The Role of Continuous Testing in Reducing Technical Debt

Antoine Craske

Posted On: May 5, 2023

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Read time9 Min Read

Software development has become an increasingly competitive and rapidly-evolving industry, with businesses and organizations seeking to deliver high-quality software products that meet user needs and expectations before the competition.

However, with this rapid pace of development comes a common challenge: the accumulation of technical debt. Defects and issues piled up over time result not only in higher development costs but also impact competitiveness with a slowing rhythm of iteration.

Technical debt is a significant challenge for many organizations. Development teams with a medium to high levels of technical debt reported that they spend nearly 50% more time than low-tech debt teams on bug fixing and understanding existing code, and as a result, spend nearly 40% less of their time working on developing new features.

Development teams need more than Agile and DevOps practices to address technical debt. Continuous Testing, a software testing approach that emphasizes testing early and often throughout the development lifecycle is one game-changer for organizations.

This article explores the role of Continuous Testing in reducing technical debt and improving software quality and practical recommendations for getting started with this approach in your development process.

Technical Debt, a Business Pain

Technical debt can have a variety of causes, including human factors, organizational issues, and pressure to deliver results quickly. A major problem accumulates over time if no action is taken, affecting both customer satisfaction and the organization’s bottom line.

As humans, we tend to avoid something when it is hard or painful. The same happens with software systems with technical debt: the team takes shortcuts and compromises to meet deadlines. But avoiding pain in the short-term leads to much bigger pains in the mid-term.

The business impacts of technical debt can be significant

  1. Negative user experiences such as slow load times, crashes, or security vulnerabilities, can lead to lost revenue, decreased customer loyalty, and a damaged reputation.
  2. The increasing cost of changes required to fix the technical debt can impede a company to deliver new features to improve its value proposition.
  3. Slowing down delivery times as development teams struggle to work around code issues makes the organizations slower than the competition.
  4. Accumulation of delivery risks, making it more difficult to meet project deadlines and causing other deployments, security, or reputation issues.
  5. Lower team morale and motivation as developers struggle with the frustration and complexity of working with poor-quality code.
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The impacts of technical debt make it a critical aspect to address proactively through strategies. To do so, they need effective detection mechanisms that enable them to identify technical debt early on in the development process and implement systems to minimize the accumulation of debt on a continuous basis.

Technical Debt and Continuous Testing

Addressing technical debt requires more than just tools and processes. It requires creating a fostering environment larger than the development team encouraging them to prioritize debt and take ownership of technical debt reduction and overall software quality.

Faced with technical debt, teams have 3 options:

  1. Do nothing and accumulate debt
  2. Start paying the interest to reduce debt
  3. Erase the interest by replacing the system.

Hopefully, a decision is taken to first refactor the application.

Reducing technical debt needs a proactive, systematic approach that addresses issues before they become major problems, and makes it easy to change the code. It requires balancing methodologies, organizational, and technology matters.

The following steps enable an incremental approach to technical debt:

  • Initiate the technical debt backlog
  • Raise technical debt awareness
  • Prioritize the debt backlog
  • Reduce debt with confidence
  • Contain debt continuously.

While the steps outlined above provide the necessary steps to reduce technical debt in many contexts, the capability to perform them with quality and speed is only reserved for a minority of organizations that have implemented differentiating practices.

Reducing technical debt is harder than when building new features as it is usually not properly documented, people that worked on it may have left, and it is hard to know if we are breaking something. That’s where Continuous Testing makes the difference.

Initiate the Technical Debt Backlog

One of the first steps in addressing technical debt is to identify and prioritize the issues. This involves creating a technical debt backlog that lists all the known debts and assigns them a priority based on their impact on the software product.

The team can start by listing technical debts based on its knowledge of the product and the recurring issues they are facing, organizing them into different categories. However, the value of the backlog can only remain if it corresponds to reality on a regular basis.

role-of-continuous-testing-in-reducing-technical-debt

Technical debt Backlog

Continuous Testing is a valuable practice for initiating the technical debt backlog, as it can help identify technical debt early on in the development process, reducing the amount of time and effort required to identify technical debt.

Automated verifications can then serve as a continuous input to keep the technical debt backlog up-to-date. In addition, teams can identify and fix new debt items earlier in the process as being detected as part of the flow of work.

Raise Technical Debt Awareness

Now that the team has an identified technical debt backlog, it has a factual basis to convince stakeholders about addressing it. To succeed, the argumentation has to go beyond technical matters to link software debt with key business issues.

Stakeholders’ concerns to satisfy customers and business requirements are not firstly focused on technical debt. One must make the link between late features or customer experience issues caused by technical debt to put the topic on top of the priorities.

Continuous Testing increases technical debt awareness with:

  1. Factual metrics among stakeholders
  2. Regular refresh of supporting data
  3. Link tech and business problems.

For example, Continuous Testing can provide data on the number of bugs and defects associated with technical debt, the time required to fix them, and the impact of technical debt on the overall quality and performance of the software product.

Developers with real-time feedback on the impact of technical debt encourage them to take proactive steps to address the issue, rather than waiting for it to become a significant problem with exponential costs of debt reduction.

Prioritize the debt backlog

Good and bad technical debt are two types of technical debt that software development organizations commonly face. The key difference is between how the debt is introduced and the future plans in addressing it or not.

Good technical debt is incurred deliberately to achieve short-term goals, such as new features or fixing bugs, with the intention of paying it back in the future. In contrast, bad technical debt is typically unintentional and accumulates over time.

Continuous Testing can, first of all, help in materializing an existing—and usually increasing amount of unintentional technical debt, whether through direct debt metrics or through team performance issues like slow delivery time and high rework rate.

In addition, Continuous Testing helps to identify patterns in technical debt issues with a set of historical metrics linked to the software development process, enabling organizations to develop targeted strategies for addressing the underlying causes of technical debt.

Reduce Debt with Confidence

Refactoring an application can be a daunting task, especially if it is a large and complex system. It often involves making significant changes to the codebase, which can introduce new bugs or regressions if not properly tested.

Without a reliable testing process in place, refactoring an application can be a risky and time-consuming endeavor the development team always pushes to the next day. The creation of a safe refactoring environment is therefore a necessity for debt reduction.

This is where Continuous Testing comes in.

Continuous Testing makes application refactoring much smoother and less risky with a reliable and efficient way to test software changes. Leveraging non-regression tests used for feature delivery, the team can address technical debt items with the same tests.

That capability of changing the internals of an application with verifications giving the team the confidence to move forward is a game-changer. Technical debt changes from a painful task to something part of an interesting continuous improvement dynamic, much more motivating.

Contain Debt Continuously

We covered the human cause of technical debt, where pain avoidance and hope of a better tomorrow makes people avoid the management of technical debt. That behavior is negatively incentivized when there is no regular reminder of debt piling up in the background.

Technical debt has similarities with financial and other debts. If people would feel the future and continuous pain, many would consider avoiding taking credit in the first place, or at least, minimize the amount and shorten the payback period.

Continuous Testing acts as a continuous pain reminder about the existing technical debt. They see it through dashboards, and it links to daily issues requiring them to iterate with the quality and speed they strive for.

These Continuous Testing feedbacks are an essential part of streamlining processes with lean practices. People have to feel the pain regularly to start inverting the vicious cycle, addressing structuring issues caused by technical debt.

Control Technical Debt with Continuous Testing

Technical debt can have serious consequences for organizations if left unaddressed. It can slow down delivery, increase risks, impact user experience, and accumulate costs over time until a breaking point can be reached in the worst cases.

Continuous Testing plays a vital role in reducing technical debt by allowing organizations to address issues on major layers of the software development process from code, infrastructure, and testing in itself.

Organizations that prioritize technical debt embracing Continuous Testing will be better positioned to deliver high-quality software through a lean pipeline, staying ahead of the competition in the rapidly evolving digital landscape.

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Antoine Craske

Passionate about digital, architecture, transformation with more than ten years of experience in the software industry in different positions as engineer, project director, engineering director, IT transformation, management and architecture. Founder and organizer of the QE Unit, the Quality Engineering community. Director of Architecture & Technology at La Redoute, Co-Founder of Cerberus Testing, Partner at atale.io. Meetup organizer at TICE.Leiria, Ministry of Testing Leiria.

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