Malfeasance can be a source of technical debt

Last updated on April 29th, 2018 at 06:36 am

Although creating and deploying policies to manage technical debt is a necessary step, it isn’t sufficient for achieving control in every case. Even if training and communication programs are effective, the possibility of intentional circumvention of technical debt management policy remains. Malfeasance can lead to incurring new technical debt by circumventing any policy. And malfeasance can be an obstacle to retiring—or even identifying—existing technical debt. Moreover, indirect effects of forms of malfeasance seemingly unrelated to technical debt can nevertheless incur technical debt or extend the lifetime of existing technical debt.

Examples of malfeasance as a source of technical debt

Elizabeth Holmes Backstage at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2014
Elizabeth Holmes Backstage at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2014. She is the founder, chairman, and CEO of Theranos, a startup that grew to a total valuation of $9 billion in 2015, and has since dramatically declined in value, now on the edge of its second bankruptcy. Theranos, through Holmes, claimed to have developed a technology that enabled blood testing with small amounts of blood—0.1% to 1% of the amount of blood required by conventional blood testing technologies. These claims proved false. After a series of collisions with U.S. government agencies, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission sued Holmes and Theranos. In March 2018, a settlement was reached in which Holmes accepted severe financial penalties, loss of voting control of Theranos, and a ban from serving as an officer or director of any public company for ten years. Photo (cc) Max Morse for TechCrunch.

Consider an example from software engineering. To save time, an engineer might intentionally choose to use a deprecated approach. When the malfeasance is discovered, one question naturally arises: in what other places and on what other projects has this individual (or other individuals) been making such choices? In a conventional approach to controlling this form of technical debt, we might be concerned only with the engineer’s current assignment. But a more comprehensive investigation might uncover a trail of technical debt artifacts in the engineer’s previous assignments.

Allman relates a hardware-oriented example [Allman 2012]. He describes an incident involving the University of California at Berkeley’s CalMail system, which failed catastrophically in November 2011, when one disk in a RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) failed due to deferred maintenance. Allman regards this incident as traceable to the technical debt consisting of the deferred RAID maintenance. While this particular case isn’t an example of malfeasance, it’s reasonable to suppose that decisions to defer technical maintenance on complex systems frequently are arguably negligent.

History provides us with many clear examples of malfeasance leading to technical debt indirectly. Consider the Brooklyn Bridge. Many of the suspension cables of the bridge contain substandard steel wire, which was provided to the bridge constructors by an unscrupulous manufacturer. When the bridge engineer discovered the malfeasance, he recognized that the faulty wire that had already been installed could not be removed, or even inspected. So he compensated for the faulty wire by adding additional strands to the affected cables. For more, see “Non-technical precursors of non-strategic technical debt.”

What kinds of malfeasance deserve special attention and why

Malfeasance that leads to incurring technical debt or which extends the life of existing technical debt has the potential to expose the enterprise to uncontrolled increases in operating expenses and unknown obstacles to revenue generation. The upward pressures on operating expenses derive from the MICs associated with technical debt. Although MICs can include obstacles to revenue generation, considering these obstacles separately helps to clarify of the effects of malfeasance.

Malfeasance deserves special attention because the financial harm to the enterprise can dramatically exceed the financial benefit the malfeasance confers on its perpetrators. This property of technical-debt-related malfeasance is what makes its correction, detection, and prevention so important.

For example, when hiring engineers, some candidates claim to have capabilities and experience that they actually don’t have. Once they’re on board, they expose the enterprise to the risk of technical debt creation through substandard work that can escape notice for indefinite periods. The malfeasance here consists of the candidate’s misrepresentation of his or her capabilities. Although the candidate, once hired, does receive some benefit arising from the malfeasance, the harm to the enterprise can exceed that benefit by orders of magnitude.

As a second example, consider the behavior of organizational psychopaths [Babiak 2007] [Morse 2004]. Organizational psychopathy can be a dominant contributing factor to technical debt formation when the primary beneficiary of a proposed strategy is the decision-maker or the advocate who takes credit for the short term effects of the decision, and when he or she intends knowingly to move on to a new position or to employment elsewhere before the true long term cost of the technical debt becomes evident. This behavior is malfeasance of the highest order. And although it’s rare, its impact can be severe. For more, see “Organizational psychopathy: career advancement by surfing the debt tsunami.”

What’s required to control malfeasance

When a particular kind of malfeasance can incur technical debt or extend the life of existing technical debt, it merits special attention. Examples like those above suggest three attributes that technical debt management programs must have if they are to deal effectively with malfeasance.

Corrective measures

Corrective measures can be undertaken in a straightforward manner when inadvertent policy violations occur. For example, unexpected difficulties in setting priorities for technical debt retirement efforts might be the result of individual performance metrics that conflict with the technical debt control program. Such conflicts can be inadvertent and can be resolved collaboratively.

But with regard to malfeasance, difficulties arise when policy violations are discovered or reported. When the violations are intentional, corrective action usually entails investigation of the means by which the infraction was achieved, and the means by which it was concealed. When these activities involve many individuals attached to multiple business units, some means of allocating the cost of corrective action might be needed. Allocating the cost of corrections can also be difficult when one party has reaped extraordinary benefits by taking steps that led to incurring significant technical debt. In some cases, corrective measures might include punitive actions directed at individuals.

Detection measures

When intentional violations are covert, or those who committed the violations claim that they’re unintentional, investigation is necessary to determine whether or not a pattern of violations exists. Technical debt forensic activities require resources, including rigorous audits and robust record-keeping regarding the decisions that led to the formation or persistence of technical debt. Automated detection techniques might be necessary to control the cost of detection efforts, and to ensure reliable detection.

Preventative measures

Successful prevention of policy violations requires education, communication, and effective enforcement. The basis of effective policy violation prevention programs includes widespread understanding of the technical debt concept and the technical debt management policies, and the certainty of discovery of intentional infractions. These factors require commitment and continuing investment.

Policy frameworks are at risk of depressed effectiveness if they pay too little attention to malfeasance and other forms of misconduct. Such misbehavior deserves special attention because it’s often accompanied both by attempts to conceal any resulting technical debt, and attempts to mislead investigators and managers about its existence. These situations do arise, though rarely, and when they do, they must be addressed in policy terms.

References

[Allman 2012] Eric Allman. “Managing Technical Debt: Shortcuts that save money and time today can cost you down the road,” ACM Queue, 10:3, March 23, 2012.

Available: here Retrieved: March 16, 2017

Cited in:

[Babiak 2007] Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare. Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. ISBN:978-0-06-114789-0

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Cited in:

[Morse 2004] Gardiner Morse. “Executive psychopaths,” Harvard Business Review, 82:10, 20-22, 2004.

Available: here; Retrieved: April 25, 2018

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Cultural debt can be the primary driver of technical debt

Last updated on June 2nd, 2018 at 10:35 pm

Cultural debt can be expensive because, like technical debt, it can incur ongoing metaphorical interest charges. Schein defines organizational culture as “…a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration…” [Schein 2016]. Following the concept of technical debt, we can regard as cultural debt the subset of shared basic assumptions comprising enterprise culture that are no longer fitting for enterprise realities. We can also include as cultural debt any assumptions that ought to be shared, but which are missing or are only partially shared. And we can include shared assumptions that conflict with each other and need to be resolved.

An example of cultural debt: the term “IT”

A tape measure calibrated in both feet/inches and meters/centimeters
A tape measure calibrated in both feet/inches and meters/centimeters. The need to possess tools that serve both measurement systems can be viewed as the metaphorical interest charges on a technical debt resulting from the failure to retire the older “English” system. But from another perspective, the debt involved is actually cultural. Retiring the older system would truly involve a cultural shift.

For most modern enterprises, one element of cultural debt is the very term IT itself — information technology. Coined in 1958 by Leavitt and Whisler [Leavitt 1958], the term was apt up to as recently as 20 years ago, when the role of IT was primarily management, storage, retrieval, manipulation, and presentation of data — information — by technological means. Although those functions remain relevant, the responsibilities of IT have expanded dramatically since 1958. In many organizations, IT is now responsible for designing, implementing, and maintaining the communication infrastructure, including Internet access, personal computers, networking, Web presence, telephones, video conferencing equipment, and television.

In modern organizations in which communication plays a critical and strategic role, an essential element for success is a clear understanding of what IT does and what it contributes. To regard IT as the “information technology” function of the enterprise is, therefore, to risk overlooking and undervaluing these more recently acquired responsibilities. And since the IT function is no longer solely responsible for enterprise information, using the name “IT” or the term information technology risks overvaluing the role of the IT organization relative to information management, while undervaluing its role relative to communications.

In Schein’s culture framework, the term IT reflects a shared assumption about the focus and span of the IT function. That assumption is that IT is responsible for information—an assumption that is no longer well aligned to the reality of the role of IT. We can regard this misalignment as a cultural debt.

The consequences of this particular kind of cultural debt can be severe. For instance, IT is typically responsible for selecting and configuring software for personal computers (PCs) — both desktop and laptop. This responsibility can arise as a consequence of two shared assumptions. First, that computers process information, and second, that IT is responsible for technology-based information processing. The result is that decisions about what many regard as a “personal” computer are not in the control of the person who uses the computer. This conflict in shared assumptions can lead to conflict between PC users and IT, when the IT decision is at variance with their personal preferences.

Worse, a centralized decision process for determining PC configurations is likely to produce outcomes less suitable than would a process more focused at the individual level, which only adds to the frustrations of PC users, and exacerbates the conflict between them and IT. To mitigate the risk that some PC users might try to circumvent IT policy, IT must deploy technology to ensure adherence to their policies. We can regard all of that activity, on the part of both IT and the PC users, as metaphorical interest charges on cultural debt.

An example of retiring cultural debt

In 1987, Edward Yourdon founded a magazine then known as American Programmer. In 1990, Cutter Information Corporation purchased the rights to American Programmer and created Cutter IT Journal, which name includes the term IT. At the time IT was more suitable than the term programmer. As noted above, the term IT, while once useful and apt, is now outmoded at best and often misleading. Just as the functional name IT in organizations constitutes cultural debt, so it does in the name of a journal.

So in the autumn of 2016, Cutter IT Journal retired the cultural debt in its name, and became Cutter Business Technology Journal. Journals rarely change their names. When they do, the impact of the journal is temporarily depressed because of the split of citations between the former title and the new title for two years or so [Tempest 2005]. But as research fields change, their journals must keep pace. Evidently Cutter felt a significant need to retire its cultural debt — significant enough to justify a temporary effect on impact.

What about cultural debt retirement in companies?

Difficulties associated with retiring cultural debt in companies depend strongly on both the nature of the culture and the nature of the debt. To provide insight into the issues that can arise, let’s continue with our exploration of the term IT and its cultural implications.

In many organizations, IT reports to an enterprise Chief Information Officer (CIO). Associated with this official’s title are some of the same cultural debts we find associated with the name of the IT organization. First, within their organizations, CIOs aren’t the only officers with information management responsibility. Second, many CIOs have responsibilities that extend beyond information management, to include, for example, the communication infrastructure. And unlike other peer titles such as CEO, CFO, CMO, and COO, the CIO title evokes separation from business-oriented decisions. That separation contributes to a cultural wall between “IT” and “the business.”

When cultures view IT as an information-centric service organization, a remnant perhaps of the middle or late 20th century, they tend to regard IT as a source of expense to be minimized, rather than as a strategic partner [Ross 2000]. Trends toward strategic acceptance of IT are nevertheless favorable, with room for improvement, according to recent surveys of CIOs [CIO 2018], probably because of reality.

The reality is that business technology must contribute to formulation and implementation of enterprise strategy. To the extent that CIOs and their organizations are viewed as separate from “the business,” their ability to help shape enterprise strategy is limited. This situation subjects CIOs to cultural assumptions about their responsibilities that in some instances conflict with each other, or with enterprise reality. That’s a significant source of the metaphorical interest charges on the cultural debt.

One possible way to retire this debt might entail retitling Chief Information Officer to Chief Business Technology Officer (CBTO). That’s precisely what happened at Forrester Research in 2011 [Plant 2014].

Unfortunately, the name CBTO conflicts with the three-word pattern of enterprise officer titles (C*O), which might create an urge to name the office Chief Technology Officer (CTO). But that role usually has responsibility for the functions that create technological products or services. Thus, for many organizations, to create a CBTO where there is already a CTO might create further sources of conflict. Using the CTO designation for the CBTO is probably impractical.

But we must find some way to retire this particular cultural debt, because it is such an effective generator of technical debt. CBTO seems to be the best available path.

References

[Allman 2012] Eric Allman. “Managing Technical Debt: Shortcuts that save money and time today can cost you down the road,” ACM Queue, 10:3, March 23, 2012.

Available: here Retrieved: March 16, 2017

Cited in:

[Babiak 2007] Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare. Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. ISBN:978-0-06-114789-0

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Cited in:

[CIO 2018] CIO. “2018 State of the Cio: CIOs Race Towards Digital Business,” CIO, winter 2018.

Available: here; Retrieved March 30, 2018

Cited in:

[Leavitt 1958] Harold J. Leavitt and Thomas L. Whisler. “Management in the 1980s,” Harvard Business Review, November-December, 36, 41-48, 1958.

Cited in:

[Morse 2004] Gardiner Morse. “Executive psychopaths,” Harvard Business Review, 82:10, 20-22, 2004.

Available: here; Retrieved: April 25, 2018

Cited in:

[Plant 2014] Robert Plant. “IT Has Finally Cracked the C-Suite,” Harvard Business Review, July 16, 2014.

Available: here; Retrieved: April 8, 2018

Cited in:

[Ross 2000] Jeanne W. Ross and David F. Feeny. “The Evolving Role of the CIO,” in Framing the Domains of IS Management Research: Glimpsing the Future through the Past, edited by Robert W. Zmud. Pinnaflex, 2000.

Available: here; Retrieved: December 20, 2017.

Cited in:

[Schein 2016] Edgar H. Schein. Organizational Culture and Leadership, Fifth Edition, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2016.

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Cited in:

[Tempest 2005] “The effect of journal title changes on impact factors,” Learned Publishing 18:57–62 (2005).

Available: here; Retrieved: April 5, 2018

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