch any unforeseen problems before they would wreak havoc on your live services. Testing environments are not negotiable in the modern age of SaaS integrations and should be heavily used as a means to make sure your application is running smoothly before deploying to production.
Fighting Above Your Weight Class
When it comes to planning for the avoidance of future technical debt, prioritizing your strategies should be approached in a top-down strategy.
Technical debt at the systemic level will cause the most problems, as it will generally be on an architectural level and therefore most capable of harm. If you cut corners when it comes to application design or planning, you will absolutely pay a heavy price later.
Global technical debt should be treated as the next most harmful since it can leak out across several sections of an application if not caught. In this case, microservices that become a distributed monolith tend to be a common cause of major technical debt when it comes to the global scale.
Local technical debt is the least harmful and probably the most common, and it should be addressed through refactoring every once in a while. Generally, this is the technical debt that you should not worry too much about catalyzing. It tends to stay localized within its function or method and doesn’t have a scope large enough to really slow down your application. (Take that statement with a HUGE grain of salt…)
Float like a Butterfly, Unify like an API
There are other ways to fight technical debt besides Agile Methodology tactics and strategies, and if applicable for your application’s use case, they should absolutely be employed. An immensely helpful tool for minimizing technical debt when integrating with cloud services is the use of a unified API. A unified API is essentially an abstraction layer that can be used to access as many cloud services as they offer through a set of unified categorical endpoints. As a result, every cloud service provider that falls under a certain category (storage, calendar, CRM, etc.) can be accessed through a single set of endpoints, eliminating the need for separate CRUD endpoints for each cloud service. Another major benefit of unified APIs is the return of unified data models, which means that a developer can anticipate the structure of an API’s JSON return without ever having read or studied that specific API’s documentation.
This helps cut down on future technical debt by keeping integration code at a minimum, which in turn leads to less possible problems that may arise in the future. Think of it this way: If all of your integrations can be handled in the same amount of code that each connector would individually take to implement, then you can eliminate technical debt from integrations by a factor of however many different cloud services you plan to connect to. On top of that, when these services change their response structure or means of access, a unified API handles all of that refactoring on their side so that your codebase is insured against unforeseen future instances of code-breaking changes.
By integrating with a unified API, you can also address your global integration technical debt entirely, as your applications integrations will be available and future-proofed across all access layers of your app. If one service makes any code-breaking changes in the future, all of your application layers that require access to that integration will suffer. With a unified API, every layer with access to a service can rest assured that the integrations will remain sound for the foreseeable future.
Land the Technical Debt Knockout Punch
Technical debt should not be treated as a failure of the past. In fact, delivering your product on time should be paramount, and minimal technical debt is entirely fine. Making sure that it stays away from the architectural level should always be a priority, but making quick decisions and implementations for the sake of deployment is absolutely acceptable if your plan is to fix it sooner than later.
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