Theories of Technical Debt

There are a couple of different major causes of technical debt even on the best run projects.

  1. Schedule pressure
  2. Changed requirements
  3. Lack of understanding of the domain

You can choose to take on debt strategically to accommodate an aggressive schedule, you can accumulate debt from having things change, or you can collect debt from doing what appeared to be the right thing but turned out not to be once you learned more about the underlying situation. There are plenty of other reasons that technical debt can be acquired, but most of those can be avoided. Changing requirements can’t really be avoided; things can change, that’s the nature of life. Understanding of the domain is a tricky issue, since you can spend more time upfront to better understand the domain but you will still uncover new aspects as you go.

Schedule pressure is the most demanding of the three. You can consciously say that technical debt should be taken on by doing something the expedient way. You can also have implicit schedule pressure that pervades the decision making process. This sort of pervasive pressure causes people to value different things. If leadership discusses the schedule day in, day out, but doesn’t mention quality, it ends up lacking.

Technical debt is fundamentally a lack of quality; not in the defect sense but in the lack of craftsmanship sense. All of those 5,000 line classes got written by other engineers who were doing the best they could within the constraints of the environment at the time. But some engineers look at that and don’t want to touch it afraid of what it is and how hard it is to change. Some other engineers look at it and see a mountain to be climbed, or a wilderness to be civilized. The problem code is something to be taken and broken to your will. Each kind of engineer has a place in the development lifecycle.

If a company needs to hit a product window and is only full of the kind of engineers who see debt as a challenge to be dealt with they might not be able to make that tradeoff. If you only have the engineers who are concerned with maximum velocity but leave behind chaos in their wake you will have trouble as the codebase matures. Every engineer seems to have a range on the spectrum where they are most comfortable. Where in that range they land day to day seems to be controlled by the environment around them.

If you are surrounded by one side or the other you might lean towards that side of the range. The messages management sends out about the quality of software relative to the messages they send out about schedule of the project is another important factor. If they keep hammering home to get more done, people will find corners they think can get cut. What those corners are will differ between people, but they will take on debt in various corners of the codebase. This sort of debt is really insidious since it was never consciously decided on. If you decide that you will defer good error messages, or avoid building out an abstraction now, but you do it explicitly because of the schedule is the right business choice, then since the team discussed and decided to do it, they know as a whole that’s not the best technical solution but is the best business solution, whereas if someone just does it everyone else may not even be aware of the other options.

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