Tension between policymakers and technologists

Last updated on July 24th, 2018 at 08:17 pm

Tension between policymakers and technologists, which can manifest as misalignment of their respective priorities, is a significant contributor to uncontrolled growth of technical debt. In this thread I explore sources of this tension and introduce concepts that can assist policymakers and technologists in their efforts to control the growth of technical debt.

Effective, sustainable control of technical debt is the objective of technical debt management policy. In an enterprise that has achieved this objective, technical debt serves as a strategic tool that assists in attaining and maintaining market leadership. In such an organization, technical debt does exist, and some legacy technical debt might remain in place, but technical debt growth is managed strategically, if growth occurs at all. Any technical debt that carries significant MICs, and which compromises productivity and enterprise agility, is addressed and retired with appropriate priority. In short, technical debt is addressed not solely as a technological issue, but as a component of business strategy.

Raindrops on a grapevine
Raindrops on a grapevine. We often think of tension as a negative, destructive force. But tension—in the case of raindrops, surface tension—is what holds a raindrop together. Tension gives the raindrop structure and integrity. The tension between technologists and policymakers can also be constructive. It can ensure that the enterprise manages its technical debt in ways that balance the political imperatives of both technology and strategic health.

This stance is at odds with the historical position most enterprises have adopted vis-à-vis technical debt. Historically, technical debt has been seen as a technical problem, if it has been recognized at all. Most enterprises have left the management of technical debt to the technologists. Frequently, then, the policymaker who enters the discussion about technical debt might be seen by technologists as an interloper, arriving late to the discussion, or as a less-than-knowledgeable invader attempting to seize control of a piece of the technologists’ domain. Tensions can arise between policymakers and technologists. Such tensions complicate the problem of managing technical debt.

One possible source of this tension is revealed in a study of the literature of technical debt, which is evolving so rapidly that it has itself become a focus for research. Li et al. [Li 2015] have produced a review of the software engineering technical debt literature, from which we can extract insights useful to policymakers. Although they studied only the literature relating to technical debt in software engineering, their conclusions are, at least in part, applicable to any field in which the components of the finished product are executed within software tools before being committed to operational form. This covers a wide array of knowledge-intensive endeavors, including mechanical system design, electronic design, framing of legislation, process design, architecture, and even book authorship.

In this thread, I explore the sources of the tension between the modern reality of technical debt as an enterprise issue, and the historical situation of technical debt as a technological issue. This can serve as a guide for policymakers in reframing technical debt from a technological issue dependent for resolution on enterprise resources, to an enterprise issue dependent for resolution on technological resources.

References

[Li 2015] Z. Li, P. Avgeriou, and P. Liang. “A systematic mapping study on technical debt and its management,” Journal of Systems and Software 101, 193-220, 2015.

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