Adopt an enterprise-wide definition of technical debt

Last updated on July 9th, 2021 at 11:25 am

Because effective technical debt management requires cooperation from almost everyone, an enterprise-wide definition of technical debt is essential. Absent a shared definition of technical debt, controversy can develop. Controversy is especially likely among those who have previously encountered the concept—namely, among technologists. Policymakers can make invaluable contributions to the design of the cultural transformation that will enable control of technical debt.

A physical expression of shared commitment, essential to adopting an enterprise-wide definition of technical debt
A physical expression of shared commitment. Effective technical debt management requires both a shared understanding of what it is and a shared commitment to do what’s required to control it.

Li et al. [Li 2015] found that defining what is and what isn’t technical debt remains an open question in software engineering. Even if we restrict the discussion to software constructed in-house, opinions about what constitutes technical debt do differ. The authors found that in the literature of technical debt, “The term ‘debt’ has been used in different ways by different people, which leads to ambiguous interpretation of the term.”

This finding is perhaps the most significant for policymakers. It suggests that controlling technical debt might require forging an organizational consensus about the meaning of the term technical debt. The people of most organizations come from many different backgrounds. Those with little knowledge of technical debt have few preconceptions. But those who are aware of the issue probably interpret the term technical debt in a variety of ways. Because some of those who do have awareness of the term are likely to have strong opinions about its meaning, one can anticipate a need to resolve these differences.

The effect of an absence of standards

Some technical terms, like RAID, byte, compiler, and kilowatt, have widely accepted standard definitions. Although the term technical debt has found wide use, it has no standard definition. What some people categorize as technical debt, others do not. Those who are accustomed to working with terms that have precise, widely accepted definitions might tend to assume that the term technical debt does have (or should have) one as well. This assumption can create some difficulty for people who don’t realize that others might have differing views of the definition of the term.

For example, there are those who believe that defects are not technical debt. And some believe that no element of a technological asset can constitute technical debt unless it is part of a product that a customer uses. Our definition differs with both of these views.

Last words

Policymakers must be aware that there is a lack of consensus about the definition of technical debt. Our definition, crafted specially for the use of policymakers, might seem unusually broad to technologists and engineers. For that reason alone, it’s advisable to become familiar with the various ways technologists use the term. Understanding their perspective is essential to formulating sound policy deserving of their respect.

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[Li 2015] Zengyang Li, Paris Avgeriou, and Peng Liang. “A systematic mapping study on technical debt and its management,” Journal of Systems and Software 101, 193-220, 2015.

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