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Technical debt is a concept in programming that reflects the extra development work that arises when code that is easy to implement in the short run is used instead of applying the best overall solution.
Technical debt is commonly associated with extreme programming, especially in the context of refactoring. That is, it implies that restructuring existing code (refactoring) is required as part of the development process. Under this line of thinking refactoring is not only a result of poorly written code, but is also done based on an evolving understanding of a problem and the best way to solve that problem.
Technical debt may also be known as design debt.
The term was coined by Ward Cunningham, a programmer who is also known for developing the first wiki.Technical debt is a metaphor that equates software development to financial debt. Imagine that you have a project that has two potential options. One is quick and easy but will require modification in the future. The other has a better design, but will take more time to implement. In development, releasing code as a quick and easy approach is like incurring debt - it comes with the obligation of interest, which, for technical debt, comes in the form of extra work in the future. Taking the time to refactor is equivalent to paying down principal. While this takes time in the short run, it also decreases future interest payments.
Ward Cunningham describes this concept in 1992 as follows:
"Shipping first-time code is like going into debt. A little debt speeds development so long as it is paid back promptly with a rewrite. Objects make the cost of this transaction tolerable. The danger occurs when the debt is not repaid. Every minute spent on not-quite-right code counts as interest on that debt. Entire engineering organizations can be brought to a stand-still under the debt load of an unconsolidated implementation, object-oriented or otherwise."
The concept does not mean that debt should never be incurred. Just as leverage can help a company when used correctly, a quick solution can mean a faster time to market in software development. In addition, technical debt is not just poor code. Bad code is bad code, and technical debt can result from the work of good programmers under unrealistic project constraints.