Last updated on July 24th, 2018 at 08:49 pm
Separating responsibility for maintenance and acquisition of technical assets can lead to uncontrolled growth of technical debt. When the performance of the business acquisition function or the performance of the development organization is measured without regard for the technical debt that arises as a consequence of their actions, technical debt is likely to expand unchecked. To limit such expansion, policymakers must devise performance measures that hold these organizations accountable for the technical debt arising from their actions.
For systems consisting solely of software, separation of responsibility for system maintenance and system development or acquisition enables the acquiring organization to act with little regard for the consequences of its decisions vis-à-vis maintenance matters [Boehm 2016]. This is an unfortunate state of affairs that increases the rate of accumulation of new technical debt, and increases the lifetime of legacy technical debt, because the MICs associated with the technical debt aren’t borne by the acquiring organization.
For example, a focus on performance of the organization that’s responsible for acquisition biases them in favor of attending to the direct and immediate costs of the acquisition, with little or no regard for ongoing maintenance issues. The maintenance organization is then left to deal with whatever the acquired system contains (or lacks).
An analogous mechanism operates for organizations that develop, market, and maintain products or services with software elements in their respective infrastructures. In that case, separation of the development function from the maintenance function enables the development function to act independently of the consequences of its decisions for maintenance matters.
But the separation-of-responsibilities mechanism that leads to uncontrolled technical debt isn’t restricted to software. Any technological asset that has ongoing maintenance needs (and most of them do) can potentially present this problem.
For example, in the United States, and many other countries, two streams of resources support publicly-owned infrastructure [Blair 2017]. The funding stream covers construction, operations and maintenance, and repairs. Its usual sources are taxes, tolls, licenses, other user fees, sale of ad space, and so on. The financing stream covers up-front construction costs, to bridge the period from conception through construction, until the funding stream begins delivering resources. The financing stream usually comes from bond sales.
Although both streams are controlled by legislatures, or by agencies they establish, the effects of the two streams differ fundamentally. The financing stream is dominant in the early stages of the asset’s lifecycle — during construction. The funding stream is dominant after that — when maintenance and operations are most important. Legislators and agencies are generally reluctant to supply funding because of the impact on taxpayers and users. Legislators and agencies find financing much more palatable. For this reason, among others, U.S. infrastructure maintenance is generally under-resourced, and technical debt gradually accumulates.
So it is with technological assets in organizations. For accounting purposes, capital expenses are treated differently from operational expenses, and the result is that operational expenses can have a more significant impact on current financial results than capital expenses do. This leads organizations to underfund operations and maintenance, which contributes to the accumulation of technical debt.
Control of new technical debt accumulation and enhancement of technical debt retirement rates is possible only if the acquisition or development organizations can somehow be held accountable for the MICs that result from their actions. Securitization of the debt incurred, as I’ll address in a forthcoming post, is one possible means of imposing this accountability. But reserves are also required, because some of the debt incurred might not be known at the time the asset is acquired or created.
Separation of responsibility for system maintenance and system acquisition or system development is actually a form of stovepiping. See “Stovepiping can lead to technical debt” for more on stovepiping.
[Blair 2017] Hunter Blair. “No free bridge: Why public–private partnerships or other ‘innovative’ financing of infrastructure will not save taxpayers money,” Economic Policy Institute blog, March 21, 2017.
Available: here; Retrieved: January 29, 2018
Available: here; Retrieved: July 25, 2017
- Separating responsibility for maintenance and acquisition
- Unrealistic optimism: the planning fallacy and the n-person prisoner's dilemma
- How outsourcing leads to increasing technical debt
Available: here; Retrieved: January 30, 2018
- Nontechnical precursors of non-strategic technical debt
- Failure to communicate long-term business strategy
- Failure to communicate the technical debt concept
- Technological communication risk
- Team composition volatility
- The Dunning-Kruger effect can lead to technical debt
- Self-sustaining technical knowledge deficits during contract negotiations
- How performance management systems can contribute to technical debt
- Zero tolerance and work-to-rule deliveries create an adversarial culture
- Stovepiping can lead to technical debt
- Unrealistic definition of done
- The fundamental attribution error
- Feature bias: unbalanced concern for capability vs. sustainability
- Unrealistic optimism: the planning fallacy and the n-person prisoner’s dilemma
- Confirmation bias and technical debt
- How outsourcing leads to increasing technical debt
- How budget depletion leads to technical debt
- Contract restrictions can lead to technical debt
- Organizational psychopathy: career advancement by surfing the debt tsunami
- The Tragedy of the Commons is a distraction
- The Broken Windows theory of technical debt is broken
- Malfeasance can be a source of technical debt