The trap of elegantly stated goals

Last updated on July 10th, 2021 at 11:16 am

Rock cairns in a wilderness area
Rock cairns—also known as rock stacks—in a wilderness area. Some rock stacks in parks and wilderness areas serve a practical purpose as trail markers. But in recent decades, rock stacking has become a fad. Rock stacks aren’t permanent—they use no glue, rings, or fasteners—but their presence does degrade the experience of Nature. The practice continues, in part, because many find the elegance of the structures appealing. As with rock stacks, the elegance of elegantly stated goals has a dark side.

For organizations, an elegantly stated goal is one that anyone can understand, remember, and recite to others. An example for technical debt management is, “We’ll drive technical debt to zero over five years.” Or, “No project is finished if it increases technical debt.” But when the goal relates to solving a problem that has only messy solutions, stating that goal elegantly risks becoming ensnared in what I call the trap of elegantly stated goals.

Because elegant goal statements are so memorable and repeatable, elegantly stated goals spread rapidly, especially if they’re even a bit inspirational. But elegantly stated goals become traps when they incorporate overly simplistic views of how to attain those goals.

And that often happens when technical debt is involved. Here are four guidelines that can help organizations avoid the trap of elegantly stated goals for technical debt.

Beware the halo effect

The halo effect [Thorndike 1920] is a cognitive bias [Kahneman 2011]. It systematically skews our assessments of the qualities of a person, product, brand, company, or any entity, really. If our sense of one quality of the entity is positive, we’re more likely to assess as positive other qualities of that entity. The elegance of a goal statement can cause us to regard the goal as more desirable than we would if the goal were stated less elegantly. For example, the statement, “We’ll achieve zero technical debt in five years,” can increase the chances that we’ll believe that such a goal is attainable. Indeed, some might not even question its desirability, let alone its attainability.

When devising goals for technical debt management, beware the halo effect. Always question desirability, taking costs and benefits into account.

Technical debt matters less than its metaphorical interest charges

The metaphorical interest charges (MICs) on technical debt, rather than the metaphorical principal (MPrin) of the debt itself, are what matter. A goal for total technical debt might be more elegant and more simply stated than would be a goal for technical debts that carry high MICs. But goals for total technical debt can lead to effort spent on debts with low MICs.  And those efforts produce little benefit.

When setting goals for technical debt management, pay attention to the MICs. Distinguish between low-MICs and high-MICs technical debt. Keep in mind that MICs can fluctuate. One kind of technical debt can be a low priority at one point in time, and a high priority at another.

Controlling technical debt is safer than trying to drive it to zero

Blind application of an elegantly stated goal can have strikingly silly unintended consequences. Keep in mind that the policymaker’s definition of technical debt is any technological element that contributes, through its existence or through its absence, to lower productivity, or depressed velocity, or a higher probability of defects.

Consider this example of strikingly silly unintended consequences for the goal of zero technical debt. An engineer creates an innovative and superior solution to a previously solved problem. Existing assets that incorporate the old solution are instantly outmoded by the innovative solution. Those existing assets now carry technical debt. If the enterprise directive mandates zero technical debt, some engineering managers might be tempted to do the unexpected. They might inhibit the kind of creativity that leads to innovative solutions to previously solved problems. The temptation arises because introducing those new solutions creates exogenous technical debt in existing assets. Therein lies the trap of the elegantly stated goal.

Throttling efforts to find innovative solutions to previously solved problems is one example of an unintended consequence of trying to drive technical debt to zero. Controlling technical debt is probably a safer option than trying to drive it to zero. Before adopting elegantly stated goals for technical debt, it would be wise to be aware of their possible unintended consequences.

Get control of the behaviors that lead to technical debt

Technical debt management efforts typically emphasize debt retirement or engineering process improvement. While both activities are worthwhile, the root causes of technical debt often lie beyond engineering. See, for example, the thread in this blog exploring nontechnical precursors of technical debt.

For example, across-the-board budget cuts can lead to technical debt. This happens because teams suspend efforts that have already created technical artifacts. If those teams lack resources needed for retracting partially implemented capabilities, the partial implementations remain in place. See “How budget depletion leads to technical debt” for a more detailed explanation of this technical debt formation mechanism.

Budget control tactics like across-the-board cuts can be counter-effective. If they don’t attend to their technical debt implications, they can add to future expenses through the MICs on the debt they generate. They can thus create future needs for budget cuts, and that leads to a vicious cycle. To gain control of technical debt, we must alter these budget control tactics. We need to provide teams with the resources they need for retracting partial implementations. That would ensure that budget reductions don’t lead to technical debt formation.

Investments in technical debt retirement and engineering process improvement are worthwhile. But they can be futile unless we first address the nontechnical causes of technical debt. It’s like bailing out a sinking rowboat without first plugging its leaks. The stated goal, “We’ll drive technical debt to zero in five years,” might better be replaced with, “We’ll get control of the behaviors that lead to technical debt within two years.”

Last words

The template known as SMART goals provides one approach to setting goals with limited exposure to the risk of elegantly stated goals. See “Using SMART goals for technical debt reduction,” for details.

Achieving control of technical debt—rather than attaining any particular level of technical debt—is a useful goal. Either we’ll control technical debt or technical debt will control us.

References

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

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Cited in:

[Thorndike 1920] Edward L. Thorndike. “A constant error in psychological ratings,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 4:1, 25-29, 1920. doi:10.1037/h0071663

The first report of the halo effect. Thorndike found unexpected correlations between the ratings of various attributes of soldiers given by their commanding officers. Although the halo effect was thus defined only for rating personal attributes, it has since been observed in assessing the attributes of other entities, such as brands. Available: here; Retrieved: December 29, 2017

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Accounting for technical debt

Last updated on July 11th, 2021 at 04:57 pm

Accounting for technical debt isn’t the same as measuring it
Accounting for technical debt isn’t the same as measuring it. We usually regard our accounting system as a way of measuring and tracking enterprise financial attributes. We think of those financial attributes as representations of money. Technical debt is different. It isn’t real, and it isn’t a representation of money. It’s a representation of resources. Money is just one of those resources. Money is required to retire technical debt. We use money when we carry technical debt, and when we retire it. But we also use other kinds of resources when we do these things. Sometimes we forget this when we account for technical debt.

We need a high-caliber discussion of accounting for technical debt [Conroy 2012]. It’s a bit puzzling why there’s so little talk of it in the financial community. Perhaps one reason for this is the social gulf between the financial community and the technologist community. But another possibility is the set of pressures compelling technologists to leave technical debt in place and move on to other tasks.

Here’s an example. One common form of technical debt is the kind first described by Cunningham [Cunningham 1992]. Essentially, when we complete a project, we often find that we’ve advanced our understanding of what we actually needed to reach our goals. Because of our advanced understanding, we recognize that we should have taken a different approach. Fowler described this kind of technical debt as, “Now we know how we should have done it.” [Fowler 2009] At this point, typically, we disband the team and move on to other things, leaving the technical debt outstanding, and often, undocumented and soon to be forgotten.

Echo releases and management decision-making

A (potentially) lower-cost approach involves immediately retiring the debt and re-releasing the improved asset. I call this an “echo release.” An echo release is one in which the asset no longer carries the technical debt we just incurred and immediately retired. But echo releases usually offer no immediate, evident advantage to the people and assets that interact with the asset in question. That’s why decision makers have difficulty allocating resources to echo releases.

This problem arises, in part, from the effects of a what I regard as a shortcoming in management accounting systems. Most enterprise management accounting systems track effectively the immediate costs associated with technical debt retirement projects. They do a much less effective job of representing the effects of failing to execute echo releases, or failing to execute debt retirement projects in general. The probable cause of this deficiency is the distributed nature of the MICs—the metaphorical interest charges associated with carrying a particular technical debt. MICs appear in multiple forms: lower productivity, increased time-to-market, lost market share, elevated turnover of technologists, and more (see “MICs on technical debt can be difficult to measure”). Enterprise accounting systems don’t generally represent these phenomena very well.

The cost of not accounting for the cost of not retiring technical debt

Decision makers then adopt the same bias that afflicts the accounting system. In their deliberations regarding resource allocation, they emphasize only the cost of debt retirement. These discussions usually omit from consideration altogether any mention of the cost of not retiring the debt. That cost can be enormous, because it is a continuously recurring periodic charge with no end date. Those costs are the costs of not accounting for the cost of not retiring technical debt.

If we do make long-term or intermediate-term projections of MICs or costs related to echo releases, we do so to evaluate proposals for retiring the debt. Methods vary from proposal to proposal. Few organizations have standard methods for making these projections. And lacking a standard method, comparing the benefits of different debt retirement proposals is difficult. This ambiguity and variability further encourages decision makers to base decisions solely on current costs, omitting consideration of projected future benefits.

Dealing with accounting for technical debt

Relative to technical debt, the accounting practice perhaps most notable for its absence is accounting for outstanding technical debts as liabilities. We do recognize outstanding financial debt. But few balance sheets mention outstanding technical debt. Ignorance of the liabilities outstanding technical debt represents creates an impression that the enterprise has capacity that it doesn’t actually have. That’s why tracking our technical debts as liabilities would alleviate many of the problems associated with high levels of technical debt.

But other shortcomings in accounting practices can create additional problems almost as severe.

Addressing the technical-debt-related shortcomings of accounting systems requires adopting enterprise-standard patterns for debt retirement proposals. Such standards would make possible meaningful comparisons between different technical debt retirement options and between technical debt retirement options and development or maintenance options. One area merits focused and immediate attention: estimating MPrin and estimating MICs.

Standards for estimating MPrin are essential for estimating the cost of retiring technical debt. Likewise, standards for estimating MICs, at least in the short term, are essential for estimating the cost of not retiring technical debt. Because both MPrin and MICs can include contributions from almost any enterprise component, merely determining where to look for contributions to MPrin or MICs can be a complex task. So developing a checklist of potential contributions can help proposal writers develop a more complete and consistent picture of the MICs or MPrin associated with a technical debt. Below are three suggestions of broad areas worthy of close examination.

Revenue stream disruption

Technical debt can disrupt revenue streams either in the course of retirement projects, or when defects in production systems need attention. When those systems are out of production for repairs or testing, revenue capture might undergo short disruptions. Technical debt can extend those disruptions or increase their frequency.

For example, a technical debt consisting of the absence of an automated test can lengthen a disruption while the system undergoes manual tests. Technical debt consisting of misalignment between the testing and production environments can allow defects to slip through. Undetected defects can create new disruptions. Even a short disruption of a high-volume revenue stream can be expensive.

In advance of any debt retirement effort, we can identify some associations between classes of technical debt and certain revenue streams. This knowledge is helpful in estimating the contributions to MICs or MPrin from revenue stream disruption.

Extended time-to-market

Although technologists are keenly aware of productivity effects of technical debt, these effects can be small compared to the costs of extended time-to-market. In the presence of outstanding technical debt, time-to-market expands not only as a result of productivity reduction, but also from resource shortages and resource contention. Extended time-to-market can lead to delays in realizing revenue potential. And it can cause persistent and irreparable reductions in market share. To facilitate comparisons between different technical debt retirement proposals, estimates of these effects are invaluable.

Data flow disruption

All data flow disruptions aren’t created equal. Some data flow processes can detect their own disruptions and backfill as needed. For these flows, the main contribution to MICs or MPrin is delay. And the most expensive of these are delays in receiving or processing orders. Less significant but still important are delays in responding to anomalous conditions. Data flows that cannot detect disruptions are usually less critical. But they nevertheless have costs too. All of these consequences can be modeled and estimated. We can develop standard packages for doing so. And we can apply them repeatedly to MICs or MPrin estimates for different kinds of technical debt.

Last words

Estimates of MICs or MPrin are helpful in estimating the costs of retiring technical debt. They’re also helpful in estimating the costs of not retiring technical debt. In either case, they’re only estimates. They have error bars and confidence limits. The accounting systems we now use have no error bars. That, too, is a shortcoming that must be addressed.

References

[Conroy 2012] Patrick Conroy. “Technical Debt: Where Are the Shareholders' Interests?,” IEEE Software, 29, 2012, p. 88.

Available: here; Retrieved: August 15, 2018.

Cited in:

[Cunningham 1992] Ward Cunningham. “The WyCash Portfolio Management System.” Addendum to the Proceedings of OOPSLA 1992. ACM, 1992.

Cited in:

[Fowler 2009] Martin Fowler. “Technical Debt Quadrant.” Martin Fowler (blog), October 14, 2009.

Available here; Retrieved January 10, 2016.

Cited in:

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

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Thorndike 1920] Edward L. Thorndike. “A constant error in psychological ratings,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 4:1, 25-29, 1920. doi:10.1037/h0071663

The first report of the halo effect. Thorndike found unexpected correlations between the ratings of various attributes of soldiers given by their commanding officers. Although the halo effect was thus defined only for rating personal attributes, it has since been observed in assessing the attributes of other entities, such as brands. Available: here; Retrieved: December 29, 2017

Cited in:

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The Principal Principle: Focus on MICs

Last updated on July 7th, 2021 at 03:16 pm

The door to a bank vault
The door to a bank vault. One way to know that technical debt differs from financial debt is that banks aren’t involved in any way. Treating technical debt as if it had anything in common with financial debt—beyond our own sense of obligation—is a shortcut to real trouble. Remember the Principal Principle.

When some organizations first realize that technical debt is limiting their performance, they begin by chartering a “technical debt inventory.” They try to determine how much technical debt they’re carrying, where it is, and how much retiring it would cost. They really want to know how fast they can retire it. That’s understandable. It’s not too different from how one would approach an out-of-control financial debt situation. It might be understandable, but in most cases, inventorying all technical debt is ineffective. For technical debt we need a different approach, because technical debt is different from financial debt. With technical debt, we must be follow what I call the Principal Principle, which is:

The Metaphorical Principal (MPrin) of a technical debt, which is the cost of retiring it, isn’t what matters most. What usually matters most is the Metaphorical Interest Charges—the MICs.

Why MICs matter more

MICs on technical debt can vary dramatically. For assets that aren’t undergoing maintenance or enhancement, the MICs can be Zero for extended periods. And for retiring assets, any technical debt they carry can vanish when the asset passes out of service. For other assets, MICs can be dramatically higher—beyond the total cost of replacing the asset.

Most people regard the sole effect of MICs as reduction in engineering productivity. I take a different approach. I include in MICs anything associated with technical debt and which depresses net income. That would include lost or delayed revenue, increased expenses—anything. For example, suppose technical debt causes a two-month delay in reaching a market. IN that case, its effect on revenues can be substantial for years to come. I regard all of that total effect as contributing to MICs.

So the Principal Principle is that a focus on Principal can be your undoing. Focus on MICs instead. Drive them to Zero and keep them there.

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Technical debt use disorder

Last updated on July 11th, 2021 at 09:53 am

A ball and chain, with shackle
A ball and chain, with shackle. Attaching this device to the legs of prisoners or slaves limits their ability to run. Similarly, technical debt limits the organization’s ability to exploit new opportunities, or even to maintain their current market positions.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has identified a disorder called Substance Use Disorder (SUD). It includes alcoholism, drug addiction, and other patterns related to substance use [APA 2013]. Their research can serve as a model for understanding organizational behavior related to technical debt. In this post I show how to use that model to describe a disorder of organizations that we could call Technical Debt Use Disorder (TDUD). In the grip of TDUD, the organization can’t retire much of its technical debt. It can’t stop incurring new debt, even though almost everyone in the organization realizes that technical debt is harming the organization.

A brief description of APA’s publication, DSM-5®, might explain the connection between SUD and TDUD. DSM-5 is the fifth revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Health care professionals in the United States and much of the rest of the world use it as a guide to diagnosing mental disorders. It’s also a framework for further research. First published in 1952, the current revision, DSM-5, was released in 2013.

The connection to technical debt

So what does DSM-5 have to do with technical debt?

What distinguishes responsible use of technical debt from irresponsible use is a topic that has generated many papers, conference presentations, and hallway debates over the years. Although there is consensus about the distinction in many cases, the debate continues. Sometimes, though, research in one field suggests paths forward in seemingly unrelated fields. So much thought and study has been invested in DSM-5 that it’s worth a look to see if the technical debt community can harvest something useful from the research in psychiatry.

I looked at DSM because I noticed that organizations that carry significant volumes of technical debt seem to have difficulty retiring it. In some cases, they also have difficulty halting accumulation of technical debt, or even slowing the rate of accumulation. This struck me as similar to the substance use problems some people encounter. I began to wonder whether there might be parallels between the substance use disorders that afflict people—alcoholism, drug addiction, and so on—and the technical debt problems that afflict organizations.

In the table below is one set of parallels I’ve found. The left column of the table is the list of diagnostic criteria for Substance Use Disorder provided in the DSM. The right column is my rewording of those criteria in an attempt to make them apply to how organizations deal with technical debt. I had thought initially that the rewording exercise might be difficult—that it might be a stretch. And here and there, it was a bit of a stretch. But overall, the SUD framework is a very good fit.

Diagnosing technical debt use disorder

Have a look at the table, and then check out the comments below it about how health care professions use the criteria.

DSM-5 Criteria for Substance Use Disorder (SUD)Criteria for Enterprise Technical Debt Use Disorder (TDUD)
1. Taking the substance in larger amounts or for longer than you’re meant to.
1. Incurring technical debt in larger amounts than you intended and carrying it for longer than you intended.
2. Wanting to cut down or stop using the substance but not managing to.2. Wanting to retire your technical debt or reduce the rate of incurring it but not managing to.
3. Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from use of the substance.3. Spending a lot of time dealing with the consequences of the technical debt you’ve already incurred.
4. Cravings and urges to use the substance.4. Insistent demands on precious resources, causing the enterprise to incur “just a little more” technical debt.
5. Not managing to do what you should at work, home, or school because of substance use.5. Not managing to attend to the needs of existing products, services, or technological infra­structure because of the demands resulting from metaphorical interest charges on technical debt.
6. Continuing to use, even when it causes problems in relationships.6. Continuing to carry technical debt, or continuing to incur yet more technical debt, even though it causes toxic conflict among employees, and problems in customer relationships and strategic partnerships.
7. Giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of substance use.7. Giving up developing important new products or services, or upgrading critical infrastructure, or pursuing new initiatives because of resource deficits traceable to technical debt service.
8. Using substances again and again, even when it puts you in danger.8. Incurring technical debt again and again, even when it puts the enterprise in fiscal danger or danger of losing market position.
9. Continuing to use, even when you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by the substance.9. Continuing to incur technical debt, even when you know you have a fiscal or market leadership problem that could have been caused or made worse by technical debt.
10. Needing more of the substance to get the effect you want (tolerance).10. Needing to incur more technical debt to get the fiscal effect you need—a product delivered or a contract completed.
11. Development of withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved by taking more of the substance.11. Upon attempting to retire existing technical debt, or halting incurring yet more technical debt, fiscal or market position problems develop in short order, which can be relieved only by incurring yet more debt.

In health care, two or three symptoms indicate a mild substance use disorder; four or five symptoms indicate a moderate substance use disorder, and six or more symptoms indicate a severe substance use disorder. Have a look at the right-hand column. How would you score your organization? Can we categorize the severity of an organization’s problem with technical debt using a scale similar to the one health care professionals use for SUD?

Conclusion

Technical debt isn’t inherently evil. Its existence among technological assets isn’t proof of engineering malpractice. For example, we can decide responsibly to deliver a system that carries technical debt. But if we do, we must carefully weigh the consequences of incurring that debt against the consequences of delayed delivery. And we must have a workable plan for retiring that debt, or for carrying the burden of its MICs.

But organizations can nevertheless trap themselves in cycles of technical debt, unable to make much progress in reducing it. In some cases, business as usual won’t work. In some cases, only drastic action can break the cycle.

References

[APA 2013] American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2013.

The Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Conroy 2012] Patrick Conroy. “Technical Debt: Where Are the Shareholders' Interests?,” IEEE Software, 29, 2012, p. 88.

Available: here; Retrieved: August 15, 2018.

Cited in:

[Cunningham 1992] Ward Cunningham. “The WyCash Portfolio Management System.” Addendum to the Proceedings of OOPSLA 1992. ACM, 1992.

Cited in:

[Fowler 2009] Martin Fowler. “Technical Debt Quadrant.” Martin Fowler (blog), October 14, 2009.

Available here; Retrieved January 10, 2016.

Cited in:

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

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Thorndike 1920] Edward L. Thorndike. “A constant error in psychological ratings,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 4:1, 25-29, 1920. doi:10.1037/h0071663

The first report of the halo effect. Thorndike found unexpected correlations between the ratings of various attributes of soldiers given by their commanding officers. Although the halo effect was thus defined only for rating personal attributes, it has since been observed in assessing the attributes of other entities, such as brands. Available: here; Retrieved: December 29, 2017

Cited in:

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Using SMART goals for technical debt reduction

Last updated on July 8th, 2021 at 01:06 pm

Attempting to reduce technical debt by setting so-called “SMART goals” in the obvious way can often disappoint. SMART, due to George T. Doran [Doran 1981], is widely used for expressing management goals. “SMART” is an acronym for “Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-boxed.” The last three words are available in various alternative ways. Doran himself used “assignable, realistic, and time-related.”

SMART is deeply embedded in management culture. Many assume without investigation that expressing technical debt goals using the SMART pattern will produce desired results. Also embedded in management culture is the aphorism, “You get what you measure.” [Ariely 2010]  [Bouwers 2010] A typical technical debt reduction goal: “Reduce technical debt by 20% per year for the next five years.”

SMART goals in their simplest form are ineffective for technical debt

Prof. George T. Doran (1939-2011), creator of the S.M.A.R.T acronym for setting management objectives
Prof. George T. Doran (1939-2011), creator of the S.M.A.R.T acronym for setting management objectives. Watch a 2010 interview of Prof. Doran at YouTube.
There’s ample support for a claim that applying the SMART technique in direct ways will be ineffective. Much employee behavior affects technical debt indirectly. It can overwhelm the effects of employee behaviors that affect technical debt indirectly. The direct approach does cause some employees to adopt desirable behaviors. But their impact isn’t significant enough compared to the effects of the behaviors that affect technical debt indirectly. Employees who see little connection between their own activities and the burden of technical debt can unwittingly have enormous impact. Moreover, many are subject to competing constraints on their behaviors that then cause them to act in ways that increase technical debt.

That’s why it’s necessary for management to develop a series of SMART goals that affect behaviors that have indirect effects on technical debt. In the first part of this post, “Setting a direct SMART goal for technical debt reduction is problematic,” I explore the problems inherent in the direct approach. In the second part, “How to set SMART goals for technical debt,” I provide examples of SMART goals that touch on behaviors that have indirect effects on technical debt.

Setting a direct SMART goal for technical debt reduction is problematic

Let’s begin by exploring some of the problems with the direct approach. In this section, I assume that management has set a SMART goal for the enterprise in the form, “Reduce technical debt by 20% for each of the next five years.” But there’s nothing special about the numbers. My comments below apply to the form of the goal, rather than the specific numbers.

The direct approach assumes measurability

To attain a goal of a 20% reduction in technical debt in a given year, we must be able to measure the level of technical debt. We measure it at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year. Presumably we do so with confidence in the 90% range or better. Such a measurement with the precision required might not be possible. Moreover, in most cases the probability that such a measurement is possible is low. For these reasons, setting periodic goals for total technical debt isn’t a useful management tool.

Consider a simple example. One common form of technical debt is missing or incompletely implemented capability. In some instances, the metaphorical principal (MPrin) of a given instance of this debt in the current year can change spontaneously to a dramatically larger value in the following year (or even the following week). This can happen due to changes in the underlying asset unrelated to the technical debt. Ot it can happen due to debt contagion. Or it can happen due to any number of other reasons. When this happens, the technical debt retirement effort for that year can appear to have suffered a serious setback. Setbacks like this can happen even though the technical debt retirement teams have been performing perfectly well.

The direct approach assumes a static principal

With most financial debts, a loan agreement sets the principal amount. Moreover, we can compute the principal at any time given the mathematical formulas specified in the loan agreement.

By contrast, in many cases, the metaphorical principal amount of a technical debt might be neither fixed nor readily computable. We can estimate the MPrin of a given kind of technical debt at a given time, and we can even make forward projections. But they are merely estimates, and their error bars can be enormous. See “Policy implications of the properties of MPrin” and “Useful projections of MPrin might not be attainable.”

The direct approach focuses on MPrin, not MICs

Objectives expressed in terms of the volume of technical debt—the total MPrin—are at risk of missing the point. Total MPrin isn’t what matters most. What matters is MICs—the total cost of carrying the debt. Even more important is the timing of arrival of the MICs. See “The Principal Principle: Focus on MICs.”

And like MPrin, MICs can vary in wild and unpredictable ways. For example, the MICs for a piece of technical debt borne by an asset that isn’t undergoing maintenance or enhancement can be zero; in a later time period, when that asset is undergoing enhancement, the MICs can be very high indeed. See “MICs on technical debt can be unpredictable” for a detailed discussion.

Priority setting for technical debt retirement is most effective when it accounts for the timing of MICs. For example, suppose we know that we must enhance a particular asset by FY21 Q3. And suppose we know that it bears technical debt that adds to the cost of the enhancement. Then retiring that debt in FY20 would be advisable. But if that technical debt has zero MICs for the foreseeable future, retiring it might not be worth the effort.

The direct approach fails to distinguish legacy technical debt from incremental technical debt

Unless policies are already in place governing the formation of incremental technical debt, technical debt retirement programs might encounter severe difficulty. New development and maintenance and enhancement of existing assets are ongoing. They generally produce technical debt in various forms. The technical debt retirement program might simply be unable to keep up with new debt formation.

The direct approach fails to anticipate the formation of enterprise-exogenous technical debt

Technical debt can sometimes form as a result of innovations, changes in standards, or changes in regulations that occur entirely external to the enterprise. I call such technical debt enterprise-exogenous. When this happens, the technical debt retirement effort can appear to have suffered a serious setback, even though the technical debt retirement teams might have been performing perfectly well. Before initiating a technical debt reduction program, it’s wise to first deploy a program that’s capable of retiring technical debt at a pace that at least equals the pace of formation of enterprise-exogenous technical debt.

Incurring technical debt is sometimes the responsible thing to do

At times, incurring technical debt is prudent. In these situations, accepting the debt you’ve incurred—even for the long term—might be appropriate. Strict goals about total technical debt can lead to reluctance to incur debt that has a legitimate business purpose. To prevent this, goals for total technical debt must be nuanced enough to deal with these situations. Goals for total technical debt that adhere strictly to the SMART goal pattern sometimes lack the necessary level of nuance.

How to set SMART goals for technical debt

SMART goals can work for technical debt management, but we must relate them to behavioral choices. Here are some examples of SMART goals that can be effective elements of a technical debt management program. Some of these examples are admittedly incomplete. For example, I offer no proof of assignability, attainability, or realism. Such attributes can vary from organization to organization. And we must allocate the goal in question across multiple organizational elements in ways peculiar to the organization.

At least 30% of incremental technical debt will be secured technical debt at the end of Year 1; 60% by the end of Year 2

Incremental technical debt is technical debt that’s incurred in the course of work currently underway or just recently completed. Because it’s so well understood, its MPrin can be estimated with higher precision than is usually possible with legacy technical debt. That precision is needed for defining the collateral and resources used to secure the debt.

A secured technical debt, like a secured financial debt, is one for which the enterprise reserves the resources needed to retire the debt. However, unlike a financial debt, the resources required to retire a technical debt might not be purely financial. Beyond financial resources, they might include particular staff, equipment, test beds, and downtime. The commitment might extend beyond the current fiscal period. Secured technical debt is a powerful means of driving down total technical debt burden, but it might require modification of internal budget management processes and fiscal reporting. Policymakers can help in designing and deploying the necessary changes.

Within one year, at least 50% of all incremental technical debt will be retired within one year of its origination; 70% within 18 months

This goal also exploits the fact that we can estimate incremental technical debt with relatively high precision. As a goal, it builds on the goal above by requiring that the organization actually expend as intended the resources pledged to retire incremental debts.

Within one year, all engineers and their direct supervisors will be educated in basic technical debt concepts

The educational materials will be developed in the next five months and piloted with 10% of the technical staff within seven months. The material will include an online proficiency test that 90% of engineers will have successfully passed within a year.

Within one year, 90% of project plans will include projections of the MPrin of the incremental technical debt they expect to generate for each delivery cycle

This information is useful for making forward projections of resources needed to secure incremental technical debt. Tracking the accuracy of these projections helps project planners improve their estimates.

Within one year, initiate a practice of identifying the top five forms of legacy technical debt, ranked by the volume of the contagion

Debt contagion is the propagation of a given form of technical debt by creating new system elements or assets in forms compatible with elements already identified as technical debt. By examining the body of incremental technical debt created enterprise-wide in a given time period (say, by fiscal quarter), we can determine the portion of that incremental debt that results from contagion, for each type of contagious legacy technical debt. This data is needed to identify the most contagious forms of legacy technical debt. They are prime candidates for debt retirement.

Within one year, initiate an industrial intelligence practice that is responsible for projecting the formation of enterprise-exogenous technical debt

This group must have a sophisticated grasp of the technologies in use within the enterprise that already bear enterprise-exogenous technical debt, or which could be subject to the formation of enterprise-exogenous technical debt. Its responsibilities cover enterprise products and services, as well as enterprise infrastructure. It issues advisories as needed, and an annual forecast. The group is also responsible for recommending and monitoring participation in industrial standards organizations. The group reports to the CIO or CTO.

References

[APA 2013] American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2013.

The Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Ariely 2010] Dan Ariely. “You are what you measure,” Harvard Business Review 88:6, p. 38, 2010.

This article is probably the source of the adage “You are what you measure.” Personally, I believe it’s overstated. That is, it’s true in the large, perhaps, but not in detail. Moreover, there are some things that we are that can’t be measured. But it’s important to understand the content of this article because so many people take it as dogma. Available: here; Retrieved: June 4, 2018

Cited in:

[Bouwers 2010] Eric Bouwers, Joost Visser, and Arie van Deursen. “Getting What You Measure: Four common pitfalls in using software metrics for project management,” ACM Queue 10: 50-56, 2012.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 4, 2018

Cited in:

[Conroy 2012] Patrick Conroy. “Technical Debt: Where Are the Shareholders' Interests?,” IEEE Software, 29, 2012, p. 88.

Available: here; Retrieved: August 15, 2018.

Cited in:

[Cunningham 1992] Ward Cunningham. “The WyCash Portfolio Management System.” Addendum to the Proceedings of OOPSLA 1992. ACM, 1992.

Cited in:

[Doran 1981] George T. Doran. “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives”, Management Review, 70:11, pp. 35-36, 1981.

Cited in:

[Fowler 2009] Martin Fowler. “Technical Debt Quadrant.” Martin Fowler (blog), October 14, 2009.

Available here; Retrieved January 10, 2016.

Cited in:

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

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Thorndike 1920] Edward L. Thorndike. “A constant error in psychological ratings,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 4:1, 25-29, 1920. doi:10.1037/h0071663

The first report of the halo effect. Thorndike found unexpected correlations between the ratings of various attributes of soldiers given by their commanding officers. Although the halo effect was thus defined only for rating personal attributes, it has since been observed in assessing the attributes of other entities, such as brands. Available: here; Retrieved: December 29, 2017

Cited in:

Other posts in this thread

Malfeasance can lead to new technical debt

Last updated on July 11th, 2021 at 03:03 am

Elizabeth Holmes backstage at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2014
Elizabeth Holmes backstage at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2014. She was the founder, chairman, and CEO of Theranos, a startup that grew to a total valuation of $9 billion in 2015, and has since dramatically declined in value, now on the edge of its second bankruptcy. Theranos, through Holmes, claimed to have developed technology enabling blood testing with small amounts of blood. Theranos’s process supposedly required only 0.1% to 1% of the amount of blood conventional technologies require. These claims proved false. After a series of collisions with U.S. government agencies, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission sued Holmes and Theranos. In March 2018, a settlement was reached in which Holmes accepted severe financial penalties, loss of voting control of Theranos, and a ban from serving as an officer or director of any public company for ten years. Photo (cc) Max Morse for TechCrunch.

Although creating and deploying policies to manage technical debt is necessary, it isn’t always sufficient for achieving control. Even if training and communication programs are effective, intentional circumvention of technical debt management policy remains possible. Malfeasance can lead to new technical debt by circumventing any policy. And malfeasance can be an obstacle to retiring—or even identifying—existing technical debt. Moreover, indirect effects of forms of malfeasance seemingly unrelated to technical debt can incur technical debt or extend the lifetime of existing technical debt.

Examples of how malfeasance can lead to technical debt

Consider an example from software engineering. To save time, an engineer might intentionally choose a deprecated approach. When the malfeasance comes to light, a question naturally arises. Specifically, in what other places has this individual (or other individuals) been making such choices? In a conventional approach to controlling this form of technical debt, we might examine only the engineer’s current work. But a more comprehensive investigation might uncover a trail of malfeasance in the engineer’s previous assignments.

Allman relates a hardware-oriented example [Allman 2012]. He describes an incident involving the University of California at Berkeley’s CalMail system. It failed catastrophically in November 2011, when one disk in a RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) failed due to deferred maintenance. Allman regards this incident as traceable to the technical debt consisting of the deferred RAID maintenance. While this particular case isn’t an example of malfeasance, it’s reasonable to suppose that some decisions to defer maintenance on complex systems are arguably negligent.

History provides many clear examples of how malfeasance can lead to new technical debt indirectly. Consider the Brooklyn Bridge. Many of the suspension cables of the bridge contain substandard steel wire, which an unscrupulous manufacturer provided to the bridge constructors. When the bridge engineer discovered the malfeasance, he recognized that he couldn’t remove the faulty wire that had already been installed. So he compensated for the faulty wire by adding additional strands to the affected cables. For more, see “Nontechnical precursors of nonstrategic technical debt.”

What kinds of malfeasance deserve special attention and why

Malfeasance that leads to incurring technical debt or which extends the life of existing technical debt can have dire consequences. It has the potential to expose the enterprise to uncontrolled increases in operating expenses and unknown obstacles to revenue generation. The upward pressures on operating expenses derive from the MICs associated with technical debt. Although MICs can include obstacles to revenue generation, considering these obstacles separately helps to clarify of the effects of malfeasance.

Why malfeasance deserves special attention

Malfeasance deserves special attention because the financial harm to the enterprise can dramatically exceed the financial benefit the malfeasance confers on its perpetrators. This property of technical-debt-related malfeasance is what makes its correction, detection, and prevention so important.

For example, when hiring engineers, some candidates claim to have capabilities and experience that they do not possess. Once they’re on board, they expose the enterprise to the risk of technical debt creation through substandard work. That work can escape notice for indefinite periods. The malfeasance here consists of the candidate’s misrepresentation of his or her capabilities. Although the candidate, once hired, does receive some benefit arising from the malfeasance, the harm to the enterprise can exceed that benefit by orders of magnitude.

As a second example, consider the behavior of organizational psychopaths [Babiak 2007] [Morse 2004]. Organizational psychopathy can be a dominant factor to technical debt formation when the beneficiary of a proposal is the decision maker. An alternative beneficiary, just as harmful, is the advocate who takes credit for the short term effects of the decision. In either case, the beneficiary intends knowingly to move on to a new position or to employment elsewhere before the true long term cost of the technical debt becomes evident. This behavior is malfeasance of the highest order. And although it’s rare, its impact can be severe. For more, see “Organizational psychopathy: career advancement by surfing the debt tsunami.”

What’s required to control malfeasance

When a particular kind of malfeasance can incur technical debt or extend the life of existing technical debt, it merits special attention. Examples like those above suggest three necessary attributes of technical debt management programs that deal effectively with malfeasance.

Corrective measures

The organization can undertake corrective measures in a straightforward manner when inadvertent policy violations occur. For example, a technical debt retirement program might encounter unexpected difficulties in setting priorities when individual performance metrics conflict with the technical debt control program. Such conflicts can be inadvertent and collaborative resolution is feasible, if challenging.

But with regard to malfeasance, difficulties arise when policy violations come to light. When the violations are intentional, corrective action usually entails investigation of the means by which the infraction was achieved, and how it was concealed. When these activities involve many individuals attached to multiple business units, we need some means of allocating the cost of corrective action. Allocating the cost of corrections can also be difficult when one party has reaped extraordinary benefits by taking steps that led to incurring significant technical debt. In some cases, corrective measures might include punitive actions directed at individuals.

Detection measures

When intentional violations are covert, or those who committed the violations claim that they’re unintentional, only investigation can determine whether a pattern of violations exists. Technical debt forensic activities require resources. They need rigorous audits and robust record-keeping regarding the decisions that led to the formation or persistence of technical debt. Automated detection techniques might be necessary to control the cost of detection efforts, and to ensure reliable detection.

Preventative measures

Successful prevention of policy violations requires education, communication, and effective enforcement. The basis of effective policy violation prevention programs includes widespread understanding of the technical debt concept and technical debt management policies. Most important, it includes the certainty of discovery of intentional infractions. These factors require commitment and continuing investment.

Policy frameworks are at risk of decreased effectiveness if they pay too little attention to malfeasance and other forms of misconduct. Such misbehavior deserves special attention because it’s often accompanied both by attempts to conceal any resulting technical debt. Worse, perpetrators often try to mislead investigators and managers about the debt’s existence. These situations do arise, though rarely, and when they do, they must be addressed in policy terms.

References

[APA 2013] American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2013.

The Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Allman 2012] Eric Allman. “Managing Technical Debt: Shortcuts that save money and time today can cost you down the road,” ACM Queue, 10:3, March 23, 2012.

Available: here; Retrieved: March 16, 2017

Also cited in:

[Ariely 2010] Dan Ariely. “You are what you measure,” Harvard Business Review 88:6, p. 38, 2010.

This article is probably the source of the adage “You are what you measure.” Personally, I believe it’s overstated. That is, it’s true in the large, perhaps, but not in detail. Moreover, there are some things that we are that can’t be measured. But it’s important to understand the content of this article because so many people take it as dogma. Available: here; Retrieved: June 4, 2018

Cited in:

[Babiak 2007] Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare. Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. ISBN:978-0-06-114789-0

An accessible and authoritative overview of organizational psychopathy. Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Bouwers 2010] Eric Bouwers, Joost Visser, and Arie van Deursen. “Getting What You Measure: Four common pitfalls in using software metrics for project management,” ACM Queue 10: 50-56, 2012.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 4, 2018

Cited in:

[Conroy 2012] Patrick Conroy. “Technical Debt: Where Are the Shareholders' Interests?,” IEEE Software, 29, 2012, p. 88.

Available: here; Retrieved: August 15, 2018.

Cited in:

[Cunningham 1992] Ward Cunningham. “The WyCash Portfolio Management System.” Addendum to the Proceedings of OOPSLA 1992. ACM, 1992.

Cited in:

[Doran 1981] George T. Doran. “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives”, Management Review, 70:11, pp. 35-36, 1981.

Cited in:

[Fowler 2009] Martin Fowler. “Technical Debt Quadrant.” Martin Fowler (blog), October 14, 2009.

Available here; Retrieved January 10, 2016.

Cited in:

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

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Morse 2004] Gardiner Morse. “Executive psychopaths,” Harvard Business Review, 82:10, 20-22, 2004.

Available: here; Retrieved: April 25, 2018

Cited in:

[Thorndike 1920] Edward L. Thorndike. “A constant error in psychological ratings,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 4:1, 25-29, 1920. doi:10.1037/h0071663

The first report of the halo effect. Thorndike found unexpected correlations between the ratings of various attributes of soldiers given by their commanding officers. Although the halo effect was thus defined only for rating personal attributes, it has since been observed in assessing the attributes of other entities, such as brands. Available: here; Retrieved: December 29, 2017

Cited in:

Other posts in this thread

How budget depletion leads to technical debt

Last updated on July 8th, 2021 at 01:38 pm

Some projects undergo budget depletion exercises after budget cuts. Or the exercises might occur when there’s evidence that the funds remaining won’t cover the work remaining. Formats vary, but the typical goal of these exercises is downscoping. We remove, relax, defer, or suspend some requirements. With limited funds, we execute downscoping in a manner that leads to technical debt.

A physical example

The Old River Control Complex on the Mississippi River
Photo courtesy USACE
The accompanying photo shows the Old River Control Complex on the Mississippi River. The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) built it and operates it. It controls the flow from the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya River, a distributary. The Mississippi would otherwise have rerouted itself into the Atchafalaya, which has a steeper gradient to the ocean. Since that would have deprived New Orleans and its industrial facilities of water and navigational channels, USACE maintains flow control facilities.

The industrial facilities of the lower Mississippi constitute a technical debt. Their existence is no longer compatible with the “update” Nature is trying to deploy. But our national budget won’t support repositioning New Orleans and its industrial facilities. So we redirect the flow of water from Nature’s course to one more compatible with the industrial base. The Old River Control Complex, with levees, dredging projects, and gates throughout lower Louisiana, are the MICs we pay for the technical debt that is the outdated position of New Orleans and its industrial base. For more about Atchafalaya, see the famous New Yorker article by John McPhee [MacFee 1987].

A broad array of effects

Here’s an illustrative scenario. At the time downscoping begins, the work product might contain incomplete implementations of items that are due for removal from the list of objectives. This removal renders unnecessary a set of accommodations contained in surviving artifacts. They comprise a most insidious type of debt that’s difficult to detect. It’s difficult to detect because the affected system components appear to be merely overly complicated. Recognizing them as a residual of a cancelled capability requires knowledge of their history. Unless we document these artifacts at the time of the downscoping, that knowledge may be lost.

Other items of technical debt that arise from budget depletion include tests that no longer serve a purpose, or documentation that’s no longer consistent with the rest of the work product, or user interface artifacts no longer needed. When budgets become sufficiently tight, funds aren’t available for documenting these items of technical debt as debt. The enterprise might then lose track of them when team members move on to other work.

Sometimes, budget depletion takes effect even before the work begins. This happens, for example, when project champions unwittingly underestimate costs to gain approval for the work they have in mind. The unreasonableness of the budget becomes clear soon after the budget approval, and its effects take hold soon thereafter.

Budget depletion can also have some of the same effects as schedule pressure. When the team devises the downscoping plan, it must make choices about what to include in the revised project objectives. In some cases, the desire to include some work can bias estimates of the effort required to execute it. If the team underestimates the work involved, the result is increased pressure to perform that work. With increased pressure comes technical debt. See “With all deliberate urgency” for more.

Last words

A policy that could limit technical debt formation in response to budget depletion would require identifying the technical debt such action creates, and later retiring that debt. Because these actions do require resources, they consume some of the savings that were supposed to accrue from downscoping. In some cases, they could consume that amount in its entirety, or more. Most decision makers probably over-estimate the effectiveness of the downscoping strategy. Often, it simply reduces current expenses by trading them for increased technical debt, which raises future expenses and decreases opportunities in future periods.

References

[APA 2013] American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2013.

The Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Allman 2012] Eric Allman. “Managing Technical Debt: Shortcuts that save money and time today can cost you down the road,” ACM Queue, 10:3, March 23, 2012.

Available: here; Retrieved: March 16, 2017

Also cited in:

[Ariely 2010] Dan Ariely. “You are what you measure,” Harvard Business Review 88:6, p. 38, 2010.

This article is probably the source of the adage “You are what you measure.” Personally, I believe it’s overstated. That is, it’s true in the large, perhaps, but not in detail. Moreover, there are some things that we are that can’t be measured. But it’s important to understand the content of this article because so many people take it as dogma. Available: here; Retrieved: June 4, 2018

Cited in:

[Babiak 2007] Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare. Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. ISBN:978-0-06-114789-0

An accessible and authoritative overview of organizational psychopathy. Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Bouwers 2010] Eric Bouwers, Joost Visser, and Arie van Deursen. “Getting What You Measure: Four common pitfalls in using software metrics for project management,” ACM Queue 10: 50-56, 2012.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 4, 2018

Cited in:

[Conroy 2012] Patrick Conroy. “Technical Debt: Where Are the Shareholders' Interests?,” IEEE Software, 29, 2012, p. 88.

Available: here; Retrieved: August 15, 2018.

Cited in:

[Cunningham 1992] Ward Cunningham. “The WyCash Portfolio Management System.” Addendum to the Proceedings of OOPSLA 1992. ACM, 1992.

Cited in:

[Doran 1981] George T. Doran. “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives”, Management Review, 70:11, pp. 35-36, 1981.

Cited in:

[Fowler 2009] Martin Fowler. “Technical Debt Quadrant.” Martin Fowler (blog), October 14, 2009.

Available here; Retrieved January 10, 2016.

Cited in:

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

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[MacFee 1987] John MacFee. “Atchafalaya,” The New Yorker, February 23, 1987.

Available: here; Retrieved: February 5, 2018.

Cited in:

[Morse 2004] Gardiner Morse. “Executive psychopaths,” Harvard Business Review, 82:10, 20-22, 2004.

Available: here; Retrieved: April 25, 2018

Cited in:

[Thorndike 1920] Edward L. Thorndike. “A constant error in psychological ratings,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 4:1, 25-29, 1920. doi:10.1037/h0071663

The first report of the halo effect. Thorndike found unexpected correlations between the ratings of various attributes of soldiers given by their commanding officers. Although the halo effect was thus defined only for rating personal attributes, it has since been observed in assessing the attributes of other entities, such as brands. Available: here; Retrieved: December 29, 2017

Cited in:

Other posts in this thread

Feature bias: unbalanced concern for capability vs. sustainability

Last updated on July 7th, 2021 at 09:56 pm

Alaska crude oil production 1990-2015
Alaska crude oil production 1990-2015. This chart [Yen 2015] displays Alaska crude oil produced and shipped through the Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) from 1990 to 2015. Production had dropped by 75% in that period, and the decline is projected to continue. In January 2018, in response to pressure from Alaskan government officials and the energy industry, the U.S. Congress passed legislation that opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, despite the threat to ecological sustainability that exploration poses. If we regard TAPS as a feature of the U.S. energy production system, we can view its excess capacity as a source of feature bias. It creates pressure on decision makers to add features to the U.S. energy system. Alternatively, they could act to enhance the sustainability of Alaskan and global environmental systems [Wight 2017].

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Enterprise decision makers affected by feature bias tend to harbor distorted views of the importance of new capability development compared to technical debt management. This tendency is likely due to the customer’s relative sensitivity to features, and relative lack of awareness of sustainability. Whatever the cause, customers tend to be more attracted to features than they are to indicators of sound technical debt management and other product sustainability practices. This tendency puts decision makers at risk of feature bias: unbalanced concern for capability vs. sustainability.

h4>Accounting changes can help

Changes in cost accounting could mitigate feature bias effects by projecting more accurately total MICs based on historical data and sound estimation. I explore possible accounting changes later in this post, and in future posts; meanwhile, let’s explore the causes and consequences of the distorted perspective I’m calling feature bias.

Causes and consequences of feature bias

For products or services offered outside the enterprise, the sales and marketing functions of the enterprise represent the voice of the customer [Gaskin 1991]. But customers are generally unaware of product or service attributes that determine maintainability, extensibility, or cybersecurity. These factors, the sustainability factors, affect the MICs for technical debt. But customers are acutely aware of capabilities—or missing or defective capabilities. Customer comments and requests are therefore unbalanced in favor of capability over sustainability. The sales and marketing functions tend to accurately transmit this unbalanced perspective to decision makers and technologists.

An analogous mechanism prevails with respect to infrastructure and its internal customers. Internal customers tend to be more concerned with capabilities than they are with sustainability of the processes and systems that deliver those capabilities. Thus, pressure from internal customers tends to emphasize capability at the expense of sustainability. The result of this imbalance is pressure to allocate excessive resources to capability enhancement, compared to activities that improve sustainability. And therefore controlling or reducing technical debt and its MICs gets less attention.

Nor is this the only consequence of feature bias. It provides unrelenting pressure for increasing numbers of features, despite the threats to architectural coherence and overall usability that such “featuritis” or “featurism” present. Featurism leads, ultimately, to feature bloat, and to difficulties for users, who can’t find what they need among the clutter of features that are often too numerous to document. For example, in Microsoft Word, many users are unaware that Shift+F5 moves the insertion point and cursor to the point in the active document that was last edited, even if the document has just been freshly loaded into Word. Useful, but obscure.

Feature bias bias

Feature bias, it must be noted, is subject to biases itself. The existing array of features appeals to a certain subset of all potential customers. Because it is that subset that’s most likely to request repair of existing features. And they’re also the most likely to suggest additional features. The pressure for features tends to be biased in favor of the needs of the most vociferous users. That is, there is pressure to evolve to better meet the needs of existing users. That pressure can force to lower priority any efforts toward meeting the needs of other stakeholders or potential stakeholders. These other stakeholders might be even more important to the enterprise than are the existing users. This bias in feature bias presents another risk that can affect decision makers.

Organizations can take steps to mitigate the risks of feature bias. An example of such a measure might be using focus groups to study how educating customers in sustainability issues affects their perspectives relative to feature bias. Educating decision makers about feature bias can also reduce this risk.

At the enterprise scale, awareness of feature bias would be helpful. But awareness alone is unlikely to counter its detrimental effects. These effects include underfunding technical debt management efforts. Eliminating the source of feature bias is extraordinarily difficult, because customers and potential customers aren’t subject to enterprise policy. Feature bias and feature bias bias are therefore givens. To mitigate the effects of feature bias, we must adopt policies that compel decision makers to consider the need to deal with technical debt.

A possible corrective action

One possible corrective action might be improving accounting practices for MICs, based on historical data. For example, there’s a high probability that any project might produce new technical debt. It might be prudent to fund the retirement of that debt in the form of reserves when we fund projects. And if we know that a project has encountered some newly recognized form of technical debt, it might be prudent to reserve resources to retire that debt as soon as possible. Ideas such as these can rationalize resource allocations with respect to technical debt.

These two examples illustrate what’s necessary if we want to mitigate the effects of feature bias. They also illustrate just how difficult such a task will be.

References

[APA 2013] American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2013.

The Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Allman 2012] Eric Allman. “Managing Technical Debt: Shortcuts that save money and time today can cost you down the road,” ACM Queue, 10:3, March 23, 2012.

Available: here; Retrieved: March 16, 2017

Also cited in:

[Ariely 2010] Dan Ariely. “You are what you measure,” Harvard Business Review 88:6, p. 38, 2010.

This article is probably the source of the adage “You are what you measure.” Personally, I believe it’s overstated. That is, it’s true in the large, perhaps, but not in detail. Moreover, there are some things that we are that can’t be measured. But it’s important to understand the content of this article because so many people take it as dogma. Available: here; Retrieved: June 4, 2018

Cited in:

[Babiak 2007] Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare. Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. ISBN:978-0-06-114789-0

An accessible and authoritative overview of organizational psychopathy. Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Bouwers 2010] Eric Bouwers, Joost Visser, and Arie van Deursen. “Getting What You Measure: Four common pitfalls in using software metrics for project management,” ACM Queue 10: 50-56, 2012.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 4, 2018

Cited in:

[Conroy 2012] Patrick Conroy. “Technical Debt: Where Are the Shareholders' Interests?,” IEEE Software, 29, 2012, p. 88.

Available: here; Retrieved: August 15, 2018.

Cited in:

[Cunningham 1992] Ward Cunningham. “The WyCash Portfolio Management System.” Addendum to the Proceedings of OOPSLA 1992. ACM, 1992.

Cited in:

[Doran 1981] George T. Doran. “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives”, Management Review, 70:11, pp. 35-36, 1981.

Cited in:

[Fowler 2009] Martin Fowler. “Technical Debt Quadrant.” Martin Fowler (blog), October 14, 2009.

Available here; Retrieved January 10, 2016.

Cited in:

[Gaskin 1991] Steven P. Gaskin, Abbie Griffin, John R. Hauser, Gerald M. Katz, and Robert L. Klein. “Voice of the Customer,” Marketing Science 12:1, 1-27, 1991.

Cited in:

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

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[MacFee 1987] John MacFee. “Atchafalaya,” The New Yorker, February 23, 1987.

Available: here; Retrieved: February 5, 2018.

Cited in:

[Morse 2004] Gardiner Morse. “Executive psychopaths,” Harvard Business Review, 82:10, 20-22, 2004.

Available: here; Retrieved: April 25, 2018

Cited in:

[Thorndike 1920] Edward L. Thorndike. “A constant error in psychological ratings,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 4:1, 25-29, 1920. doi:10.1037/h0071663

The first report of the halo effect. Thorndike found unexpected correlations between the ratings of various attributes of soldiers given by their commanding officers. Although the halo effect was thus defined only for rating personal attributes, it has since been observed in assessing the attributes of other entities, such as brands. Available: here; Retrieved: December 29, 2017

Cited in:

[Wight 2017] Philip Wight. “How the Alaska Pipeline Is Fueling the Push to Drill in the Arctic Refuge,” YaleE360, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, November 16, 2017.

Available: here; Retrieved: February 8, 2018

Cited in:

[Yen 2015] Terry Yen, Laura Singer. “Oil exploration in the U.S. Arctic continues despite current price environment,” Today in Energy blog, U.S. Energy Information Administration, June 12, 2015.

Available: here; Retrieved: February 8, 2018.

Cited in:

Other posts in this thread

Where the misunderstandings about MICs come from

Last updated on July 8th, 2021 at 12:50 pm

The differences between technical debt and financial debt are numerous and significant. We often overlook them, in part, because of the metaphor itself. Managing technical debt as we would manage financial debt is risky for two reasons. First, such an approach would most likely fail to exploit properties of technical debt that can be advantageous. Second, such an approach would likely cause us to overlook opportunities because of reticence about addressing the technical debt problem to the extent necessary for effective control.

The right tool for the wrong job
Managing technical debt using approaches drawn from finance is analogous to using the right tool for the wrong job.
The debt metaphor itself is probably at the root of the misunderstanding. The financial metaphor evokes the conventional concept of fixed or slowly varying interest rates. But the reality of technical debt involves loss of enterprise agility or lost revenue. Connecting these two ideas is intuitively challenging.

For the more familiar kinds of financial debts, the interest rate and any rules for adjusting it are set at the time of loan origination. Moreover, financial debts are unitary in the sense that each loan is a single point transaction with a single interest rate formula. For example, the interest rate formula for the most common kind of credit card balance is the same for every purchase. Technical debt isn’t unitary. Each kind of technical debt and each manifestation of that kind of technical debt is, in effect, a separate loan that can carry its own independently variable MICs.

Last words

The cost of carrying technical debt can vary with time. It can vary for a given class of technical debt, or it can vary instance-by-instance. Costs depend on the nature of the work underway on the assets that carry the debt. This fact is a source of flexibility useful for planning technical debt management programs. To manage resources, planners can exploit this flexibility to set priorities for enterprise efforts. For example, planning technical debt retirement programs to retire all instances of a given class of technical debt might not be the best choice.

When making technical debt management decisions, respect the constraints that technical debt imposes. Exploit the flexibility that technical debt provides.

References

[APA 2013] American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2013.

The Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Allman 2012] Eric Allman. “Managing Technical Debt: Shortcuts that save money and time today can cost you down the road,” ACM Queue, 10:3, March 23, 2012.

Available: here; Retrieved: March 16, 2017

Also cited in:

[Ariely 2010] Dan Ariely. “You are what you measure,” Harvard Business Review 88:6, p. 38, 2010.

This article is probably the source of the adage “You are what you measure.” Personally, I believe it’s overstated. That is, it’s true in the large, perhaps, but not in detail. Moreover, there are some things that we are that can’t be measured. But it’s important to understand the content of this article because so many people take it as dogma. Available: here; Retrieved: June 4, 2018

Cited in:

[Babiak 2007] Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare. Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. ISBN:978-0-06-114789-0

An accessible and authoritative overview of organizational psychopathy. Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Bouwers 2010] Eric Bouwers, Joost Visser, and Arie van Deursen. “Getting What You Measure: Four common pitfalls in using software metrics for project management,” ACM Queue 10: 50-56, 2012.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 4, 2018

Cited in:

[Conroy 2012] Patrick Conroy. “Technical Debt: Where Are the Shareholders' Interests?,” IEEE Software, 29, 2012, p. 88.

Available: here; Retrieved: August 15, 2018.

Cited in:

[Cunningham 1992] Ward Cunningham. “The WyCash Portfolio Management System.” Addendum to the Proceedings of OOPSLA 1992. ACM, 1992.

Cited in:

[Doran 1981] George T. Doran. “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives”, Management Review, 70:11, pp. 35-36, 1981.

Cited in:

[Fowler 2009] Martin Fowler. “Technical Debt Quadrant.” Martin Fowler (blog), October 14, 2009.

Available here; Retrieved January 10, 2016.

Cited in:

[Gaskin 1991] Steven P. Gaskin, Abbie Griffin, John R. Hauser, Gerald M. Katz, and Robert L. Klein. “Voice of the Customer,” Marketing Science 12:1, 1-27, 1991.

Cited in:

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

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Cited in:

[MacFee 1987] John MacFee. “Atchafalaya,” The New Yorker, February 23, 1987.

Available: here; Retrieved: February 5, 2018.

Cited in:

[Morse 2004] Gardiner Morse. “Executive psychopaths,” Harvard Business Review, 82:10, 20-22, 2004.

Available: here; Retrieved: April 25, 2018

Cited in:

[Thorndike 1920] Edward L. Thorndike. “A constant error in psychological ratings,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 4:1, 25-29, 1920. doi:10.1037/h0071663

The first report of the halo effect. Thorndike found unexpected correlations between the ratings of various attributes of soldiers given by their commanding officers. Although the halo effect was thus defined only for rating personal attributes, it has since been observed in assessing the attributes of other entities, such as brands. Available: here; Retrieved: December 29, 2017

Cited in:

[Wight 2017] Philip Wight. “How the Alaska Pipeline Is Fueling the Push to Drill in the Arctic Refuge,” YaleE360, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, November 16, 2017.

Available: here; Retrieved: February 8, 2018

Cited in:

[Yen 2015] Terry Yen, Laura Singer. “Oil exploration in the U.S. Arctic continues despite current price environment,” Today in Energy blog, U.S. Energy Information Administration, June 12, 2015.

Available: here; Retrieved: February 8, 2018.

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MICs can change when other debts are retired

Last updated on July 8th, 2021 at 12:49 pm

The MICs and MPrin of a particular class of technical debt can change when we retire other seemingly unrelated classes of technical debt. In most cases, we need engineering expertise to determine technical debt retirement strategies that can exploit this property.

Financial debts usually have associated interest rates that are used to compute the periodic interest charges. Typically, the interest charge on a financial debt for a given period is the periodic interest rate multiplied by the principal, and then scaled for the length of the time period. But there are no “rates” for technical debt. Their existence would imply that MICs were proportional to the analog of “principal,” which, in the case of technical debt, is the cost of retiring the debt—the MPrin. MICs depend only weakly on the cost of retiring the debt. Instead, they depend more strongly on the impact of the debt on ongoing operations.

How financial sophistication can be a handicap

Decision makers who understand the world of financial instruments at a very sophisticated level might tend to make an understandable error. They might overvalue arguments favoring technical debt management in ways analogous to how we manage financial debts. Financial sophisticates might find appealing any argument for technical debt management that parallels financial approaches. Such programs are unlikely to work, for two reasons. First, the uncertainties associated with estimating MPrin and MICs are significant. They make technical debt management decisions more dependent on engineering and project management judgment than they are on the results of calculations and projections (see MPrin uncertainties and MICs uncertainties).

Second, the familiar concept of interest rate doesn’t apply to technical debt. For technical debt, the interest charges depend on the interaction between ongoing activities and the debt, rather than the cost of retiring the debt. And that means that MICs (and MPrin) of one class of debt can change when another class is retired.

Implications of this effect

The possibility that retiring one class of technical debt can alter the financial burdens presented by another has both favorable and unfavorable implications.

MICs can change when other debts are retired
An example illustrating one way in which MICs on one kind of technical debt can change as a result of retiring another. The structure at the left represents the situation before any debt retirement occurs. The balloons labeled “A” represent instances of asset A. The balloon labeled “B” represents asset B. The orange circles represent instances of technical debts D1 and D2. The arrows connecting the As to B indicate that asset A depends on Asset B. The structure at the right represents the situation after debt retirement.
As an example of a favorable implication, consider software remodularization. Suppose we have a software asset A that depends on another software asset B. As shown in the left image of the figure, asset A, of which there are many copies, bears two classes of technical debt, D1 and D2. As shown, there is only one copy of asset B. Suppose further that an asset that bears debt D2 also bears debt D1, but an asset that bears D1 might or might not bear debt D2.

To retire D2, engineers modified B by assigning it responsibility for the tasks that formerly bore debt D2. After this change, B bears debt of type D1. Next, they retired debt D2. The right half of the figure shows the result. The system still bears debt D1. But now it’s inside B instead of A. Those modifications relieve all instances of A of both types of debt. The result is that D2 vanishes, and only a single instance of D1 remains. In this way, retiring debt D2 has reduced the MICs and MPrin for D1.

Policymakers can help

Exploiting the salutary opportunities of this property of technical debt provides an example of the risks of adhering too closely to the financial model of debt.

Many different scenarios have the property that retiring one kind of technical debt can reduce the MICs associated with other kinds. Technologists understandably tend to be more concerned with technical debt retirement strategies that emphasize short-term improvement of their own productivity. That’s why it’s so important for policymakers to provide guidance that steers the organization in the direction of enterprise benefits.

References

[APA 2013] American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2013.

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Cited in:

[Allman 2012] Eric Allman. “Managing Technical Debt: Shortcuts that save money and time today can cost you down the road,” ACM Queue, 10:3, March 23, 2012.

Available: here; Retrieved: March 16, 2017

Also cited in:

[Ariely 2010] Dan Ariely. “You are what you measure,” Harvard Business Review 88:6, p. 38, 2010.

This article is probably the source of the adage “You are what you measure.” Personally, I believe it’s overstated. That is, it’s true in the large, perhaps, but not in detail. Moreover, there are some things that we are that can’t be measured. But it’s important to understand the content of this article because so many people take it as dogma. Available: here; Retrieved: June 4, 2018

Cited in:

[Babiak 2007] Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare. Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. ISBN:978-0-06-114789-0

An accessible and authoritative overview of organizational psychopathy. Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Bouwers 2010] Eric Bouwers, Joost Visser, and Arie van Deursen. “Getting What You Measure: Four common pitfalls in using software metrics for project management,” ACM Queue 10: 50-56, 2012.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 4, 2018

Cited in:

[Conroy 2012] Patrick Conroy. “Technical Debt: Where Are the Shareholders' Interests?,” IEEE Software, 29, 2012, p. 88.

Available: here; Retrieved: August 15, 2018.

Cited in:

[Cunningham 1992] Ward Cunningham. “The WyCash Portfolio Management System.” Addendum to the Proceedings of OOPSLA 1992. ACM, 1992.

Cited in:

[Doran 1981] George T. Doran. “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives”, Management Review, 70:11, pp. 35-36, 1981.

Cited in:

[Fowler 2009] Martin Fowler. “Technical Debt Quadrant.” Martin Fowler (blog), October 14, 2009.

Available here; Retrieved January 10, 2016.

Cited in:

[Gaskin 1991] Steven P. Gaskin, Abbie Griffin, John R. Hauser, Gerald M. Katz, and Robert L. Klein. “Voice of the Customer,” Marketing Science 12:1, 1-27, 1991.

Cited in:

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

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[MacFee 1987] John MacFee. “Atchafalaya,” The New Yorker, February 23, 1987.

Available: here; Retrieved: February 5, 2018.

Cited in:

[Morse 2004] Gardiner Morse. “Executive psychopaths,” Harvard Business Review, 82:10, 20-22, 2004.

Available: here; Retrieved: April 25, 2018

Cited in:

[Thorndike 1920] Edward L. Thorndike. “A constant error in psychological ratings,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 4:1, 25-29, 1920. doi:10.1037/h0071663

The first report of the halo effect. Thorndike found unexpected correlations between the ratings of various attributes of soldiers given by their commanding officers. Although the halo effect was thus defined only for rating personal attributes, it has since been observed in assessing the attributes of other entities, such as brands. Available: here; Retrieved: December 29, 2017

Cited in:

[Wight 2017] Philip Wight. “How the Alaska Pipeline Is Fueling the Push to Drill in the Arctic Refuge,” YaleE360, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, November 16, 2017.

Available: here; Retrieved: February 8, 2018

Cited in:

[Yen 2015] Terry Yen, Laura Singer. “Oil exploration in the U.S. Arctic continues despite current price environment,” Today in Energy blog, U.S. Energy Information Administration, June 12, 2015.

Available: here; Retrieved: February 8, 2018.

Cited in:

Related posts