A policymaker’s definition of technical debt

Last updated on July 18th, 2021 at 03:32 pm

Servers like the ones that made this page available to you. Most servers would benefit from comparison with a policymaker’s definition of technical debt
Shown here are servers like the ones that made this page available to you. Cybersecurity is concerned with defending servers like these, among others.

Policymakers have in mind the best interests of the entire enterprise. They need a definition of technical debt that’s neutral relative to its causes and manifestations. Defining technical debt in terms of what caused it or where it lies in the enterprise could compromise that necessary neutrality.

That neutrality is important because it enables us to recognize technical debt in whatever form it takes. For example, suppose enterprise policy assumes that technical debt lies only in software. And suppose that the root causes of some instances of technical debt are new threats in the cybersecurity environment that render obsolete our cyberdefenses. Then enterprise policy vis-à-vis technical debt is likely to be ineffective. It might lead to decision makers focusing too much attention on the software development process and too little attention on the cybersecurity and threat intelligence processes.

A definition that’s useful for guiding policy

Here’s a cause-neutral and manifestation-neutral definition of technical debt. It’s what I call the policymaker’s definition [Brenner 2017a]:

Technical debt is any technological element that contributes, through its existence or through its absence, to lower productivity or to a higher probability of defects during development, maintenance, or enhancement efforts, or which depresses velocity in some other way. It is therefore something we would like to revise, repair, replace, rewrite, create, or re-engineer for sound engineering reasons. It can be found in—or it can be missing from—software, hardware, processes, procedures, practices, or any associated artifact, acquired by the enterprise or created within it.

Extending the technical debt metaphor just a bit, people often talk about the principal and the interest charges associated with a technical debt. These ideas are analogous to the principal and interest charges associated with a financial debt. They’re convenient concepts, but the parallels between finance and technology aren’t real, and that’s where the trouble lies. Read more

An important extension beyond conventional definitions

There’s one other generalization contained in this definition of technical debt that differs from most other definitions. It’s in the phrase “or missing from.” Our policymaker’s definition doesn’t require that the technical debt item actually exist. That is, the absence of something can constitute technical debt. My favorite example is one due to Ken Pugh, who defines acceptance test debt as “…the nonexistence or nonautomation of acceptance tests.” [Pugh 2010] If we want to include all sources of reduced organizational agility or unnecessary operating expense arising from technical debt, our definition must also address non-existence issues like those Pugh has identified.

The definition above is workable for systems of all kinds. Consider two examples of “hardware”:

But the definition also applies to anything that takes a technological form, including business plans, legislation, procedures, and microprocessor designs—almost anything.


[Brenner 2017a] Richard Brenner. “A Policy Maker’s Definition of Technical Debt,” Cutter Consortium Executive Update, February 27, 2017.

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[Pugh 2010] Ken Pugh. “The Risks of Acceptance Test Debt,” Cutter Business Technology Journal, October 2010, 25-29.

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