Using the term interest to refer to the metaphorical interest charges of 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.
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 resulting from 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.
What exactly are “metaphorical interest charges?”
Briefly, MICs are variable and often unpredictable [Allman 2012]. MICs differ from interest charges on financial debt for at least eight reasons. For any particular class of technical debt:
Misunderstandings about the metaphorical interest charges on technical debt are costly. They prevent us from exploiting the properties of technical debt that reduce carrying costs and retirement costs. And the misunderstandings arise from the fact that the technical debt metaphor is only a metaphor—technical debt and financial debt are different.
The metaphorical interest charges (MICs) and metaphorical principal (MPrin) of a particular class of technical debt can change as a result of retiring other seemingly unrelated classes of technical debt. In most cases, engineering expertise is required to determine technical debt retirement strategies that can exploit this property of technical debt.
Unlike financial debt, for technical debt there are no legally required reports or disclosures. We can sometimes estimate MICs, but most organizations don’t track the data necessary to estimate MICs with useful precision. Indeed, developing useful estimates is often technically impossible.
Rescheduling interest payments on financial debt is possible only by prearrangement or in bankruptcy, but MICs on technical debt can often be rescheduled by rescheduling work that might incur them. This is useful when we plan to retire assets bearing technical debt, because their technical debt vanishes.
The common understanding of interest on financial debts doesn’t correspond to the reality of technology-based systems, which are the targets of the technical debt metaphor. Formulating sound technical debt policy depends on understanding the nature of the difference between interest on financial debt and the metaphorical interest charges associated with technical debt.