The MPrin of technical debt that forms as a result of a change in standards or regulations is the cost of bringing affected assets into compliance. It matters not whether the standards in question are internal to your organization or external. The conventional definition of the MPrin for this kind of technical debt includes only the cost of aligning to the new standards or regs, the assets directly affected. But the conventional definition is incomplete. If we account for all work properly, the MPrin should also include ripple effects. Ripple effects are the changes in other assets that we must perform to maintain compatibility with the assets affected directly by the change in standards or regs.
The phrase standards or regs is beginning to bother even me. I’ll switch to standards when I mean standards or regulations (or regs) except when I say so explicitly.
Cost drivers of changes in standards
Aligning existing assets to new standards can have expensive consequences. We must include all costs in the calculation of MPrin. Unfortunately, some costs are often overlooked or accounted for in other ways. For example, testing might require a service interruption or product availability delays or interruptions. And that could entail a revenue stream delay or interruption. That lost revenue is certainly a consequence of the debt retirement effort.
Deferring retirement of this class of technical debt can expose the enterprise to the risk of MPrin growth in two ways. First, when we defer debt retirement, the number of instances of violations of the new standards can increase as we develop new assets in compliance with the obsolete standards. Second is the potential for increases in the number of ripple effect instances when we defer debt retirement. These instances arise from increases in the number of artifacts that require updating. The issue isn’t that they aren’t compliant with the new standards. Rather, it is that we must align them with the components we modify to comply with the new standards. In this way, MPrin at debt retirement time can greatly exceed the savings we realized when we first incurred the debt.
However, as with most technical debts, deferring retirement of this class of debt can sometimes be wise. For example, if the assets that bear the debt are about to be retired, the debt they carry vanishes when we retire those assets.
[Volpe 2017] Volpe National Transportation Systems Center. “Truck Side Guards Resource Page,” October 2017.
In some instances, technical debt is actually a missing or incompletely implemented capability. If we retire the debt by completing the implementation, the MPrin is the cost of that effort, plus any training, testing, and lost revenue. If we retire the debt by halting or withdrawing the capability, the MPrin is the total cost of removal, plus testing and lost revenue.
Platform component upgrades often trigger the need to make changes in whatever sits atop the platform, to maintain compatibility with the platform. Those changes obviously contribute to MPrin. But less obvious are the contributions that arise from deferring the upgrade.
The MPrin of an asset that is subjected to new development or enhancement has some special characteristics. For an existing asset, new development can lead to duplication of capability. For new assets, unanticipated opportunities can transform into technical debt components that were not viewed as technical debt, without ever changing them in any way.
Some examples might help to clarify the differences between the principal of financial debts and the Metaphorical Principal of a technical debt. The examples to come in the next four posts are designed to illustrate the unique properties of MPrins of technical debts.
Expect the unexpected with technical debt retirement efforts, because they can conflict with ongoing operations, maintenance of existing capabilities, development of new capabilities, cyberdefense, or other technical debt retirement efforts. Policymakers can make important contributions to the enterprise mission if they can devise guidelines and frameworks for resolving these conflicts as closely as possible to the technical level.
The principal amount of a financial debt and the metaphorical principal of a technical debt have very different properties. They are so different that it’s wise to avoid using the term “principal” to refer to the metaphorical principal of a technical debt. We use the term MPrin.