Technical Debt and the four most dangerous words for any project. | James O’Neill’s Blog

I’ve been thinking about technical debt. I might have been trying to avoid the term when I wrote Don’t swallow the cat, or more likely I hadn’t heard it, but I was certainly describing it – to adapt Wikipedia’s definition it is “the future work that arises when something that is easy to implement in the short run is used in preference to the best overall solution”. However it is not confined to software development as Wikipedia suggests.“Future work” can come from bugs (either known, or yet to be uncovered because of inadequate testing), design kludges which are carried forward, dependencies on out of date software, documentation that was left unwritten… and much more besides.The cause of technical debt is simple: People won’t say “I (or we) cannot deliver what you want, properly, when you expect it”.“When you expect it” might be the end of a Scrum Sprint, a promised date or “right now”. We might be dealing with someone who asks so nicely that you can’t say “No” or the powerful ogre to whom you dare not say “No”. Or perhaps admitting “I thought I could deliver, but I was wrong” is too great a loss of face. There are many variations.I’ve written before about “What you measure is what you get” (WYMIWIG) it’s also a factor. In IT we measure success by what we can see working. Before you ask “How else do you judge success?”, Technical debt is a way to cheat the measurement – things are seen to be working before all the work is done. To stretch the financial parallel, if we collect full payment without delivering in full, our accounts must cover the undelivered part – it is a liability like borrowing or unpaid invoices.Imagine you have a deadline to deliver a feature. (Feature could be a piece of code, or an infrastructure service however small). Unforeseeable things have got in the way. You know the kind of things: the fires which apparently only you know how to extinguish, people who ask “Can I Borrow You”, but should know they are jeopardizing your ability to meet this deadline, and so on.Then you find that doing your piece properly means fixing something that’s already in production. But doing that would make you miss the deadline (as it is you’re doing less testing than you’d like and documentation will have to be done after delivery). So you work around the unfixed problem and make the deadline. Well done!Experience teaches us that making the deadline is rewarded, even if you leave a nasty surprise for whoever comes next – they must make the fix AND unpick your workaround. If they are up against a deadline they will be pushed to increase the debt. You can see how this ends up in a spiral: like all debt, unless it is paid down, it increases in future cycles.The Quiet Crisis unfolding in Software Development has a warning to beware of high performers, they may excel at the measured things by cutting corners elsewhere. It also says watch out for misleading metrics – only counting “features delivered” means the highest performers may be leaving most problems in their wake. Not a good trait to favour when identifying prospective managers.

Source: Technical Debt and the four most dangerous words for any project. | James O’Neill’s Blog

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