Managing technical debt

Last updated on July 11th, 2021 at 02:56 am

A jumble of jigsaw puzzle pieces. Managing technical debt can be like solving a puzzle.
A jumble of jigsaw puzzle pieces. Managing technical debt can be like solving a puzzle. Where do we begin? With jigsaw puzzles, we usually begin with two assumptions. First, we assume that we have all the pieces. Second, we assume that they fit together to make a coherent whole. These assumptions might not be valid for the puzzle of technical debt in any given organization.

Managing technical debt is something few organizations now do. And fewer do well. Several issues make managing technical debt difficult and they’re discussed elsewhere in this blog. This thread explores tactics for dealing with those issues from a variety of initial conditions. For example, tactics that work well for an organization that already has control of its technical debt, and which wants to keep it under control, might not work at all for an organization that’s just beginning to address a vast portfolio of runaway technical debt. The needs of these two organizations differ. The approaches they must take might then also differ.

What’s in this thread

The first three posts in this thread illustrate the differences among organizations in different stages of developing technical debt management practices. In “Leverage points for technical debt management,” I begin to address the needs of strategists working in an organization just beginning to manage its technical debt. They ask the question, “Where do we begin?” In “Undercounting nonexistent debt items,” I offer an observation about a risk that accompanies most attempts to assess the volume of technical debt. Such assessments are frequently undertaken in organizations at early stages of the technical debt management effort. In “Crowdsourcing debt identification,” I discuss a method for maintaining the contents of a database of technical debt items. Data maintenance is something we might undertake in the context of a more advanced technical debt management program.

Obstacles we must address

Whatever approach is adopted, it must address factors that include technology, business objectives, politics, culture, psychology, and organizational behavior. So what you’ll find in this thread are insights, observations, and recommendations that address one or more of the issues related to these fields. “Demodularization can help control technical debt” considers mostly technical strategies. “Undercounting nonexistent debt items” is an exploration of a psychological phenomenon.  “Leverage points for technical debt management” considers the organization as a system and discusses tactics for altering it. And “Legacy debt incurred intentionally” explores how existing technical debt can grow as long as it remains outstanding.

Accounting issues also play a role. For example, “Metrics for technical debt management: the basics” is a basic discussion of measurement issues. A second example: “Accounting for technical debt” looks into the matter of accounting for technical debt financially. And “Three cognitive biases” is a study of how the way we think about technical debt affects the technical debt portfolio.

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