Formulating sound policy vis-à-vis technical debt requires a thorough understanding of the distinction between the MPrin associated with a technical debt and the principal amount of a financial debt. There are three fundamental differences between them.
MPrin can change spontaneously
For most financial debts, the principal amount is determined by formula, or by voluntary actions of the debtor, such as making periodic payments on an installment loan, or new purchases on a credit card account. By contrast, MPrin can change absent any action by the “borrower.” For example, changes in regulations, standards, or technologies can all cause changes in MPrin. More: “How MPrin can change spontaneously”
Technical debt can create more technical debt
Technical debt left in place can create more technical debt without the knowledge or consent of the debtor organization. By contrast, the principal amount of a financial debt can grow, but law or regulation requires notification — and in some cases consent — of the debtor. More: “How MPrin can change spontaneously”
Projecting MPrin with useful precision might not be possible
The cost of retiring a technical debt can depend on how the asset bearing the debt has changed over the life of the debt. And it can depend on how the enterprise is engaged at debt retirement time. These factors are difficult to predict. By contrast, projecting the principal amount of a financial debt is formulaic. More: “Useful projections of MPrin might not be attainable”
The policy implications of these properties of MPrin can be profound. The possibility of spontaneous change in MPrin implies a need for investments in market and technological intelligence focused specifically on potential effects on technical debt. The possibility that existing technical debt can cause the creation of new instances of that debt or other debts implies a need for awareness of what kinds of technical debt are most likely to exhibit this phenomenon. Finally, the difficulty of projecting MPrin implies that typical reliance on analytical modeling of enterprise asset evolution in preference to human judgment may be misplaced. A wiser course might be investment in employee retention programs focused on the individuals who can provide the necessary wisdom.
This is just a sketch of the problems policymakers confront when dealing with the properties of MPrin. I’ll be addressing them in more detail in future posts.