The Broken Windows theory of technical debt is broken

In the United States, the Broken Windows theory of crime control first appeared in the public conversation in 1982, when Kelling and Wilson described it in The Atlantic (then known as The Atlantic Monthly) [Kelling 1982]. Briefly, the theory suggests that in urban environments, by applying police resources to preventing small crimes such as vandalism, public drinking, and toll jumping, one can prevent serious crime and create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness. Gladwell popularized the idea in his explosive best seller The Tipping Point [Gladwell 2000].

Broken windows in an old abandoned factory
Broken windows in an old abandoned factory. To work in an environment dominated by properties like this must certainly be demoralizing. But whether existing technical debt actually causes people to make choices that incur new technical debt is another question. At this point, it’s an open question.

In the year before Gladwell’s work appeared, Hunt and Thomas incorporated the Broken Windows theory into their work, The Pragmatic Programmer, suggesting it as a justification for the importance of retiring technical debt immediately upon discovering it [Hunt 1999]. Briefly, the theory as applied to technical debt in software is that tolerating low quality and technical debt in a given asset encourages further degradation of quality and incurring additional technical debt. Within the software community, the Broken Windows theory of managing technical debt is widely accepted [Note a].

However, between Kelling’s work in 1982 and the work of Hunt and Thomas in 1999, criminologists and sociologists had become skeptical of the Broken Windows theory as applied to crime prevention. As far back as 1998, investigations had begun to cast doubt on the Broken Windows theory [Harcourt 1998]. In 2006, Eck and Maguire assembled a review of the escalating controversy [Eck 2006]. Research by O’Brien, Sampson, and Winship, based on “big data” analyses, failed to produce evidence of validity of the Broken Windows theory beyond a weak positive correlation between social orderliness and lawful behavior [O’Brien 2015]. Indeed, their research instead showed a very strong positive correlation between private violent behavior and major crimes. Others have noted that what appeared to be positive results for the application of the Broken Windows approach to crime prevention in the 1990s was actually explainable by other phenomena [Note b].

Social scientists and criminologists have taken these findings seriously enough to have founded the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University, which maintains an evidence-based policing matrix to assist law enforcement organizations in evaluating the validity of claims about the efficacy of specific tactics and strategies, such as the Broken Windows theory. (See their review of Broken Windows Policing.)

But even as doubts developed about the efficacy of Broken Windows policing for crime prevention, Broken Windows continued to find adherents relative to managing technical debt in software assets. The software engineering community thus finds itself, perhaps, in the same position with respect to Broken Windows as it is with respect to the Tragedy of the Commons. Broken Windows and the Tragedy of the Commons are both fine analogies, but the fields that originated them now have superior ways of understanding the phenomena in question.

Maybe it’s time for the engineering community to re-examine Broken Windows as it pertains to technological asset quality and technical debt. At this time, the author is aware only of anecdotal support for the Broken Windows theory of technical debt management. Perhaps the Broken Windows theory will work better in engineering than it did in social science or criminology, but do you want to bet your company on that?

References

[Eck 2006] J. Eck and E.R. Maguire. “Have Changes in Policing Reduced Violent Crime? An Assessment of the Evidence,” in Blumstein, Alfred, and Joel Wallman, eds. The Crime Drop in America, Revised Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, 207-265.

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[Gladwell 2000] Malcolm Gladwell. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2000.

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[Harcourt 1998] Bernard E. Harcourt. “Reflecting on the Subject: A Critique of the Social Influence Conception of Deterrence, the Broken Windows Theory, and Order-Maintenance Policing New York Style,” 97 Michigan Law Review 291 (1998).

Available: here; Retrieved: June 26, 2017

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[Hunt 1999] Andrew Hunt and David Thomas. The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison Wesley Longman, 1999.

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[Kelling 1982] Kelling, George L. and James Q. Wilson. “Broken Windows: The police and neighborhood safety,” The Atlantic, 249(3):29–38, March 1982.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 25, 2017

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[Note a] Articles and blog entries about applying Broken Windows to managing technical debt in software:

[Tuin 2012] Richard Tuin. “Software Development and the Broken Windows Theory,” blog entry at rtuin.nl, August 22, 2012.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 25, 2017.

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[Matfield 2014] Kat Matfield. “The Broken Windows Theory of Technical Debt,” Mind the Product blog at MindTheProduct.com, November 11, 2014.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 25, 2017

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[El-Geish 2015] Mohamed El-Geish. “Broken Windows: Software Entropy and Technical Debt,” blog at LinkedIn.com, March 6, 2015

Available: here; Retrieved: June 25, 2017

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[Pietola 2012] Mikko Pietola. “Technical Excellence In Agile Software Projects,” Master’s Thesis, Information Technology, Oulu University of Applied Sciences, 2012.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 25, 2017

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[Venners 2003] Bill Venners. “Don’t Live with Broken Windows: A Conversation with Andy Hunt and Dave Thomas, Part I,” blog at Artima.com, March 3, 2003.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 25, 2017.

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[Note b] Articles and blog entries questioning the validity of the Broken Windows theory of crime prevention:

[Nuwer 2013] Rachel Nuwer. “Sorry, Malcolm Gladwell: NYC’s Drop in Crime Not Due to Broken Window Theory,” SmartNews blog at smithsonian.com, February 6, 2013.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 25, 2017.

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[O’Brien 2015] Daniel O’Brien, Robert J. Sampson, and Christopher Winship. “Ecometrics in the Age of Big Data: Measuring and Assessing ‘Broken Windows’ Using Large-scale Administrative Records.” Sociological Methodology 45: 101-147, 2015.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 25, 2017

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[Childress 2016] Sarah Childress. “The Problem with ‘Broken Windows’ Policing,” PBS FrontLine, June 28, 2016.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 25, 2017

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[Harcourt 2006a] Bernard E. Harcourt. “Bratton's ‘broken windows’:No matter what you’ve heard, the chief’s policing method wastes precious funds,” Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2006.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 25, 2017

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[Harcourt 2006b] Bernard E. Harcourt and Jens Ludwig. “Broken Windows: New Evidence From New York City and a Five-City Social Experiment,” University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 73, 2006.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 25, 2017

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[O’Brien 2015] Daniel O’Brien, Robert J. Sampson, and Christopher Winship. “Ecometrics in the Age of Big Data: Measuring and Assessing ‘Broken Windows’ Using Large-scale Administrative Records.” Sociological Methodology 45: 101-147, 2015.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 25, 2017

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