Hackernoon logoWhat Do Engineers Really Think About Technical Debt? by@alex-omeyer

What Do Engineers Really Think About Technical Debt?

The State of Technical Debt 2021 Report explores the impact of tech debt on developer morale, velocity, and customer experience. Engineers say they spend 6 hours per week (roughly 1 day) dealing with technical debt. 58% of companies still have no process to manage technical debt, according to the report. Engineers believe the team would ship up to 100% faster if they had a process for technical debt. Another 15% think they would be 200% more productive. Engineers are convinced that technical debt is the primary reason for productivity losses. Backends contain the most amount of technical debt in the codebase.
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Alex Omeyer Hacker Noon profile picture

@alex-omeyerAlex Omeyer

Co-founder & CEO at stepsize.com, SaaS to measure & manage technical debt

My team at Stepsize has surveyed 200+ Engineers and published the State of Technical Debt 2021 Report that explores the impact of tech debt on developer morale, velocity, and customer experience. 

In this article, I’ll share some of the key learnings from the report and discuss what Engineers really think about technical debt.

Key stats from the report:

  • 52% of engineers believe that technical debt negatively impacts their team’s morale.
  • Over 60% of Engineers think that tech debt causes bugs, outages and slows down the development process.
  • Engineers say that they spend 6 hours per week (roughly 1 day) dealing with technical debt.
  • Making a case for technical debt could help engineers ship up to 100% faster. The majority of engineers (66%) believe the team would ship up to 100% faster if they had a process for technical debt. Another 15% think they would be 200% more productive.
  • Despite the fact that engineers are convinced about the negative impact of technical debt on the business, 58% of companies still have no process to manage technical debt.

1. Technical debt is destroying developer morale

It’s no surprise that technical debt causes bugs, outages, quality issues and slows down the development process. But the impact of tech debt is far greater than that.

Employee morale is one of the most difficult things to manage, especially now that companies are switching to long-term remote work solutions. Many Engineers mentioned that technical debt is actually a major driver of decreasing morale. They often feel like they are forced to prioritize new features over vital maintenance work that could improve their experience and velocity, and this is taking a significant toll.

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2. Developers spend 1 day a week dealing with technical debt

When we published this statement, one of the most popular comments was: “That little? I spend way more time on technical debt!”

While companies want to ship even faster and increase productivity, they are actually spending a lot of their time dealing with technical debt. The average time spent on overall maintenance work and legacy systems is 33%. Of which, more than 50% is spent solely on technical debt. This is one of the biggest opportunities for companies to save Engineering time.

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3. Backends contain the most amount of technical debt

60% of engineering team members claim that most technical debt lives in the backend, specifically, in web server endpoints. Company apps/websites and general infrastructure are also parts of the codebase that accumulate a large amount of technical debt. The findings suggest that companies could dramatically increase their productivity by paying down tech debt in these areas of their codebase.

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4. Engineers believe the team would ship up to 100% faster if they had a process for technical debt

More than half of respondents claim that their companies do not deal with technical debt well, highlighting that the divide between engineers and leadership is widening rather than closing. Engineers are clearly convinced that technical debt is the primary reason for productivity losses; however, they struggle to make it a priority.

Yet, making a case for technical debt could help engineers ship up to 100% faster. As much as 66% of Engineers believe the team would ship up to 100% faster if they had a process for technical debt. Another 15% think they would be 200% more productive. Only 2% of engineers believe that having technical debt under control would make no difference for their team velocity.

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5. Most enterprise companies deal with maintenance work continuously

Companies with 100+ engineering teams are more likely to spend time doing maintenance work continuously. Small and medium-sized businesses prefer to deal with it on a project basis.

54% of engineers from enterprise companies claim to do maintenance work regularly, while only 42% of engineers at startups and middle-sized companies do so. Engineers at smaller companies tend to deal with maintenance work on a project basis or decide depending on the project.

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In addition to that, 70% of the teams who do maintenance work continuously do it daily or weekly, only 20%  —  monthly, and less than 10% —  yearly.

6. Engineering teams use multiple tools to manage technical projects

There is not much of a difference between startups, mid-sized companies, and enterprises when it comes to the tools they use to manage technical debt. Most of the teams use Jira or other project management tools as well as code quality tools. 36% of all teams use more than 1 tool to manage their technical projects, for example, project management tools together with code quality, git analysis, or a spreadsheet.

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Key takeaway

We hope that this data will help Engineers start a conversation about technical debt with their management. I believe that companies need to pay more attention to technical problems. Teams need to identify key pieces of tech debt that get in the way of key goals, address debt continuously, and most importantly, trust Engineers with critical decisions. That is the only way for companies to continue building quality products and keep up with the competition.

Download the full report here.

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