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Five Best Practices for Overcoming Technical Debt in Legacy Platforms

Every business struggles with legacy software. As business needs change, these legacy platforms often fail to keep pace. Then, as the systems age, developers trade short-term fixes to keep the lights on. Over time, this cost-cutting takes a toll on the platform’s effectiveness.

That’s technical debt: when the bugs and missing documentation cause a corresponding drop in enterprise efficiency. How can enterprise organizations leverage best practices to overcome tech debt in older applications?

Digital Transformation and Tech Debt Strategies

Technical debt becomes a target of transformational business strategy when teams seek innovation and modernization but are held back by outdated software. Technical debt can:

  • Cause companies to lag behind competitors.
  • Increase the fixed costs of maintaining these systems.
  • Divert key resources from innovation.
  • Keep you from fully integrating with new software.

Establish code best practices and empower your IT team to identify technical debt quickly.

What are the effects of Technical Debt? CIO Magazine notes that “Completing an IT software project quickly without incurring some level of technical debt is challenging. When a project is developed and deployed in a rush, quality often suffers and the venture must inevitably be revisited to repair compatibility problems, security gaps, performance issues and various other budget-draining headaches. Yet even when an important project is held hostage to a tight timetable, technical debt can be reduced to an acceptable level, leading to a reasonable tradeoff of time versus quality versus cost.”

So how can business leaders solve the dilemma? The topic was addressed by Brad Sousa, part of the Forbes Technology Council:

  • Assess the situation. To drive down technical debt, start with understanding your user’s expectations and the anticipated business outcome. All too often, customers (internal and external) choose a system that matches the specification but does nothing to solve the real problem. Instead, address the outcome, and deliver on user expectations. That’s what makes employees happy.”
  • Be wary of early adopters. Every company has technology ‘experts’ who eagerly embrace the latest and greatest solutions. Early adopters are willing to work through any issue new tech might throw at them. They’ll forgive new software or hardware if it doesn’t run flawlessly out of the box. My advice is to pause before deploying new first-of-its-kind solutions.”
  • Reduce technical debt with a proof-of-concept initiative. Every technology project comes with a little debt. The key is to find it quickly and pay it off early. One way to do this is through a proof of concept (PoC) initiative. Use a PoC to identify the debt and pay it off before the technology is released into full-scale production. This should be core to your process.”

Summary: Best Practices for Overcoming Technical Debt

Many times it’s simply too costly and time consuming to rewrite legacy software. However, business leadership tasking developer teams with taking on technical debt should encourage these five best practices:

1. Analyze the type of technical debt you’re experiencing. 

Often, technical debt is correlated with the size of the internal development team or their experience. Or the opposite could occur when the team is too large, and communication becomes muddled. Working with small teams to determine what’s wrong with the platform is the first step toward fixing the problem.

2. Empower the IT team to identify the debt quickly. 

The team should be trained to look for problems in the source code as well as the architecture, documentation, and infrastructure. Look for code complexity and duplication as well as readability and long functions.

Always pinpoint missing or poorly written documentation such as old architecture drawings or inaccurate instructions. If you’ve automated your testing, you’ll likely need to go back and manually retest every feature of the platform. Training your team thoroughly on how to spot these issues will help you eliminate them.

3. Don’t assume a rewrite is the best response to legacy code. 

Sometimes this is equivalent to tossing out the baby with the bathwater. Assessment of the software should also recognize what the platform is doing right. A complete rewrite may make sense if the cost isn’t too high. However, if the program is behaving properly and the tech team wants to clean up the code without losing functions, consider refactoring.

4. Refactoring cleans up the code structure without altering its behavior. 

Consider this if you can’t have downtime to fix problems or if the cost of a rewrite is too exorbitant. However, keep in mind that refactoring should be paired with testing at each stage to make sure the functions of the application haven’t changed.

Refactoring can break critical paths more often than not, so add bug fixing and even possible downtime into this approach. Even better, develop a plan to minimize breakages.

5. Establish and follow new best practices to improve your code quality. 

Modernizing a legacy application requires some decoupling; make sure you end up with smaller business units encompassing core functions, business processes, and perhaps legacy data sources.

Technical debt is a big challenge for business leadership aiming for modernization. The ROI is clear, but organizations must have the courage and bandwidth to take it on.