On assigning responsibility for creating technical debt

When we discover an issue within our organizations, two intertwined imperatives demand attention: “How did this happen?” and “What do we do about it?” As we address the former question, almost inevitably we begin to decide who was responsible for creating the problem. Even if we succeed in avoiding blamefests (see [Brenner 2005a]) we can still make gross errors.

An engineer attending a meeting
An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other engineers. You can’t see the other 14 because they’re at least 4,000 miles away in four separate locations.

Assigning responsibility for creating technical debt provides some clear examples of the many dangerous traps that await us on the path to Truth. How we assign responsibility is due, in part, to patterns of organizational culture.

The causes of growth in technical debt are numerous. They include—among many others—insufficient resources, schedule pressure, existing technical debt, changes in strategic direction, changes in law or regulations, and the risks associated with creating first-of-kind solutions to difficult problems. In most engineering activity new technical debt is inevitable. How we deal with it is up to us.

Unfortunately, many organizations don’t provide the time or resources needed to retire that new technical debt on a regular basis.

When technologists—engineers, their managers, or others in technical roles—try to alert the rest of the organization (non-technologists) to the problems that follow from continually accumulating technical debt, they often meet resistance from non-technologists. Technologists usually hope that the resistance can be resolved with an intensive education program.

Sometimes that works. Sometimes technologists do receive the additional resources, time, and cooperation they need to start retiring the accumulated technical debt, and to avoid adding more debt to the burden they already carry.

Mostly, though, education programs don’t work, for reasons beyond mere misunderstanding of the issue. One fundamental problem is the word “technical” in the term technical debt. Non-technologists must be forgiven for believing that since technical debt is inherently technical, it follows that its causes are also technical, that technologists are solely responsible for creating technical debt, and that non-technologists play no role. Those conclusions are, of course, false, but the beliefs persist, and many non-technologists adopt the view that “It’s your problem—fix it.”

A second cause of misconceptions about the causes of technical debt lies in the belief that technologists aren’t working very hard. This belief is founded on assumptions many of us make about what diligent work looks like. Many non-technologists have roles in General Management, Sales, Marketing, or Business Development. They’re working hard when they’re in contact with each other or with people external to the enterprise. They’re traveling, conversing by telephone, or attending or hosting meetings. By contrast, technologists are working hard when they’re at their desks, or attending (face-to-face or virtual) meetings. They do attend meetings off premises, but they do so at much lower rates than do many non-technologists.

When non-technologists assess the technologists’ work ethic, they tend to use the same standards and assumptions they apply to themselves. They under-estimate the technologists’ activity level because outwardly, technologists appear more often to be what non-technologists would regard as “idle”—sitting at their desks, thinking, or typing [Schein 2016].

All of this shows how language, stereotypes, and assumptions conspire to lead  us to misallocate responsibility for creating technical debt. Some believe that technologists are solely responsible for technical debt, because only they can create it, and they aren’t working very hard to do anything about it. Proceeding from that conclusion, finding a resolution of the problem will be difficult indeed. Language, stereotypes, and assumptions can be traps.

References

[Brenner 2005a] Richard Brenner. “Is It Blame or Is It Accountability?” Point Lookout 5:51, December 21, 2005.

Available here . Retrieved December 30, 2016.

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

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