Nontechnical precursors of nonstrategic technical debt

Last updated on July 8th, 2021 at 01:09 pm

Nonstrategic technical debt is technical debt that appears in the asset without strategic purpose. We tend to introduce nonstrategic 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 thread I examine a variety of precursors of nonstrategic technical debt that aren’t directly related to technology. Sources of these precursors include:

  • Communication between and among people
  • Organizational policies relating to job assignments
  • Cognitive biases [Kahneman 2011]
  • Performance management policy
  • Incentive structures
  • Organizational structures
  • Contract language
  • Outsourcing
  • …and approaches to dealing with budget depletion.

Precursors vs. causes

The cables of the Brooklyn Bridge are an example of nonstrategic technical debt
Some of the suspension cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. Washington Roebling, the chief engineer, designed them to be composed of 19 “strands” of wire rope [McCullough 1972]. Each strand had 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 stringent inspection procedures. In all, Roebling estimated that 221 U.S. tons (200 metric tons) of rejected wire had been installed. 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. That made a total of 286 wires per strand, or 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. Then 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 nonstrategic. 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 nonstrategic technical debt that I deal with in this thread. Although all technical debt is unwelcome, we’re especially interested in nonstrategic technical debt, because it’s usually uncontrolled. In these posts I explore the nontechnical mechanisms that lead to formation of nonstrategic technical debt. Schedule pressure is one exception. Because it’s so important, it deserves a thread of its own. I’ll address it later.

Last words

Here are some of the more common precursors of nonstrategic technical debt.

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


[Kahneman 2011] Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Macmillan, 2011.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

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

Available: here; Retrieved November 10, 2017.

Cited in:

[McCullough 1972] David McCullough. 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] J. Talbot. “The Brooklyn Bridge: First Steel-Wire Suspension Bridge.” Modern Steel Construction 51:6, 42-46, 2011.

Available: here; Retrieved: December 20, 2017.

Cited in:

Related posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons