The Dunning-Kruger effect can lead to technical debt

The Dunning-Kruger effect [Kruger 1999] can lead to formation or persistence of technical debt in two ways. First, it can cause technologists or their managers to overestimate their ability to maintain the resource focus needed for retiring technical debt in a timely fashion. Second, it can cause senior managers to be reluctant to accede to resource requests of technologists and their managers in support of technical debt management programs.

Cropped detail from Charles Robert Darwin, a painting by John Collier
Cropped detail from Charles Robert Darwin, a painting by John Collier (1850-1934), given to the National Portrait Gallery, London, in 1896. Darwin writes, in The Descent of Man (1871): “… ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge …” which is the essence of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Image courtesy WikiQuote.

Kruger and Dunning conducted experiments that yielded results consistent with the following four principles (paraphrasing):

  1. Incompetent individuals, compared to their more competent peers, tend to dramatically overestimate their own ability and performance
  2. Incompetent individuals, compared to their more competent peers, tend to be less able to gain insight into their own true levels of performance
  3. Incompetent individuals can gain insight about their shortcomings, but, paradoxically, this comes about by gaining competence
  4. Incompetent individuals, compared to their more competent peers, are less able to recognize competence when they see it

The first three principles lead to distorted assessments of one’s own capabilities. The fourth principle leads to distorted assessments of the capabilities of others.

As an example of distorted self-assessment, consider a team or its managers who must undertake retirement of some types of technical debt in the course of enhancing or repairing an asset. Such a task plan seems at first to offer efficiencies, because the engineers can readily make both kinds of changes at one go. Metaphorically, if we must go to the store for milk, we can also pick up bread while we are there, rather than making two trips.

However, modifying an existing complex technological asset is unlike shopping for bread and milk. The two kinds of modifications — debt retirement and asset enhancement or repair — might seem at first to be separable, and often they are. But if they are not separable, and the two tasks are undertaken together, testing and debugging can become extremely complicated, because of interactions between defects in the two kinds of modifications. Under some circumstances, an experienced team and its managers might be more likely to anticipate these difficulties. An inexperienced team and its managers might be more likely to underestimate the difficulties, as a consequence of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Budget and schedule overruns are possible consequences of underestimating the complexity of the problem.

As an example of the fourth principle above, the Dunning-Kruger effect can cause some decision-makers to discount the warnings and resource requests of engineers and their managers. Decision-makers who are unsophisticated in matters related to technical debt must nevertheless assess the validity of the requests for resources. In making these assessments, these decision-makers may be disadvantaged for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • Decision-makers might hold any of a number of mistaken beliefs about technical debt. For example, many believe that the main causes of technical debt are poor decisions by engineering managers. And others believe that technical debt is the result of slovenly work habits of engineers. Those who hold such beliefs might be reluctant to allocate yet more resources to engineers to address the problem of technical debt.
  • If the advocates of resources for technical debt management are not fully informed about the strategic direction of the enterprise, their requests might be inconsistent with enterprise strategy. As a result of a cognitive bias known as the halo effect [Thorndike 1920], decision-makers might tend to discount valid portions of the technologists’ proposals, because some portions of those proposals don’t take enterprise strategy into account properly.
  • Decision-makers might be affected by unrealistic optimism [Weinstein 1996], also known as optimism bias. It’s a cognitive bias that can cause them to discount the sometimes-vivid warnings of technologists about the unfavorable consequences of failing to provide technical debt management resources.

Investigations of the degree of correlation between burdens of technical debt and the incidence of rejected or severely curtailed proposals for resources to support technical debt management programs could determine the significance of the Dunning-Kruger effect relative to the problem of technical debt. Also rewarding would be a survey of the nearly 200 known cognitive biases, to determine which of them might be most likely to affect decision-making relative to technical debt, and how best to mitigate the risks they present.

References

[Kruger 1999] J. Kruger and D. Dunning. “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77(6), 1121-1134 (1999).

Cited in:

[Thorndike 1920] E.L. Thorndike “A constant error in psychological ratings,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 4(1), 25-29 (1920). doi:10.1037/h0071663

Cited in:

[Weinstein 1996] Neil D. Weinstein and William M. Klein. “Unrealistic Optimism: Present and Future,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 15(1), 1-8 (1996). doi:10.1521/jscp.1996.15.1.1

Cited in:

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The concept of MICs

Using the term interest to refer to the metaphorical interest charges that are associated with a technical debt is risky. The risk arises from confusing the properties of financial interest with the properties of the metaphorical interest charges on technical debt. Using an alternative term that makes the metaphor obvious can limit this risk. One such term is metaphorical interest charges, or for convenience, MICs.

Loose change
Loose change. The MICs on technical debt are  accumulated in two ways: (a) as “loose change,” namely, small bits of lost time, delays, and depressed productivity; and (b) as major blows to enterprise vitality in the form of lost revenue, delayed revenue, and missed market opportunities. Hard to say which category does more damage.

MICs aren’t interest charges in the financial sense; rather, the MICs of a technical debt represent the total of reduced revenue, incidental opportunity costs, and increased costs of all kinds borne by the enterprise as a consequence of carrying that technical debt. (Actually, now that I think of it, MICs can include financial interest charges if we find it necessary to borrow money as a consequence of carrying technical debt.) Because the properties of MICs are very different from the properties of financial interest charges, we use the term MICs to avoid confusion with the term interest from the realm of finance.

Briefly, MICs are variable and often unpredictable [Allman 2012]. MICs differ from interest charges on financial debt for at least six reasons. For any particular class of technical debt:

I examine each of these properties in more detail in the posts listed above.

References

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

Available: here Retrieved: March 16, 2017

Cited in:

[Kruger 1999] J. Kruger and D. Dunning. “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77(6), 1121-1134 (1999).

Cited in:

[Thorndike 1920] E.L. Thorndike “A constant error in psychological ratings,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 4(1), 25-29 (1920). doi:10.1037/h0071663

Cited in:

[Weinstein 1996] Neil D. Weinstein and William M. Klein. “Unrealistic Optimism: Present and Future,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 15(1), 1-8 (1996). doi:10.1521/jscp.1996.15.1.1

Cited in:

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Glossary and Terminology

Even though technical debt has been with us for a very long time—probably since the time we began inventing technologies—the study of technical debt is relatively new. Ward Cunningham coined the term technical debt in 1992, and its meaning has evolved since then. Because universally accepted definitions for the term and associated concepts have not yet emerged, it seems necessary to have a page on this site that collects definitions.

Class of technical debt

On occasion, we speak of classes of technical debt and instances of that class. This can be confusing, because the words class and instance have particular meanings in software engineering. That’s not the sense in which we use the terms here. In this blog, a class of technical debt is just a collection of instances of the same kind of debt. For example, consider the “ghost ramp” described in “Technical debt in the highway system.” It belongs to the class of ghost ramps. If we were maintaining the highway system of Massachusetts, it might be convenient to consider the class of ghost ramp technical debt if we want to let a contract to demolish all ghost ramps. Each ghost ramp would then be an instance of that class.

Incremental technical debt

Incremental technical debt is technical debt that’s incurred in the course of work currently underway or just recently completed. For example, in an apartment building hallway renovation project, workmen did insert expansion joints in the sheetrock they replaced, but on the first three floors they completed, the joints were too widely separated. The remaining 22 floors were done correctly. Nine additional joints on each of the incorrect floors must be inserted eventually. The missing joints, which constitute incremental technical debt, will be inserted after the job is completed.

Instance of technical debt

See “Class of technical debt

Legacy technical debt

Legacy technical debt is technical debt associated with an asset, and which exists in any form prior to undertaking work on that asset. For example, in planning a project to renovate the hallways and common areas of a high-rise apartment building, Management discovers that beneath the existing carpeting is a layer of floor tile containing asbestos. Management has decided to remove the tile. In this context, the floor tile can be viewed as legacy technical debt. It isn’t directly related to the objectives of the current renovation, but removing it will enhance the safety of future renovations, enable certification of the building as asbestos-free, and reduce the cost of eventual demolition.

MICs, or metaphorical interest charges

MICs are the metaphorical interest charges associated with a technical debt. They aren’t interest charges in the financial sense; rather, the MICs of a technical debt represent the total of reduced revenue, lost opportunities, and increased costs of all kinds borne by the enterprise as a consequence of carrying that technical debt. Because the properties of MICs are very different from the properties of financial interest charges, we use the term MICs to avoid confusion with the term interest from the realm of finance. More: “How financial interest charges differ from interest charges on technical debt

MPrin, or metaphorical principal

The MPrin of a technical debt at a give time T is the total cost of retiring that debt at time T. The total cost includes all cost factors: labor, equipment, service interruptions, revenue delays, anything. It even includes the ongoing costs of repairing defects introduced in the debt retirement process. More: “The metaphorical principal of a technical debt

Non-strategic technical debt

Non-strategic technical debt is technical debt that appears in the asset without strategic purpose. We tend to introduce non-strategic technical debt by accident, or as the result of urgency, or from changes in standards, laws, or regulations—almost any source other than asset-related engineering purposes. And at times, it appears in the asset as a result of external events beyond the boundaries of the enterprise. More: “Non-technical precursors of non-strategic technical debt

Policy

Organizational policy is the framework of principles that guide policymakers, decision makers, and everyone in the organization as they carry out their responsibilities. Policy might be written or not, but written policy is more likely to consistently adhered to. Interestingly, the body of organizational policy is itself subject to accumulating technical debt. More: “What is policy?

Policymaker

As I use the term in this blog, a policymaker is someone who is responsible for developing, revising, or approving organizational policies that affect technical debt management. More: “Who are the policymakers?

Source and target components of a metaphor

In a metaphor of the form “A is B,” the source is the element whose attributes are being attributed to the target. For example, in “my son’s room is a war zone,” the source is the war zone, and the target is my son’s room.  More: “The structure of metaphors

Technical debt

Technical debt is any technological element that contributes, through its existence or through its absence, to lower productivity or to a higher probability of defects during development, maintenance, or enhancement efforts, or which depresses velocity in some other way, and which we would therefore like to revise, repair, replace, rewrite, create, or re-engineer for sound engineering reasons. It can be found in—or it can be missing from—software, hardware, processes, procedures, practices, or any associated artifact, acquired by the enterprise or created within it. More: “A policymaker’s definition of technical debt

Technological communication risk

Technological communication risk is the risk that, for whatever reason, knowledgeable people within the enterprise don’t communicate important knowledge to the people who need it, or the people who need it aren’t receptive to it. More: “Technological communication risk

Technical debt in software engineering

Ward Cunningham, who coined the technical debt metaphor
Ward Cunningham, who coined the technical debt metaphor
Ward Cunningham, who coined the technical debt metaphor. Photo (cc) Carrigg Photography.

Ward Cunningham, who coined the technical debt metaphor in the context of developing a software asset [Cunningham 1992] [Cunningham 2011], observed that when the development process leads to new learning, re-executing the development project — or parts of the project — could lead to a better result. For this reason, among others, newly developed operational software assets can contain, embody, or depend upon artifacts that, in hindsight, the developers recognize could be removed altogether, or could be replaced by more elegant, effective, or appropriate forms that can enhance maintainability, defensibility, and extensibility. To deploy the asset in pre-hindsight condition would entail an obligation to return to it in the future to implement the improvements revealed by that hindsight. That obligation is Cunningham’s conception of the asset’s technical debt.

Fowler’s technical debt quadrant
Fowler’s technical debt quadrant. Intentionality is the vertical axis; Wisdom is horizontal.

In the decades since Cunningham coined the term, the meaning of technical debt has evolved to include much more than Cunningham’s original concept. Martin Fowler developed a 2×2 matrix (Intentionality x Wisdom) that describes four different pathways that lead to technical debt creation. Cunningham’s concept corresponds to what Martin Fowler describes as, “now we know how we should have done it” [Fowler 2009].

At a conference in Dagstuhl, Germany (“Managing Technical Debt in Software Engineering”) in 2016, leading experts in software technical debt research developed a verbal definition of technical debt for software-intensive systems [Avgeriou 2016]:

In software-intensive systems, technical debt is a collection of design or implementation constructs that are expedient in the short term, but set up a technical context that can make future changes more costly or impossible. Technical debt presents an actual or contingent liability whose impact is limited to internal system qualities, primarily maintainability and evolvability.

With the definition of technical debt enlarged in this way, software engineers can focus on instances of software technical debt that reduce enterprise productivity and agility. But is this definition sufficient as a foundation for enterprise policy? I explore that question in “A policymaker’s definition of technical debt.”

References

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

Available: here Retrieved: March 16, 2017

Cited in:

[Avgeriou 2016] Avgeriou, Paris, Philippe Kruchten, Ipek Ozkaya, and Carolyn Seaman, eds. “Managing Technical Debt in Software Engineering,” Dagstuhl Reports, 6:4, 110–138, 2016.

Available: here Retrieved: March 10, 2017.

Cited in:

[Cunningham 1992] Cunningham, Ward. “The WyCash Portfolio Management System.” Addendum to the Proceedings of OOPSLA 1992. ACM, 1992.

Cited in:

[Cunningham 2011] Cunningham, Ward. “Ward Explains Debt Metaphor” (video; here ).

Cited in:

[Fowler 2009] Fowler, Martin. “Technical Debt Quadrant.” Martin Fowler (blog), October 14, 2009. here . Retrieved January 10, 2016.

Cited in:

[Kruger 1999] J. Kruger and D. Dunning. “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77(6), 1121-1134 (1999).

Cited in:

[Thorndike 1920] E.L. Thorndike “A constant error in psychological ratings,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 4(1), 25-29 (1920). doi:10.1037/h0071663

Cited in:

[Weinstein 1996] Neil D. Weinstein and William M. Klein. “Unrealistic Optimism: Present and Future,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 15(1), 1-8 (1996). doi:10.1521/jscp.1996.15.1.1

Cited in:

What is policy?

DuBrin define policies as “… general guidelines to follow when making decisions and taking action” [DuBrin 2016]. Some policies are written, some are unwritten. Some have names or identifiers, some don’t. For organizations seeking to gain control of technical debt, written policies are probably a good idea, for two reasons:

  • Many people affected by technical debt policies are probably unfamiliar with the technical debt concept. A written policy is more likely to be communicated uniformly to everyone.
  • The effort spent devising a written policy is likely to surface ambiguities, confusions, and varying needs. Resolving these issues during the policy formation process is better for the organization than resolving them during the deployment process.

A useful policy is clear. It uses terminology that is simple and well defined.

References

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

Available: here Retrieved: March 16, 2017

Cited in:

[Avgeriou 2016] Avgeriou, Paris, Philippe Kruchten, Ipek Ozkaya, and Carolyn Seaman, eds. “Managing Technical Debt in Software Engineering,” Dagstuhl Reports, 6:4, 110–138, 2016.

Available: here Retrieved: March 10, 2017.

Cited in:

[Cunningham 1992] Cunningham, Ward. “The WyCash Portfolio Management System.” Addendum to the Proceedings of OOPSLA 1992. ACM, 1992.

Cited in:

[Cunningham 2011] Cunningham, Ward. “Ward Explains Debt Metaphor” (video; here ).

Cited in:

[DuBrin 2016] DuBrin, Andrew J. Essentials of Management, Tenth Edition. Indianapolis, Indiana: Wessex Press, 2016.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Fowler 2009] Fowler, Martin. “Technical Debt Quadrant.” Martin Fowler (blog), October 14, 2009. here . Retrieved January 10, 2016.

Cited in:

[Kruger 1999] J. Kruger and D. Dunning. “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77(6), 1121-1134 (1999).

Cited in:

[Thorndike 1920] E.L. Thorndike “A constant error in psychological ratings,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 4(1), 25-29 (1920). doi:10.1037/h0071663

Cited in:

[Weinstein 1996] Neil D. Weinstein and William M. Klein. “Unrealistic Optimism: Present and Future,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 15(1), 1-8 (1996). doi:10.1521/jscp.1996.15.1.1

Cited in:

Related posts

Who are the policymakers?

As we use the term in this blog, a policymaker is someone who is responsible for developing, revising, or approving organizational policies that affect technical debt management. Organizational policy is the framework of principles that guide policymakers, decision makers, and everyone in the organization as they carry out their responsibilities.

Some organizational policies that do not even mention technical debt can affect the way the organization manages technical debt. For this reason, all policymakers are potentially involved in formulating policy that affects the ability of the organization to manage technical debt.

References

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

Available: here Retrieved: March 16, 2017

Cited in:

[Avgeriou 2016] Avgeriou, Paris, Philippe Kruchten, Ipek Ozkaya, and Carolyn Seaman, eds. “Managing Technical Debt in Software Engineering,” Dagstuhl Reports, 6:4, 110–138, 2016.

Available: here Retrieved: March 10, 2017.

Cited in:

[Cunningham 1992] Cunningham, Ward. “The WyCash Portfolio Management System.” Addendum to the Proceedings of OOPSLA 1992. ACM, 1992.

Cited in:

[Cunningham 2011] Cunningham, Ward. “Ward Explains Debt Metaphor” (video; here ).

Cited in:

[DuBrin 2016] DuBrin, Andrew J. Essentials of Management, Tenth Edition. Indianapolis, Indiana: Wessex Press, 2016.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Fowler 2009] Fowler, Martin. “Technical Debt Quadrant.” Martin Fowler (blog), October 14, 2009. here . Retrieved January 10, 2016.

Cited in:

[Kruger 1999] J. Kruger and D. Dunning. “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77(6), 1121-1134 (1999).

Cited in:

[Thorndike 1920] E.L. Thorndike “A constant error in psychological ratings,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 4(1), 25-29 (1920). doi:10.1037/h0071663

Cited in:

[Weinstein 1996] Neil D. Weinstein and William M. Klein. “Unrealistic Optimism: Present and Future,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 15(1), 1-8 (1996). doi:10.1521/jscp.1996.15.1.1

Cited in:

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