What is technical debt

Welcome to this broad guide on technical debt, a concept that’s as important to the tech industry as financial debt is to economics. By understanding and managing it well, South African businesses can gain a significant advantage in the ever-competitive tech market.

Key Takeaways

  • Defining Technical Debt: Technical debt is the cost of extra rework caused by choosing an immediate, uncomplicated solution over an alternative, more time-consuming one during software development. It’s a metaphor likening software development decisions to financial decisions.
  • Types of Technical Debt: Technical debt can be intentional or unintentional, and it extends beyond code into areas like design and testing. Acknowledging these types can help address the debt holistically.
  • Acknowledging Technical Debt: General symptoms of technical debt include a slowing development pace, increasing bugs, and code complexity. Early recognition can help manage it effectively.
  • Impact of Technical Debt: Unchecked technical debt can slow down development, require more resources for maintenance, and compromise system stability, impacting the user experience and a company’s reputation.

Defining the Concept of Technical Debt

So, what exactly is technical debt? Conceptually, technical debt is the future cost of overlooking the full rigor of software craftsmanship in favor of expediency. It metaphorically considers the trade-offs between short-term gains and long-term sustainability that often occur in software development. Imagine it as a ‘loan’ taken against the quality of your software – the kind of loan you must pay off, with ‘interest’ accumulating in the form of increased future work if ignored. It’s a universally recognized challenge, be it in the buzzing tech hubs of Silicon Valley or the growing IT sector in Johannesburg.

The Emergence of Technical Debt

Historical Perspective

The term technical debt was coined by Ward Cunningham, a pioneer in the field of software development. He likened the corner-cutting practices in software development to financial debt. The idea was simple – if you take shortcuts to expedite delivery, you accumulate a debt that will need to be paid back, with interest, over time. Neglecting this debt can lead to a system so cluttered with issues that every minor update becomes a significant challenge.

The Modern Interpretation

Fast forward to the present, the interpretation of technical debt has expanded. It’s no longer just about the trade-off between speed and perfection but encompasses all decisions that might cause future rework. It includes inadequate testing, poor documentation, outdated libraries, or an inefficient development process. In the South African context, where the IT sector is experiencing a dynamic expansion, understanding, and managing technical debt can be a real game-changer.

Understanding Technical Debt in the South African Context

South Africa’s IT Industry Overview

South Africa’s IT industry has been growing at an impressive pace, positioning itself as a leading tech hub on the African continent. With a lot of tech startups mushrooming across the country, there’s a growing need for swift, efficient software development processes. This rapid growth, however, brings with it the risk of accumulating significant technical debt if best practices aren’t adhered to in the race to the market.

Technical Debt in South African Companies

Several South African companies have faced the brunt of accumulated technical debt. A notable example is a fast-growing FinTech startup that chose to quickly iterate and add features to its application without adequate refactoring or paying attention to code quality. Over time, the codebase became so complex and hard to manage that it significantly delayed their product updates, affecting their competitive positioning. This case underscores how prevalent and consequential technical debt can be in the South African tech landscape.

Types of Technical Debt

Intentional Vs. Unintentional Technical Debt

Technical debt can be either intentional or unintentional. Intentional technical debt is a strategic decision, where developers knowingly opt for a less optimal solution due to factors such as time constraints, resource availability, or other business needs. In contrast, unintentional technical debt is an outcome of decisions made due to a lack of knowledge, expertise, or foresight. Both types, if left unaddressed, can accumulate over time, and impede the software’s maintainability and extensibility.

Code Debt, Design Debt, and Testing Debt: A Deep Dive

Technical debt isn’t restricted to just the code. It extends into other areas such as design and testing. Code debt refers to the debt accumulated due to shortcuts in the coding process, such as ignoring coding standards, lack of comments, or duplications.

Design debt, on the other hand, arises from suboptimal system architecture or design choices, such as tightly coupled modules or lack of modularity, that make future changes harder.

Testing debt is incurred when there’s inadequate testing, missing test cases, or poor testing practices, leading to undetected bugs that will need to be fixed in the future.

By acknowledging these different types, organizations can address technical debt holistically and maintain a healthy, scalable software system.

Acknowledging the Signs of Technical Debt

Technical debt, unlike financial debt, doesn’t come with a straightforward invoice. It’s essential to spot the symptoms early to manage them effectively.

General Symptoms of Technical Debt

Some general symptoms of technical debt include a slowing pace of development, frequent bugs, and code complexity. If your team takes increasingly more time to deliver features, or new changes are leading to unforeseen bugs, you might be dealing with technical debt. If the code is hard to understand, lacks documentation, or needs significant effort to modify, it’s another sign of existing debt.

Impact of Technical Debt on Business Operations

The Hidden Costs of Technical Debt

Technical debt, if left unchecked, incurs substantial hidden costs. It slows down the development process, increasing the time to market for new features or products. It necessitates more resources for maintenance, diverting them from innovation. It also compromises the system’s stability, affecting the end-user experience and potentially damaging the company’s reputation.

Impact on Innovation and Competitive Advantage

In a technology-driven market, the ability to innovate rapidly is a key competitive advantage. However, significant technical debt can hinder this. With resources tied up in managing legacy issues and dealing with instability, there’s less bandwidth left for innovation. It can also demotivate the development team, hampering productivity and creativity.

Strategies to Quantify Technical Debt

Methods for Assessing Technical Debt

There are several methods to assess technical debt. One approach is to estimate the extra time taken to modify ‘indebted’ components compared to if they were optimally designed. Another method uses static code analysis tools to identify problematic code, which is then estimated for refactoring effort.

South African Case Studies on Debt Quantification

A South African data analytics company provides an excellent case study. They used a combination of code review feedback, static code analysis, and time tracking to quantify their technical debt. This helped them understand the extent of their technical debt and prioritize it appropriately in their product development roadmap.

Quantifying technical debt can seem daunting, but it’s an invaluable step in managing it effectively. It provides a tangible goal to work towards, and a metric to measure progress, helping businesses strategize their debt repayment.

Paying Off Technical Debt: Effective Strategies

Prioritizing the Payment

All technical debt cannot be addressed at once. It’s important to prioritize it based on the potential impact and the effort needed. Items that incur high interest, i.e., those impacting the system’s stability or significantly slowing down development, should be addressed first.

Implementing Code Refactoring

Code refactoring is a primary strategy to repay code debt. It involves restructuring existing code without changing its external behavior, making it easier to maintain and extend. It’s advisable to incorporate regular refactoring into the development process, reducing the accumulation of debt.

Adopting Agile Practices

Agile practices like iterative development, continuous integration, and automated testing can also help manage technical debt. Regular iterations allow for frequent reassessment and adjustment of design decisions, avoiding substantial design debt. Continuous integration, coupled with a robust testing suite, ensures bugs are caught and fixed early, preventing the accumulation of testing debt.

» Learn more: Net debt and its impact on business explained

Mitigating the Accumulation of New Technical Debt

Emphasizing Code Quality from the Start

Code quality should be a focus right from the start. Adherence to coding standards, effective use of comments, and avoidance of code duplication can prevent the build-up of code debt. Developers should be encouraged to consider long-term impacts, not just immediate functionality when writing code.

Continuous Learning and Improvement

Promoting a culture of continuous learning and improvement can help prevent unintentional technical debt. Regular training sessions, knowledge sharing, and encouraging learning from mistakes can boost the team’s expertise and foresight, enabling them to make alternative decisions.

Regular Reviews and Audits

Regular code reviews and audits can spot potential issues early before they evolve into significant debt. They also provide a platform for knowledge sharing and collaborative problem solving, enhancing the overall code quality.

Obtain your loan smoothly with Arcadia Finance. Applying won’t cost you anything, and you have the option to select from a pool of 10 respected lenders. Each lender abides by the regulations outlined by the South African National Credit Regulator.

The Role of Leadership in Managing Technical Debt

Encouraging a Proactive Approach

Leadership can encourage a proactive approach toward technical debt. By acknowledging the inevitability of technical debt and promoting open discussions about it, leaders can ensure that it is addressed timely rather than ignored or hidden.

Allocating Resources for Debt Management

Allocating dedicated time and resources for debt management is another important role of leadership. This might include setting aside time for refactoring in each sprint, investing in tools for code analysis and automated testing, or even hiring experts for a major system overhaul.

Striking a Balance between Short-term Needs and Long-term Sustainability

Leaders need to strike a balance between short-term needs and long-term sustainability. While business needs may sometimes necessitate accumulating technical debt, it’s important to plan for its repayment and ensure it doesn’t compromise the product’s long-term viability.

Leadership’s role is vital in cultivating an organizational culture that acknowledges, measures, and addresses technical debt. It can make the difference between a product that struggles to evolve and one that thrives in the face of change.


Technical debt is a reality of software development, and managing it effectively is important for the sustained success of any tech venture. This is particularly relevant in South Africa’s fast-growing IT industry, where companies are grappling with the challenges and opportunities of rapid innovation. By understanding the types of technical debt, acknowledging the symptoms early, and using effective strategies to assess, manage and repay it, businesses can maintain a healthy codebase, a motivated workforce, and a competitive edge in the market.


What is Technical Debt?

Technical debt is a concept in software development that considers the implied cost of extra rework caused by choosing an uncomplicated solution now rather than using an alternative approach that would take longer.

How can technical debt be measured?

Technical debt can be measured using several methods, including time tracking, static code analysis, code review feedback, and calculating the ‘technical debt ratio’ using specific tools.

What is the impact of technical debt on businesses?

Technical debt can slow down development, require more resources for maintenance, compromise the system’s stability, and hinder the company’s ability to innovate rapidly.

How can technical debt be repaid?

Technical debt can be repaid by prioritizing the most impactful debt, refactoring code, adopting agile practices, and implementing automated testing.

How can we prevent the accumulation of new technical debt?

New technical debt can be mitigated by emphasizing code quality, promoting continuous learning and improvement, and conducting regular code reviews and audits.

What is the role of leadership in managing technical debt?

Leadership can play an important role in managing technical debt by encouraging a proactive approach, allocating resources for debt management, and striking a balance between short-term needs and long-term sustainability.

How much do you need?
*Representative example: Estimated repayments of a loan of R30,000 over 36 months at a maximum interest rate including fees of 27,5% APR would be R1,232.82 per month.

Loan amount R100 - R250,000. Repayment terms can range from 3 - 72 months. Minimum APR is 5% and maximum APR is 60%.