Balance technical debt and engineering resources

Last updated on December 11th, 2018 at 09:42 am

Improving organizational effectiveness in technical debt management—or avoiding incurring new technical debt—should create significant savings, and many competitive advantages. These benefits should arise from the reductions in metaphorical interest charges that result from retiring technical debt. But these benefits become available to the organization only if engineering capacity increases relative to the burdens presented by the remaining reduced levels of technical debt. After the technical debt management program is in place, if the balance between engineering resources and the burdens imposed by the remaining technical debt becomes more favorable, then organizational effectiveness will improve. But if the balance becomes less favorable, as a result of reductions in engineering resources,  organizational effectiveness won’t improve, even at lower levels of technical debt.

Flooding from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, 2005.
Flooding from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, 2005. Any levee humans can  build can be overtopped or undermined by the forces of Nature. So it is with  technology. Any technology humans can devise to attain mastery over technical debt can be overcome or undermined by organizational policy and organizational politics. To master technical debt, technology is not enough—we must also deal with policy and politics.

Unfortunately, it’s possible to adopt advanced technical debt management practices while at the same time reducing engineering capacity to a level such that engineering effectiveness is no better than it was before the technical debt management program was initiated. The reason for this is that the engineering process is not the sole cause of technical debt. Improving the engineering process to eliminate technical causes of technical debt leaves non-technical causes in place. That’s why technological solutions to the technical debt management problem might not be sufficient to produce benefits in organizational effectiveness and agility.

The focus of research in technical debt management has been on technology—recognition of technical debt, its measurement, representation, retirement, and so on. Progress on improving the engineering process has been significant, especially in software engineering, where a clear “research roadmap” has been developed [Izurieta 2017]. It’s reasonable to assume that effective tools for automating or partially automating technical debt detection and retirement will be widely available and very generally effective in the not-too-distant future, at least for software. But progress has not been confined to debt detection and retirement. Avoiding technical debt formation to the extent possible is much preferable, and in some contexts, it’s practical even today, as Trumler and Paulisch suggest [Trumler 2016].

But it’s also reasonable to ask whether such developments will have much impact on the limiting effects of carrying technical debt, even in software. Given the necessary resources, much of the technical debt now extant could be retired. That is, debt retirement rates are determined only by the will and the capacity to invest in debt retirement. Currently, the levels of will and capacity for such activity are insufficient. But if new methods for managing technical debt become available, one might wonder whether organizations will apply resources sufficient to ensure that they actually experience a reduction in the limiting effects of technical debt.

The open question is this: will technological developments alone suffice to gain control of the problem of technical debt? Perhaps not. Organizations could exploit the advancements in technical debt management to execute reductions in engineering staffing—and therefore cost—while they divert savings to other parts of the enterprise, thereby allowing technical debt to remain at levels that, although much reduced, are nevertheless sufficient to compromise the effectiveness of that reduced engineering staff.

For example, schedule pressure is widely recognized as contributing to technical debt formation and persistence. If engineering groups become more adept at managing and preventing technical debt, but marketing and sales groups do not improve their own intelligence and planning processes and consequently demand new capabilities with even shorter timelines than they now do, the enterprise might not benefit from the new technical debt management capabilities, even though the burden of technical debt has been reduced.

Until we have evidence of significant change in the behavior of non-technologists—or even acknowledgment that their behavior contributes to debt formation—we can expect the effects of non-technical causes of technical debt to persist, and possibly even to grow.

This blog focuses on the non-technical etiology of technical debt formation and persistence, and approaches for managing it. Watch this space.


[Izurieta 2017] Clemente Izurieta, Ipek Ozkaya, Carolyn Seaman, and Will Snipes. “Technical Debt: A Research Roadmap: Report on the Eighth Workshop on Managing Technical Debt (MTD 2016),” ACM SIGSOFT Software Engineering Notes, 42:1, 28-31, 2017. doi:10.1145/3041765.3041774

Cited in:

[Trumler 2016] Wolfang Trumler and Frances Paulisch. “How ‘Specification by Example’ and Test-driven Development Help to Avoid Technical Debt,” IEEE 8th International Workshop on Managing Technical Debt. IEEE Computer Society, 1-8, 2016. doi:10.1109/MTD.2016.10

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