Measuring Technical Debt is the Best of 2022

Posted by Marbenz Antonio on December 29, 2022

How To Measure Technical Debt: Top Metrics

Enterprise technical debt refers to the accumulation of issues or shortcomings that hinder an organization’s ability to efficiently deliver products or services. It can significantly increase the cost of supporting technical products and services and limit a company’s ability to quickly adapt to market changes. It can be difficult to define due to its complex nature and the various ways it can manifest within an organization.

Technical debt is a term that is commonly used in the tech industry, but it is often not fully understood or accurately measured. There are many factors that can contribute to technical debt, such as security vulnerabilities, outdated systems or processes, and lack of standardization. It can be challenging to quantify and determine its impact on an organization.

It is often defined narrowly, only considering software defects and other code-related issues. However, in large enterprises, technical debt encompasses a much broader range of issues, including security vulnerabilities, inefficient processes, and organizational inefficiencies. To effectively address this, it is important to consider all of these factors and use financial tools to measure their impact. By understanding the full scope of technical debt, organizations can more effectively prioritize and address these issues.


The concept of technical debt was introduced by Ward Cunningham, one of the founders of the Agile Manifesto, as a metaphor to explain the work his team was doing to improve a financial application. Cunningham likened the process of refactoring the code to paying off a loan, stating that shipping code without proper consideration for its long-term maintainability is like taking on debt that must be repaid through refactoring. The Agile Alliance further explains that in 1992, at the OOPSLA conference, Cunningham elaborated on this idea, saying that taking on a small amount of technical debt can speed up development as long as it is promptly repaid through refactoring, but failing to do so can lead to serious consequences.

It uses a metaphor to describe how the need to refactor code can impact an organization’s ability to deliver, similar to how financial debt affects an individual’s ability to pay off a loan. Despite its widespread adoption, there is no universally accepted definition of technical debt, nor is there a single method for quantifying its impact.

The cost associated with code defects that hinder delivery, is useful for understanding the impact of technical issues on an organization. However, in modern enterprise environments, the scope of technical debt should be expanded to include other factors that can impact an organization’s ability to deliver value to customers, such as security vulnerabilities and organizational inefficiencies. There are many elements that can be considered part of technical debt, including:

  • Existing bugs that are not fixed
  • Issues resulting from bad design or bad coding
  • The lack of tests for quality, security, and performance in the code
  • Unsafe code or artifacts have been already in use
  • Old, expensive, challenging-to-manage equipment that cannot keep up with the needs of the digital transformation
  • Documentation that is unfinished, out-of-date, or without comments
  • Known security issues that must be fixed
  • Unaligned with corporate standards, different tool sets
  • Organizational standards and technology organizational constructions that are out of sync

It is important to note that not all debt should necessarily be repaid, just as not all financial debt is advisable to pay off. There is a concept of “good debt,” or debt that is taken on because the potential return on investment is greater than the cost of the debt. Similarly, in the context of technical debt, if the benefits of introducing a new feature outweigh the cost of resolving some issues, it may make sense to prioritize the new feature. The cost-benefit analysis of paying off technical debt may change depending on the stage of a product’s lifecycle, as well.

During the early stages of development, the potential benefits of new features may outweigh the risks associated with compliance issues. However, as a product matures and gains more customers, the risk may increase and the benefits of new features may decline. It is important to consider the business context when deciding whether to pay off technical debt and using economic calculations can help make informed and data-driven decisions.

Risk in Technical Debt

Security and organizational are often overlooked or excluded in the definition of technical debt, but they can have significant impacts. It is important to recognize that unmitigated security vulnerabilities and other organizational issues can be considered the same way that unfixed software defects are. The question of whether to address emerging or low-priority vulnerabilities becomes more complex and requires careful consideration.

While it is generally accepted that unaddressed known vulnerabilities represent technical debt, it is less clear whether newly discovered vulnerabilities should be considered technical debt. The key factor to consider is whether the vulnerability presents a security risk that needs to be addressed. An organization’s service level agreements (SLAs) for vulnerability management can provide guidance on this issue. For example, if an organization’s SLA requires that high-level vulnerabilities be addressed within one day, then vulnerabilities that have not been addressed within that timeframe can be considered technical debt. This does not mean that vulnerabilities that fall within the SLA do not need to be addressed, but rather that they represent new work rather than technical debt until they exceed the SLA.

Organizational Debt

Organizational and toolchain debt are types of technical debt that are often overlooked in standard analyses. These types of debt can arise when different parts of an organization are not fully integrated, such as in the case of a merger or acquisition, or when there is a lack of standardization in processes or tools. For example, if one part of a company uses Slack for communication while another uses Microsoft Teams, it can create friction that hinders the organization’s ability to deliver value to customers.

While it is not necessary for all companies to use the same tools or have perfectly aligned organizational structures, it is important to recognize that a lack of standardization can have ongoing costs and represent a form of technical debt. Adhering to standards can improve efficiency, and deviations from those standards can result in a loss of efficiency and contribute to technical debt.

For example, if a company has standardized Slack as its primary communication platform, it has likely done so because it believes that standardization improves the flow of value to the customer and reduces costs through consolidated license purchasing. If that company acquires another company that uses Microsoft Teams, the toolchain disparity between the two platforms should be considered technical debt until they are unified. On the other hand, if a company is a portfolio company, it may not be necessary or beneficial to standardize on a particular communication platform. In this case, it may be appropriate to allow the purchased company to continue using its preferred tool, as the toolchain disparity would not impact the ability of either part of the company to deliver value.

It is important to note that while many mergers and acquisitions can bring technical debt, discontinuities in organizational structures or toolchains do not automatically equate to technical debt. Whether these types of misalignments should be considered technical debt depends on the company’s merger and acquisition strategy.

For companies that have standards around organizational structure and tooling, and where some of the benefits of the merger or acquisition are based on the assumption of integration, unintegrated processes and tools should be considered technical debt if they are not addressed within the timeframe outlined in the integration business case. On the other hand, if a company is a portfolio company and adopts a federated approach, it may be acceptable to leave processes and tools unintegrated and they would not be considered technical debt. In this context, it only arises when tools and processes do not align with the standards and strategies of the organization.

By considering the full range of technical debt across an enterprise, including software defects, organizational inefficiencies, and risk-related issues, it is possible to redefine technical debt as:

Unmet demand for technical resources reduces the ability to deliver value to customers or increases risk. 

Calculating Enterprise Technical Debt

By recognizing that technical debt can encompass a range of issues including software defects, organizational complexity, and toolchain heterogeneity, it becomes possible to consider methods when measuring.

Quantifying different types of technical debt can be challenging, but the concept of technical debt itself provides a useful framework for measurement. Technical debt implies a cost, and each type can be discussed by quantified in terms of money, allowing for an overall debt cost to be calculated for a large organization.

Interest Rate

From a financial perspective, the cost of it can be understood as the “interest rate” on that debt – that is, the amount that the technical debt costs the organization over a given period of time. As Ward Cunningham noted in his video on the debt metaphor, technical debt allows organizations to act sooner, but also incurs ongoing costs in the form of lost revenue or other impacts such as security breaches. These costs can accumulate over time and should be taken into consideration when evaluating the impact of technical debt.

This approach to calculating technical debt is useful because it allows organizations to also calculate the cost of addressing the debt, such as the cost to fix a software defect. It is important to note that the cost of mitigation may change over time, as the cost to fix a defect may increase as familiarity with the relevant code decreases. By understanding both the cost of mitigation and the ongoing cost of technical debt, organizations can make informed decisions about the return on investment for addressing the debt. This can help them prioritize their efforts to address technical debt in a way that aligns with their business goals.

Software Debt

Using an economic approach to measure technical debt provides a consistent framework for understanding the cost of different types of debt, but different types of debt may still require different measurement approaches. For example, the cost of software-related technical debt can be calculated by considering factors such as defects, unnecessary complexity, lack of documentation, and unused code that increase the cost of code maintenance and changes and may also cause incidents or outages. This cost can be determined by evaluating the cost of support activities related to the issue and the impact on productivity for new code development, as well as the time and resources required to fix the problem.

In this example, a large educational company was facing a bug in its code that caused load spikes and required the team to regularly spend time addressing the issue. The cost to fix the bug was estimated at $10,000, while the ongoing cost of dealing with the issue was estimated at $2,000 per week. Based on this analysis, it would take approximately five weeks for the company to see a return on investment from fixing the bug, as the cost of addressing the issue on an ongoing basis exceeded the cost of fixing it. This approach can be useful for evaluating the potential benefits of addressing different types of technical debt and determining the most cost-effective course of action.

Risk Debt

Annual loss expectancy (ALE) is a way to measure the expected financial loss over a period of one year. It is calculated by multiplying the estimated loss by the probability that it will occur in a given year. This can be useful for evaluating the cost of risk-related technical debt, such as security risks or compliance issues, by taking into account the likelihood and potential impact of these risks.

By understanding the ALE, organizations can make informed decisions about the cost-benefit of addressing different types and take steps to mitigate risks that could have a significant impact on their business.


Technical debt refers to the cost associated with deferring maintenance or improvement work on software systems. It can include software defects, security vulnerabilities, and organizational complexity, among other things. Measuring technical debt can be challenging, but it is important for organizations to understand the cost of this debt to make informed decisions about how to prioritize and address it. One approach is to use financial metrics such as annual loss expectancy, which estimates the expected financial loss due to a risk based on the probability of that risk occurring in a given year. By considering the cost of technical debt and the cost of addressing it, organizations can make informed decisions about how to prioritize and address this debt.

It is a term that refers to the cost incurred by a company as a result of taking shortcuts or making technical decisions that are not optimal in the long term. It can include defects in software code, security vulnerabilities, and organizational or toolchain issues that hinder the ability of a company to deliver value to its customers.

To measure technical debt, it is necessary to understand the various types of debt and how they can be quantified in monetary terms. This includes calculating the cost of software defects, the annual loss expectancy (ALE) of risk-related debt, and the cost of remediation for all types of debt. By weighing these costs against the potential return on investment, companies can make informed decisions about whether to invest in the remediation of technical debt.

Organizational Technical Debt

Technical debt is a term that refers to the cost incurred by an organization when it fails to follow best practices in software development, resulting in problems that must be fixed in the future. This can include software defects, security vulnerabilities, and misaligned organizational structures or tools. To measure technical debt, it is useful to consider the cost of interest that accrues over time due to the debt, as well as the cost to mitigate the debt.

Different types of technical debt may require different methods of measurement, such as the annual loss expectancy for risk-related debt or the cost of support activities for software defect-related debt. By considering the cost of technical debt and the potential return on investment for mitigating it, organizations can make informed decisions about how to prioritize their efforts and allocate resources.

It is a term used to describe the cost that a company incurs when it chooses to prioritize certain tasks or projects over others. It can be measured in a number of ways, including the cost of support activities, the impact on productivity, and the cost of delays in delivering value. Different types of technical debt may require different measurement approaches, but overall, it is important to consider the cost, the cost to mitigate and the return on investment for fixing the debt in order to make informed business decisions about how to address technical debt within an organization.

The cost to resolve organizational debt can be used to estimate the debt’s actual cost, just like it can be used to determine development- and risk-related debt. This offers a practical method for choosing whether to make the investment to pay off the debt.


The extent of technical debt is broad for large businesses. This comes in a different form, and there are numerous ways to calculate both its cost and interest rate. Debt relating to the software must be calculated based on the effect on the customer or the effect on the employees’ productivity. The ALE of the debt can be used to calculate risk-related debt. The amount of organizational debt can be determined by taking into account customer value delivery delays.

There is a lot of confusion around this data, and there are different computations to take into account. There are definitely significant costs related to technical debt. Even if organizations are unaware of it, the interest on that debt is being paid off every day. They can at least quantify the impact and make thoughtful decisions based on return on investment for the work required to remediate technical debt in the enterprise by looking at the cost to remediate and the cost of the interest. It may not make sense or even be possible for enterprises to truly know the full extent of their debt or the amount of interest they are paying.

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