What Is Technical Debt? A Complete Guide

You buy the latest iPhone on credit. Turn to fast car loan services to get yourself those wheels you’ve been eyeing for a while. Take out a mortgage to realise your dream of being a homeowner. Regardless of the motive, the common denominator is going into financial debt to achieve something today, and pay it off in future, with interest. The final cost will be higher than the loan value that you took out in the first place. However, debt is not limited to the financial world.

Technical Debt Definition

Technical debt – which is also referred to as code debt, design debt or tech debt – is the result of the development team taking shortcuts in the code to release a product today, which will need to be fixed later on. The quality of the code takes a backseat to issues like market forces, such as when there’s pressure to get a product out there to beat a deadline, front-run the competition, or even calm jittery consumers. Creating perfect code would take time, so the team opts for a compromised version, which they will come back later to resolve. It’s basically using a speedy temporary fix instead of waiting for a more comprehensive solution whose development would be slower.

How rampant is it? 25% of the development time in large software organisations is actually spent dealing with tech debt, according to a multiple case study of 15 organizations. “Large” here means organizations with over 250 employees. It is estimated that global technical debt will cost companies $4 trillion by 2024.

Is there interest on technical debt?

When you take out a mortgage or service a car loan, the longer that it takes to clear it the higher the interest will be. A similar case applies to technical debt. In the rush to release the software, it comes with problems like bugs in the code, incompatibility with some applications that would need it, absent documentation, and other issues that pop up over time. This will affect the usability of the product, slow down operations – and even grind systems to a halt, costing your business. Here’s the catch: just like the financial loan, the longer that one takes before resolving the issues with rushed software, the greater the problems will pile up, and more it will take to rectify and implement changes. This additional rework that will be required in future is the interest on the technical debt.

Reasons For Getting Into Technical Debt

In the financial world, there are good and bad reasons for getting into debt. Taking a loan to boost your business cashflow or buy that piece of land where you will build your home – these are understandable. Buying an expensive umbrella on credit because ‘it will go with your outfit‘ won’t win you an award for prudent financial management. This also applies to technical debt.

There are situations where product delivery takes precedence over having completely clean code, such as for start-ups that need their operations to keep running for the brand to remain relevant, a fintech app that consumers rely on daily, or situations where user feedback is needed for modifications to be made to the software early. On the other hand, incurring technical debt because the design team chooses to focus on other products that are more interesting, thus neglecting the software and only releasing a “just-usable” version will be a bad reason.

Some of the common reasons for technical debt include:

  • Inadequate project definition at the start – Where failing to accurately define product requirements up-front leads to software development that will need to be reworked later
  • Business pressure – Here the business is under pressure to release a product, such as an app or upgrade quickly before the required changes to the code are completed.
  • Lacking a test suite – Without the environment to exhaustively check for bugs and apply fixes before the public release of a product, more resources will be required later to resolve them as they arise.
  • Poor collaboration – From inadequate communication amongst the different product development teams and across the business hierarchy, to junior developers not being mentored properly, these will contribute to technical debt with the products that are released.
  • Lack of documentation – Have you launched code without its supporting documentation? This is a debt that will need to be fulfilled.
  • Parallel development – This is seen when working on different sections of a product in isolation which will, later on, need to be merged into a single source. The greater the extent of modification on an individual branch – especially when it affects its compatibility with the rest of the code, the higher the technical debt.
  • Skipping industrial standards – If you fail to adhere to industry-standard features and technologies when developing the product, there will be technical debt because you will eventually need to rework the product to align with them for it to continue being relevant.
  • Last-minute product changes – Incorporating changes that hadn’t been planned for just before its release will affect the future development of the product due to the checks, documentation and modifications that will be required later on

Types of Technical Debt

There are various types of technical debt, and this will largely depend on how you look at it.

  • Intentional technical debt – which is the debt that is consciously taken on as a strategy in the business operations.
  • Unintentional technical debt – where the debt is non-strategic, usually the consequences of a poor job being done.

This is further expounded in the Technical Debt Quadrant” put forth by Martin Fowler, which attempts to categorise it based on the context and intent:

Technical Debt Quadrant

Source: MartinFowler.com

Final thoughts

Technical debt is common, and not inherently bad. Just like financial debt, it will depend on the purpose that it has been taken up, and plans to clear it. Start-ups battling with pressure to launch their products and get ahead, software companies that have cut-throat competition to deliver fast – development teams usually find themselves having to take on technical debt instead of waiting to launch the products later. In fact, nearly all of the software products in use today have some sort of technical debt.

But no one likes being in debt. Actually, technical staff often find themselves clashing with business executives as they try to emphasise the implications involved when pushing for product launch before the code is completely ready. From a business perspective, it’s all about weighing the trade-offs, when factoring in aspects such as the aspects market situation, competition and consumer needs. So, is technical debt good or bad? It will depend on the context. Look at it this way: just like financial debt, it is not a problem as long as it is manageable. When you exceed your limits and allow the debt to spiral out of control, it can grind your operations to a halt, with the ripple effects cascading through your business.

 

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How the Dodd-Frank Act affects Investment Banking

The regulatory reform known as the Dodd-Frank Act has been hailed as the most revolutionary, comprehensive financial policy implemented in the United States since the years of the Great Depression. Created to protect consumers and investors, the Dodd-Frank Act is made up of a set of regulations and restrictions overseen by a number of specific government departments. As a result of this continuous scrutiny, banks and financial institutions are now subject to more-stringent accountability and full-disclosure transparency in all transactions.

The Dodd-Frank Act was also created to keep checks and balances on mega-giant financial firms that were considered too big to crash or default. This was especially deemed crucial after the collapse of the powerhouse financial institution Lehman Brothers in 2008. The intended result is to bring an end to the recent rash of bailouts that have plagued the U.S. financial system.

Additionally, the Dodd-Frank Act was created to protect consumers from unethical, abusive practices in the financial services industry. In recent years, reports of many of these abuses have centered around unethical lending practices and astronomically-high interest rates from mortgage lenders and banks.

Originally created by Representative Barney Frank, Senator Chris Dodd and Senator Dick Durbin, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, as it is officially called, originated as a response to the problems and financial abuses that had been exposed during the nation’s economic recession, which began to worsen in 2008. The bill was signed into law and enacted by President Obama on July 21, 2010.

Although it may seem complicated, the Dodd-Frank Act can be more easily comprehended if broken down to its most essential points, especially the points that most affect investment banking. Here are some of the component acts within the Dodd-Frank Act that directly involve regulation for investment banks and lending institutions:

* Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC): The FSOC is a committee of nine member departments, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Reserve and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. With the Treasury Secretary as chairman, the FSOC determines whether or not a bank is getting too big. If it is, the Federal Reserve can request that a bank increase its reserve requirement, which is made up of funds in reserve that aren’t being used for business or lending costs. The FSOC also has contingencies for banks in case they become insolvent in any way.

? The Volcker Rule: The Volcker Rule bans banks from investing, owning or trading any funds for their own profit. This includes sponsoring hedge funds, maintaining private equity funds, and any other sort of similar trading or investing. As an exception, banks will still be allowed to do trading under certain conditions, such as currency trading to circulate and offset their own foreign currency holdings. The primary purpose of the Volcker Rule is to prohibit banks from trading for their own financial gain, rather than trading for the benefit of their clients. The Volcker Rule also serves to prohibit banks from putting their own capital in high-risk investments, particularly since the government is guaranteeing all of their deposits. For the next two years, the government has given banks a grace period to restructure their own funding system so as to comply with this rule.

? Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC): The CFTC regulates derivative trades and requires them to be made in public. Derivative trades, such as credit default swaps, are regularly transacted among financial institutions, but the new regulation insures that all such trades must now be done under full disclosure.

? Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB): The CFPB was created to protect customers and consumers from unscrupulous, unethical business practices by banks and other financial institutions. One way the CFPB works is by providing a toll-free hotline for consumers with questions about mortgage loans and other credit and lending issues. The 24- hour hotline also allows consumers to report any problems they have with specific financial services and institutions.

? Whistle-Blowing Provision: As part of its plan to eradicate corrupt insider trading practices, the Dodd-Frank Act has a proviso allowing anyone with information about these types of violations to come forward. Consumers can report these irregularities directly to the government, and may be eligible to receive a financial reward for doing so.

Critics of the Dodd-Frank Act feel that these regulations are too harsh, and speculate that the enactment of these restrictions will only serve to send more business to European investment banks. Nevertheless, there is general agreement that the Dodd-Frank Act became necessary because of the unscrupulous behaviour of the financial institutions themselves. Although these irregular and ultimately unethical practices resulted in the downfall of some institutions, others survived or were bailed out at the government’s expense.

Because of these factors, there was more than the usual bi-partisan support for the Dodd-Frank Act. As a means of checks and balances, the hope is that the new regulations will make the world of investment banking a safer place for the consumer.

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How SOA can help Transformation

Undoubtedly, today’s business leaders face myriad challenges ranging from fierce market competition to increasing market unpredictability. In addition, the modern consumer is more informed and in control of what, where and how they purchase. Couple these challenges with effects of globalization, and you will appreciate that need for business transformation is more of a necessity than a privilege.

As recent business trends show, top companies are characterized by organizational and operational agility. Instead of being shaken by rapid technological changes and aftershocks associated with market changes, they are actually invigorated by these trends. In order to survive in these turbulent times, business leaders are opting to implement corporate transformation initiatives to develop leaner, more agile and productive operations. In line with this, service oriented architecture (SOA) has emerged as an essential IT transformation approach for implementing sustainable business agility.

By definition, service oriented architecture is a set of principles and techniques for developing and designing software in form of business functionalities. SOA allows users to compile together large parts of functionality to create ad hoc service software entirely from the template software. This is why it is preferred by CIOs that are looking to develop business agility. It breaks down business operations into functional components (referred to as services) that can be easily and economically merged and reused in applicable scenarios to meet evolving business needs. This enhances overall efficiency, and improves organizational interconnectivity.

SOA identifies shortcomings of traditional IT transformation approaches that were framed in monolithic and vertical silos all dependent on isolated business units. The current business environment requires that individual business units should be capable of supporting multiple types of users, multiple communication channels and multiple lines of business. In addition, it has to be flexible enough to adapt to changing market needs. In case one is running a global business enterprise, SOA-enabled business transformation can assist in achieving sustainable agility and productivity through a globally integrated IT platform. SOA realizes its IT and business benefits by adopting a design and analyzing methodology when developing services. In this sense a service consists of an independent business unit of functionality that is only available through a defined interface. Services can either be in the form of nano-enterprises or mega-enterprises.

Furthermore, with SOA an organization can adopt a holistic approach to solve a problem. This is because the business has more control over its functions. SOA frees the organization from constraints attributed to having a rigid single use application that is intricately meshed into a fragmented information technology infrastructure. Companies that have adopted service oriented architecture as their IT transformation approach, can easily repurpose, reorganize and rescale services on demand in order to develop new business processes that are adaptable to changes in the business environment. In addition, it enables companies to upgrade and enhance their existing systems without incurring huge costs associated with ‘rip and replace’ IT projects.

In summary, SOA can be termed as the cornerstone of modern IT transformation initiatives. If properly implemented great benefits and a sharp competitive advantage can be achieved. SOA assists in transforming existing disparate and unconnected processes and applications into reusable services; creating an avenue where services can be rapidly reassembled and developed to support market changes.

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