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Legacy code and technical debt - explained

Monday, August 21, 2023
Johan Haest
Engineering manager

In the context of software engineering, there are few joys greater than building a green-field product using the latest technologies. Yet, the reality of practical implementation diverges from this ideal scenario: developers are often confronted with legacy code and technical debt, both of which negatively impact the development process and planning as a whole. Therefore, a comprehensive understanding of these two concepts is crucial for mitigating challenges, making informed decisions, and fostering the overall health of software projects.

Legacy code: an ever expanding universe

Legacy code is typically found in a codebase that has been around for some time, often passed down from previous developers or older versions of the software; an antique in the software world. While it may continue to function, it's typically not up to speed with today's tech and methods. This, combined with lack of documentation, compatibility issues, and potential vulnerabilities, make legacy code hard to work with and to maintain.

Key characteristics:

  • Outdated technology: legacy code often employs outdated languages, libraries, and frameworks that might not be compatible with modern tools.
  • Minimal documentation: previous developers might not have documented the code adequately, making it difficult for newcomers to understand its intricacies.
  • Resistance to change: due to the complex interdependencies within legacy code, making even minor changes can have unintended consequences.
  • High maintenance costs: the effort required to maintain, debug, and update legacy code can be significantly higher than working with modern codebases.

Technical debt: the accumulation of past choices

Technical debt, on the other hand, refers to the accumulation of tasks that need to be done later because of taking shortcuts or making compromises in the initial software development phases. It's the extra effort required to address issues that crop up when not testing code thoroughly, putting off restructuring, or ignoring best practices.

Key characteristics:

  • Immediate benefits, long-term costs: technical debt often arises from the need to meet deadlines or deliver features quickly. While it provides immediate gains, it accumulates problems that need to be addressed eventually
  • Impact on future development: the accumulation of technical debt can slow down future development, as developers have to work around or correct the shortcuts taken earlier, thus leading to significantly longer development times and costs
  • Continuous interest: just like financial debt, technical debt accumulates "interest" over time; each time a new feature is added or an update is made, the underlying issues caused by technical debt can compound
  • Refactoring and repayment: addressing technical debt requires deliberate efforts, such as refactoring code, improving documentation, and ensuring adherence to best practices

Both are unavoidable and will hinder maintenance and scalability

While legacy code and technical debt share the common thread of posing challenges to developers, they differ in their origins, consequences, and solutions. Legacy code stems from historical evolutions over time and outdated stacks, often requiring comprehensive modernization efforts. In contrast, technical debt is a result of short-term compromises, necessitating ongoing efforts to address and prevent its accumulation. Although there is a distinction between these concepts, both lead to significant challenges in day-to-day maintenance and prolonged future development. Thus hindering the scalability of your product. 

Both challenges demand attention, but they require different strategies. Legacy code often requires comprehensive overhaul to align with current technologies, while technical debt calls for continuous efforts to ensure code quality and prevent the accumulation of hidden challenges. By navigating these concepts adeptly, developers can steer their projects towards greater sustainability, reliability, and future success. 

Paying back the debt: how we can help you free up capital

Here at Panenco we have all the tools in place to help you overcome these issues. Our typical refactoring approach starts with an open intake conversation about the future product vision and ongoing operations. This is key to understanding the foundations needed in order to further scale your digital product. Next, we embark on a four-week journey whereby we review the request response times, quality and security of the codebase, resulting in a detailed action plan and roadmap to start the refactoring process. After the full refactoring process, we set up the right guidelines and procedures for your in-house team to continue the success. And with regular follow-ups we ensure everything is running smoothly and limit the future creation of technical debt.

Let's build!

Are you looking for an entrepreneurial digital partner?
Reach out to hello@panenco.com.

Egwin Avau
Founding CEO
Koen Verschooten
Operations manager

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