Non-technical precursors of non-strategic technical debt

Non-strategic technical debt is technical debt that appears in the asset without strategic purpose. We tend to introduce non-strategic technical debt by accident, or as the result of urgency, or from changes in standards, laws, or regulations—almost any source other than asset-related engineering purposes. In this group of posts I examine a variety of precursors of non-strategic technical debt that are not directly related to technology. Sources of these precursors include:

  • Communication between and among people
  • Organizational policies relating to job assignments
  • Cognitive biases
  • Performance management policy
  • Incentive structures
  • Organizational structures
  • Contract language
  • Outsourcing
  • …and approaches to dealing with budget depletion.

The cables of the Brooklyn Bridge are an example of non-strategic technical debt
Some of the suspension cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. Washington Roebling, the chief engineer, designed the cables to be composed of 19 “strands” of wire rope [McCullough 1972]. Each strand was to be made of 278 steel wires. Thus, the original design called for a total of 5,282 wires in each of the main cables. After the wire stringing began, the bridge company made an unsettling discovery. The wire supplier, J. Lloyd Haigh, had been delivering defective wire by circumventing the bridge company’s stringent inspection procedures. In all, Roebling estimated that 221 U.S. tons (200 metric tons) of rejected wire had been installed in the bridge. This was a significant fraction of the planned total weight of 3,400 U.S. tons (3,084 metric tons). Because they couldn’t remove the defective wire, Roebling decided to add about 150 wires to each main cable. That extra wire would be provided at no charge by Haigh [Talbot 2011]. I can’t confirm this, but I suspect that Roebling actually added 152 wires, which would be eight wires for each of the 19 strands, to make a total of 286 wires per strand, for a total of 5,434 wires. The presence of the defective wire in the bridge cables—which remains to this day—is an example of technical debt. The fraud perpetrated by Haigh illustrates how malfeasance can lead to technical debt.
I use the term precursor instead of cause because none of these conditions leads to technical debt inevitably. From the perspective of the policymaker, we can view these conditions as risks. It’s the task of the policymaker to devise policies that manage these risks.

McConnell has classified technical debt in a framework that distinguishes responsible forms of technical debt from other forms [McConnell 2008]. Briefly, we incur some technical debt strategically and responsibly, and we retire it when the time is right. We incur other technical debt for other reasons, some of which are inconsistent with enterprise health and wellbeing.

The distinction is lost on many. Unfortunately, most technical debt is non-strategic. We would have been better off  if we had never created it. Or if we had retired it almost immediately. In any case we should have retired it long ago.

It’s this category of non-strategic technical debt that I deal with in this group of posts. Although all technical debt is unwelcome, we’re especially interested in non-strategic technical debt, because it is usually uncontrolled. In these posts I explore the non-technical mechanisms that lead to formation of non-strategic technical debt. Schedule pressure is one exception. Because it’s so important, it deserves a thread of its own. I’ll address it later.

Common precursors of non-strategic technical debt

Here are some of the more common precursors of non-strategic technical debt.

I’ll be adding posts on these topics, so check back often, or subscribe to receive notifications when they’re available.

References

[McConnell 2008] McConnell, Steve. Managing Technical Debt, white paper, Construx Software, 2008.

Available at: www.construx.com/Page.aspx?cid=2801 Retrieved November 10, 2017.

Cited in:

[McCullough 1972] McCullough, David. The Great Bridge: The epic story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Talbot 2011] Talbot, J. “The Brooklyn Bridge: First Steel-Wire Suspension Bridge.” Modern Steel Construction 51.6 (2011): 42-46.

Available: here Retrieved: December 20, 2017.

Cited in:

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