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Measure It? Manage It? Ignore It? Software Practitioners and Technical Debt

August 2015 Conference Paper
Neil Ernst, Stephany Bellomo, Ipek Ozkaya, Robert Nord, Ian Gorton

This paper reports on a survey of 1,831 software engineers and architects, and follow-up interviews of seven software engineers, to determine the most important sources of technical debt.

Publisher:

ACM

Abstract

This article was published by ACM in the Proceedings of the 10th Joint Meeting on Foundations of Software Engineering, August 2015, pages 50-60.

The technical debt metaphor is widely used to encapsulate numerous software quality problems. The metaphor is attractive to practitioners as it communicates to both technical and nontechnical audiences that if quality problems are not addressed, things may get worse. However, it is unclear whether there are practices that move this metaphor beyond a mere communication mechanism. Existing studies of technical debt have largely focused on code metrics and small surveys of developers. In this paper, we report on our survey of 1,831 participants, primarily software engineers and architects working in long-lived, software-intensive projects from three large organizations, and follow-up interviews of seven software engineers. We analyzed our data using both nonparametric statistics and qualitative text analysis. We found that architectural decisions are the most important source of technical debt. Furthermore, while respondents believe the metaphor is itself important for communication, existing tools are not currently helpful in managing the details. We use our results to motivate a technical debt timeline to focus management and tooling approaches.