In software and app development today, the demand for cutting-edge features and aggressive deadlines often overshadows concerns about quality and maintainability. It’s time to empower developers to create applications that not only meet immediate demands but stand the test of time.

Over the last two decades, the pace of software development has accelerated, resulting in a prolific output of applications loaded with an unprecedented range of features. While undoubtedly innovative, not providing engineering teams the time to do research and technical discovery and a lack of investment in continuous improvement has its costs – not just for developers but also for the end-users of these applications.

This deadline-driven approach can sometimes overshadow the need for optimal performance and efficiency. Developers often find themselves struggling to find the sweet spot creating exciting new features swiftly and ensuring that applications remain easy to evolve and maintain.

If it works, what’s the problem?

Technical debt is unavoidable. One could argue that it is an inherent feature of software development and not a bug, which is why it is imperative for engineering teams to have strategies in place to monitor, manage, and resolve it. Without a sound strategy to address tech debt, a focus on immediate gains may overshadow the need for long-term sustainability and applications will become more challenging to maintain and upgrade over time.

When developers carelessly prioritise speed over meticulousness, technical debt compounds. As in Ward Cunningham’s classic analogy, you may see the benefit of immediate progress or achieving desired results sooner, but you’re paying interest in the form of increased maintenance costs, a higher likelihood of bugs, and more complex scalability until you pay off that technical debt.

Not only does this impact developers, but technical debt also creates challenges in maintaining a seamless user experience that has potential repercussions on customer satisfaction and retention.

The impact of the accumulation of tech debt extends further, too. Overemphasis on rapid feature deployment is likely to stifle innovation, as developers may not have sufficient time to explore fresh approaches or refine existing features. The app industry is built on innovation, it is the reason it has continued to flourish in recent years – in the UK, the market size of the App Development industry increased a considerable 12.2% in 2023.

Challenges to resolving technical debt

Developers hold the key to shifting this dynamic within an organisation. In theory, they might continuously refactor code to ensure it’s not unnecessarily complex, making an app lighter and more maintainable, or they could test an app across a range of devices to identify and address any issues before launch. So what larger forces prevent individual engineers from implementing these changes?

More often than not, the reasons are interconnected and can vary depending on the development environment, project requirements, and organisational dynamics.

Time constraints are a major factor. Tight deadlines and pressure to deliver features quickly can lead developers to opt for faster solutions, which can result in suboptimal code, lack of thorough testing, and the postponement of proper refactoring.

Tied to this is the issue of focusing on immediate business value, driven by external factors including market competition, customer demands, or investor expectations. Understandable as it may be, organisations often prioritise delivering immediate business value and emphasise new features to remain competitive. This focus on short-term gains may sideline considerations for long-term code maintainability and technical debt management.

A fresh approach

By embracing a fresh perspective on software development and striking a balance between innovation and sustainability, developers can be empowered to create applications that not only captivate users with cutting-edge features but also withstand the test of time.

This shift requires a concerted effort from developers and their organisations to address these challenges with a holistic approach involving a combination of collaborative project management, communication and alignment of organisational priorities with long-term software sustainability. Some practices we’ve adopted at Stack Overflow include allocating a set percentage of time for removing technical debt, clearly defining what is considered tech debt versus tech investment, requiring each Engineering team to keep a backlog of technical debt, and surveying our engineers on the impact of tech debt removal.

Through collaboration and knowledge-sharing within our engineering teams, we can nurture a larger organisational culture that empowers developers. Without an emphasis on code quality and sustainability, developers will continue to struggle to prioritise tech debt reduction in their daily work.