This case illustrates how a decision to incur technical debt in one part of an organization can burden other parts of the organization with the metaphorical interest charges on that debt. To gain effective control of technical debt, it’s probably necessary to hold accountable those who make the decisions that lead to incurring new debt.
During the troubles following release of UGI’s StrawIntoGold 1.0 product, the Help Desk operated by UGI’s Customer Service Department was inundated with calls for assistance. Customer Service alerted Engineering, which provided an explanation and an estimated repair date for the customer service representatives to pass on to callers, but in the crush and panic, neither Engineering management nor Customer Service management provided a script for the representatives to use when the calls came in. Consequently, calls took approximately 15% longer to handle than they would have if a carefully worded script had been available. Further, the message conveyed to customers was not always clear or consistent, which resulted in some customers calling again with the same issue.
The decision not to provide customer service representatives with a script can be viewed as incurring a technical debt. The extra time handling calls, the extra calls that resulted from the absence of a script, and even a few lost customers, can be viewed as the metaphorical interest charges on that technical debt. Because of the singular nature of this incident, it’s doubtful that a script will ever be written, but if it were, the cost of doing so, and the cost of distributing it and training all customer service representatives would be the metaphorical principal of this technical debt.
The policymaker’s perspective
UGI doesn’t have a means of making those who incurred the debt accountable for the metaphorical interest charges on that debt. In this case, the Customer Service function incurs additional operating expenses because the Engineering and Customer Service, together, elected not to develop a script for the customer service representatives.
Another component of the metaphorical interest charges is the total of lost sales, damage to UGI’s reputation, and possible loss of market share. Marketing could have stepped in to assist with limiting that damage, but because they viewed the problem as technical, they did not participate. A whole-enterprise perspective on managing the technical debt might have led to a collaboration between Engineering, Marketing, and Customer Support to build better relationships with the customers who were affected by the incident.
Accounting properly for the metaphorical interest charges associated with technical debt can lead to a better understanding of the effects of technical debt.