How technical debt impacts testing

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Last updated on November 28th, 2022

With the pressure to get products into the market quickly, many software development organizations reach a point where they need to trade-off between the short-term benefit of rapid delivery and the long-term value of quality code. Enter Technical Debt!

Putting in all available efforts to reach an important deadline as soon as possible might seem like the right thing to do. And, indeed, it is. But what many fail to realize is the scale of the technical debt they are getting into. Over time, that debt might get too deep to leave behind. This is a downward spiral. In this race to the bottom, future versions need to be tested more rigorously to address the impact of the accumulated technical debt. But timelines are still short. This causes more compromises. Which leads to more technical debt.

In situations where technical debt gets out of control, it greatly impacts every aspect of the software development function – especially testing.

Impact on testing

Technical debt usually occurs when software development teams make critical decisions for short-term gains in their projects – either knowingly or unknowingly. However, as technical debt accumulates and times lines crash, testing teams are forced to cut corners.

With looming deadlines, testing teams are compelled to speed up the testing process. But they are also required to test more and test deeper. This often results in low-quality test suites, poor test cases, or missed tests. And of course, releasing products that have been rushed through testing or only marginally tested causes a domino effect on product quality, customer experience, brand as well as market value.

Here’s what happens to the testing process when caught in the technical debt spiral of death:

  • Poor test cases and missed tests cause the bug count to grow exponentially. Tackling them becomes increasingly daunting as rectifying the growing number of bugs slows down the development process for the team.
  • In scenarios where manual testing has to be performed, testers are expected to use different test variations and combinations. However, because this is a laborious process, they restrict themselves to just a handful of test cases – which increases the risk of residual defects in the system under test.
  • In cases where automated testing has to be carried out, testers also skip creating efficient, all-encompassing test infrastructure. This could result in unpredictable product behavior.
  • Since the availability of time and resources to carry out complete and comprehensive testing is limited, testers execute only a fraction of tests. This increases the possibility of residual defects.
  • Because previously developed code is poorly tested, when testing a new feature, bugs from previous test results crop up. Over time, testing teams find themselves addressing a truckload of bugs, without really reaching a stage where the quality of code is reasonable.
  • To meet time-to-market deadlines, testers also miss out on carrying out test reviews; this not only delays finding defects but also increases the maintenance of test cases.
  • Because testers do not update tests when functionality changes and avoid fixing broken tests, it pulls down the quality of the product and adds to the testing effort in the long run.
  • As mentioned, poorly tested products often result in a vicious circle of technical debt; teams either have to cut down on new features to meet deadlines or release products with bugs that hamper the end-user experience.

In addition to its impact on testing, technical debt is also known to drain team productivity, leading to slower output. Poorly tested code will require teams to devote more time and effort to fix bugs and plan for workarounds – which will cause them to push back other projects.

Technical debt not only causes build times to drag, but it also slows down the entire test-release cycle. Introducing new features will add new bugs to the already poor-quality code, making it all the more challenging for the QA team to test tomorrow.

Eventually, the chances of the product becoming unresponsive or crashing due to bugs are really high. And, when teams finally navigate through all the bugs, they will, most likely, have lost precious time to bring their product to the market.

Reduce technical debt through agile

In the fast-paced software world, releasing a uber-high-quality, 100% bug-free product is too much to ask for. If QA teams spend all their time on testing products until it has zero bugs, it is sure to balloon the time-to-market to unexpected proportions. On the other hand, if teams focus only on releasing products to the market as soon as possible, they run the risk of creating a mountain of technical debt.

Although a reasonable level of technical debt is normal, the problem arises when it gets out of control and development teams devote a larger part of their efforts in fixing bugs from previous releases, instead of working on new features and critical new updates.

Embracing Agile methodologies is a great way to take on the technical debt challenge head-on. Because Agile works on the concept of continuous improvement, it bakes quality right into the development process. Teams can maintain a consistent level of quality and have code that is always ready to ship. It’s been said often enough that technical debt isn’t bad in itself. What’s bad is not having a plan to deal with it.

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