Measuring app stability to reduce technical debt
|James Smith in Programming Friday, April 17, 2020|
Bugsnag CEO James Smith discusses the concept called technical debt, and why measuring app stability is the key to reducing technical debt. Everyone has it; it’s a fact of life for developers and they understand how their daily efforts contribute to the problem.
In the fast-paced world of software and application development, one reality holds true: errors are inevitable. Even though you try to minimize errors as much as possible, you’ll eventually overlook some of these bugs in order to get your app, or new features, to market faster.
This concept is called technical debt. Everyone has it; it’s a fact of life for developers and they understand how their daily efforts contribute to the problem. Any time a product team rushes new features to market or wants an incremental code change to make a customer happy, technical debt increases. The same holds true when software frameworks and languages aren’t upgraded in a timely fashion because executives don’t want to slow down development.
Even though it sounds problematic, technical debt isn’t always bad. In some ways, it’s like financial debt. You may need to carry debt in the short term, but it causes major problems – weaker software – if you keep letting it rack up over the long-term. As technical debt builds up, it slows down the creation and maintenance of new product work within a codebase.
When this happens, it causes a significant emotional “drag” on developers. Why? Because developers often feel ill-equipped to explain the impact of technical debt and find it difficult to get the broader organizational support to address it. This creates a vicious cycle, leading to increasing levels of frustration, lost productivity and disengagement from their projects.
Oftentimes, technical debt is viewed as an “engineering problem” that blocks money-making activities, such as building new features and pleasing customers. Developers rarely succeed at winning over advocates outside their department because they lack the right tools to demonstrate the problems that technical debt causes.
Putting the Focus on Measuring Stability
By bringing the concept of stability into the conversation, developers can raise awareness and expand the dialogue about technical debt. Organizations must aim for a balance between delivering a robust product roadmap and maintaining a healthy and evolving codebase. That equilibrium is impossible to achieve if engineering, application and product teams don’t have a method to openly and regularly discuss and agree upon the impact of technical debt.
The impact is easy to see since technical debt is the measurable drag in your codebase. And, by measuring technical debt, you can determine how stable your software is.
Assessing stability is much like how infrastructure and operational teams rely on the “five nines” to track availability, measure uptime and conform to SLAs. Software stability can be calculated by using real-time error rates and session data to determine the percentage of successful user interactions per release. This percentage acts as a stability score that demonstrates how stable each software release is.
Simply put, when customers enjoy error-free interactions with an application, stability scores are high. If bugs cause disruptions or crashes, stability scores are low.
From Technical Debt to Business Value
Customers don’t have the patience for software that doesn't work properly. In fact, 80% will only retry an app once or twice before moving on. With stability scores providing direct insight into the actual impact of bugs and user experience, organizations can better understand how less technical debt translates into stronger business value.
More importantly, measurable results remove the burden of technical debt from solely the engineering team. Now it becomes a metric that the entire organization can view and address collectively, on a regular basis.
When cross-functional teams measure and communicate in the same language about technical debt, they can determine when and how to address it. Here’s are some questions that should be asked to establish your organization’s approach:
• What is our target stability?
• Are our stability scores for each release above our target?
• If any stability scores are below our target, which bugs make the most sense to fix first?
• What target stability scores can we realistically set for future releases? Do we fix bugs that impact a key customer first, or do we focus on bugs that are impacting many customers?
• How many bugs are too many bugs?
When stability scores are used, these questions become discussion points rather than sources of frustration. By reframing the conversation, teams move away from lamenting about annoyed customers (downside protection) to a joint focus on developing features faster and removing the drag of technical debt (upside generation). Teams that adopt stability as a KPI enable the technical debt to be rolled into the engineering team’s goals through stability scores, which creates accountability from top to bottom.
Stabilize and Fix. It’s Not If Technical Debt Will Be a Problem, But When
One of the oldest software development questions is “Should we fix bugs or build new features?” With tools that aid in stability management and error monitoring by delivering metrics and analytics, organizations can more easily determine what their focus should be in order to meet business goals while advancing their software.
Bugs are the consequence of innovation. To move forward, you need to create bugs (and lots of them). But you also need methodologies in place that address the existence of bugs in a timely fashion. After all, the question is never “if” technical debt will impact your software, but “when” and “how badly.” Stability scores provide a quick and easy answer.
Everyone in an organization has a hand in building technical debt with business requests, product requirements and customer needs. Stability scores enable the entire organization to share the responsibility of deciding when to address technical debt as well.
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