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The average engineer spends 6 hours per week — roughly one day — dealing with technical debt, according to the State of Technical Debt 2021 report from Stepsize, a developer of software development tools. The average time spent on overall maintenance work and legacy systems is 33% — of which more than 50% of the time is spent solely on technical debt. That is time the engineer is not working toward their key goals.
Technical debt causes bugs and outages, and slows down the pace of development, 60% of engineers said in Stepsize’s report. This results in productivity loss because the engineers are spending more time dealing with issues related to technical debt and not on issues related to development.
Technical debt is also bad for team morale, 52% of engineers said in the Stepsize report.
Most of the technical debt lives in the backend, specifically in web server endpoints, the engineers said. Company applications, websites, and general infrastructure are other parts of the codebase that accumulate a large amount of technical debt.
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When engineers wind up having to deal with older technologies because of unaddressed technical debt, that impacts customer experience. Developers often feel like they are forced to choose between new features and vital maintenance work that could improve their experience, and this is taking a significant toll. In some cases, technical debt may make it harder to implement new features, forcing clunky workarounds or limited functionality.
Part of the problem is that many companies don’t have processes in place to manage technical debt. In the survey, 58% of engineers said their companies lacked such a process, and 66% said they believed their team would ship up to 100% faster if they did. To underscore just how important the engineers thought a process would be, 15% said they thought they would be 200% more productive, Stepsize found. Only 2% of engineers believed that having technical debt under control would make no difference for their team velocity.
The data suggests that one way to boost productivity is by paying down technical debt in the application backend and general infrastructure areas of the codebase.
The survey included 200+ engineering team members including developers, engineering leads, and CTOs spanning enterprises, mid-size companies, and startups around the world.
Read the full State of Technical Debt 2021 from Stepsize.
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