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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[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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Synergy between the reification error and confirmation bias

Last updated on July 10th, 2021 at 08:53 am

In deciding whether to undertake technical debt retirement projects, organizations risk making inappropriate decisions because of a synergy between the reification error and confirmation bias. Together, these two errors of thought create conditions that make committing appropriate levels of resources difficult. And when organizations do commit resources, they tend to underestimate costs. That underestimate can elevate the chance of failure in technical debt retirement projects.

The reification error and confirmation bias

As explained elsewhere in this blog, the reification error is an error of reasoning in which we treat an abstraction as if it were a real, concrete, physical thing. Because technical debt is an abstraction, we risk committing the reification error when we deal with it. (See “Metrics for technical debt management: the basics”)

Confirmation bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to favor and seek only information that confirms our preconceptions, or to avoid information that disconfirms them. (See “Confirmation bias and technical debt”)

How the reification error affects management

The reification error might be responsible, in part, for a widely used management practice that often appears in the exploratory stages of undertaking projects. Let’s start with an illustration from the physical world.

In the physical world, when we want cherries, we go to a market and check the price per pound or kilo. Then we decide how much we want. If the price is high, we might decide to buy fewer cherries. If the price is low, we might buy more cherries. We have in mind a total cost target, and we adjust the weight of the cherries to meet the target. In the physical world, we can often adjust what we purchase to match our willingness to pay.

Retiring technical debt doesn’t work like that, in part, because technical debt is an abstraction. But we try anyway; here’s how it goes. Management decides to retire a particular class of technical debt. They ask an engineer for an estimate of the cost. Sometimes Management reveals the target they have in mind if they have one; sometimes not. The estimate comes back as Total ± Uncertainty. Management decides that’s too high, or the Uncertainty is too great. They then ask the engineer to find a way to do it for less, or to reduce the Uncertainty.

Management—the “customer” in this scenario—makes this request, in part, based on the belief that adjusting the work is possible. Management hopes that the engineer can adjust the work to meet a (possibly unstated) target, in analogy to buying cherries. That thinking is an example of the reification error. In this dynamic, we rarely take into account the fact that retiring technical debt isn’t exactly like buying cherries.

How confirmation bias affects engineering estimates

Return now to the interaction between Management and the engineer/estimator. The engineer now suspects that Management does have a target in mind. Some engineers might ask what the target is. Some don’t. In any case, the engineer makes a lower estimate, which might still be too high. This process repeats until either Management decides against retiring the debt, or accepts the lowest Total ± Uncertainty.

In adjusting their estimates, engineers have a conflict of interest. That conflict of interest can compromise their objectivity through the action of confirmation bias. For technical debt retirement efforts, engineers are usually highly motivated to gain Management approval of the project. The motivation arises, in part, from the frustrating loss of engineering productivity. And since engineers typically sense that Management approval of the project is contingent on finding an estimate that’s low enough, the engineers have a preconception. That is, engineers have an incentive to convince themselves that Management’s adjustments to budget and schedule are reasonable. Because of the confirmation bias, engineers tend to seek justifications for the adjustments. And they tend to avoid seeking justifications for believing that their adjustments might not be feasible. That’s the confirmation bias in action.

How synergy between the reification error and confirmation bias comes about

Because of the reification error, Management tends to believe that retiring technical debt is a more adjustable activity than it actually is. Because of confirmation bias, engineers tend to believe that Management’s proposed cost and schedule are feasible. Too often, the synergy between the two errors of thinking provides a foundation for disaster.

Why this synergy creates conditions for disaster in technical debt retirement projects

Management usually equates estimates with commitments. Engineers don’t. Management usually forgets or ignores the upside Uncertainty. Typically, when Management accepts an estimate, the engineering team finds that it has made a commitment to deliver the work for the cost Total, with zero upside Uncertainty. Rarely does Management make this explicit. An analogous problem occurs with schedule.

By ignoring the Uncertainty, Management (the buyer) transfers the uncertainty risk to the project team. That strategy might work to some extent with conventional development or maintenance projects, where we can adjust scope and risk before the work begins. But for technical debt retirement projects, this practice creates problems for two reasons.

Adjusting the scope of debt retirement projects is difficult

First, with technical debt retirement we’re less able to adjust scope. To retire a class of technical debt, we must retire it in toto. If we retire only some portion of a class of technical debt, we would leave the asset in a mixed state that can actually increase MICs. So it’s usually best to retire the entirety of any class of technical debt, so as to leave the asset in a uniform state.

Debt retirement efforts are notoriously unpredictable

Second, the work involved in retiring a particular class of technical debt is more difficult to predict than is the work involved in more conventional projects. (See “Useful projections of MPrin might not be attainable”) Often, we must work with older assets, or older portions of younger assets. The people who built them aren’t always available, and documentation can be sparse or unreliable. Moreover, it’s notoriously difficult to predict with accuracy when or for how long affected assets will be out of production. Revenue stream interruptions, which can comprise a significant portion of total costs, can be difficult to schedule or predict. Thus, technical debt retirement projects tend to be riskier than other kinds of projects. They have wider uncertainty bands. Ignoring the Uncertainty, or trying to transfer responsibility for it to the project team, is foolhardy.

A strategy for reducing the effects of this synergy

To intervene in the dynamic between the consequences of the reification error and the consequences of confirmation bias, we must find a way to limit how their consequences can interact. That will curtail the ability of one phenomenon to reinforce the other. This task is well suited for application of Donella Meadows’ concept of leverage points [Meadows 1999]. See “Leverage points for technical debt management.”

In that post, I summarized Meadows’ concepts of using leverage points to alter the behavior of complex systems. One can intervene at one or more of 12 categories of leverage points. These are elements in the system that govern the behavior of the people and institutions that comprise the system. In that post, I sketched the use of Leverage Point #9, Delays, to alter the levels of technical debt in an enterprise.

In what follows I sketch the use of interventions at Leverage Point #8, “The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.”

Our strategy is this:

A feedback loop that now provides budgetary control in most organizations

One feedback loop at issue in this case, illustrated above, influences managers who might otherwise overrun their budgets. It does so by triggering some sort of organizational intervention when a manager overruns his or her budget. And the feedback loop leads to increases in the size and stature of the portfolios of managers who handle their budgets responsibly.  Presumably, that’s one reason why managers compel estimators to find approaches that cost less. The feedback loop to which managers are exposed causes them to establish another feedback loop involving the engineer/estimator, and later the engineering team. That second loop causes engineers to hold down their estimates, and later to limit actual expenditures.

A diagram of effects analysis

A feedback loop that now provides budgetary control in most organizations
A feedback loop that now provides budgetary control in most organizations.

We can use a diagram of effects [Weinberg 1992] to illustrate the feedback mechanism commonly used to control the performance of managers who are responsible for portfolios of project budgets. In the diagram (above), the oval blobs represent quantities indicated by their respective captions. Each of these quantities is assumed to be measurable, though their precise values and the way we measure them are unimportant for our rather qualitative argument.

What the arrows mean

Notice that arrows connect the blobs. The arrows represent the effect of changes in the value represented by one blob on the value represented by another. The blob at the base of the arrow is the effector quantity. The blob at the point of the arrow is the affected quantity. Thus, the arrow running from the blob labeled “Actual Spend” to the blob labeled “Overspend” expresses the idea that a positive (or negative) change in the amount of actual spending on projects causes a positive (or negative) change in Overspend. When a change in the effector quantity causes a like-signed change in the affected quantity, we say that their relationship is covariant.

Because increases in Budget Authority tend to decrease Overspend, all other things being equal, the relationship between Budget Authority and Overspend is contravariant. We represent a contravariant relationship between the effector quantity and the affected quantity as an arrow with a filled circle on it.

Finally, notice that the arrow from Overspend (effector) to Promotion Probability (affected) has a filled Delta on it. This represents the idea that as Overspend increases, it negatively affects the probability that the manager will be promoted at some point in the future. The Delta indicates a delayed effect; that the Delta is filled indicates a contravariant relationship. (An unfilled Delta would indicate a delayed covariant effect.)

Loops in the diagram of effects

This diagram, which contains a loop connecting Budget Authority, Overspend, and Promotion Probability, has the potential to “run away.” That is, as we go around the loop, we find self-re-enforcement, because the loop has an even number of contravariant relationships. It works as follows:

As Overspend increases, after a delay, the Probability of Promotion decreases. This causes reductions in Budget Authority because, presumably, the organization has reduced faith in the manager’s performance. Reductions in Budget Authority make Overspend more likely, and round and round we go.

Similarly:

As Overspend decreases, after a delay, the Probability of Promotion increases. This causes increases in Budget Authority because, presumably, the organization has increased faith in the manager’s performance. Increases in Budget Authority make Overspend less likely, and round and round we go.

Fortunately, other effects usually intervene when these self-re-enforcing phenomena get too large, but that’s beyond the scope of this argument. For now, all we need observe is that managers who manage their budgets effectively tend to rise in the organization; those who don’t, don’t.

The result is that managers limit spending to avoid overspending their budget authority. And that’s one reason why they push engineers to produce lower estimates for technical debt retirement projects.

How this feedback loop overlooks important drivers of technical debt formation

To break the connection between the managers’ reification error and the engineers’ confirmation bias, our intervention must cause the managers and the engineers to make calculations differently. We can accomplish this by requiring that they consider more than the mere cost of retiring the class of technical debt under consideration. They must estimate the consequences of not retiring that technical debt, and they must also estimate costs beyond the cost of retiring the debt. In what follows, I’ll use the shorthand TDBCR to mean the class of Technical Debt Being Considered for Retirement.

Specifically, estimates for technical debt retirement projects cover only the cost of performing the work required to retire the TDBCR. Management then decides whether, when, and to what extent to commit resources to execute the project. The primary considerations budgetary.

Since the debt retirement project can potentially provide benefits beyond the manager’s own portfolio, failing to undertake the project can have negative consequences. Mnagers who decline to undertake debt retirement projects are responsible for the consequences. But accountability for these decisions is rare. That’s the heart of the problem. So let’s look at some examples of relevant considerations.

Adjustments that would support these feedback loops to gain control of technical debt

In allocating resources for a technical debt retirement project, there are considerations beyond the cost of retiring the debt. A responsible decision is possible only if other kinds of estimates are also available. Here are some examples of the estimates we need:

  • The effects of retiring TDBCR on the cost of executing any other development or maintenance effortsy
  • The effects of retiring TDBCR on revenue and market share for all existing assets that directly produce revenue and which could be affected by retiring TDBCR
  • The revenue that would become available (and timing thereof) from any new products or services that become possible because of retiring TDBCR
  • The effects of retiring TDBCR on the cost of executing other technical debt retirement efforts

And these items might not be related to anything for which the decision maker is responsible. But the feedback loop we now use to influence the decision maker excludes considerations that are affected by the decision maker’s decisions. Until we install feedback loops that cause the decision maker to consider these indirect consequences, or until we make decisions at levels that include these other consequences, the effects of the decision maker’s decisions are uncontrolled, and might not lead to decisions optimal for the enterprise.

References

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

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[McConnell 2006] Steve McConnell. Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art. Microsoft Press, 2006.

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[Meadows 1999] Donella H. Meadows. “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” Hartland VT: The Sustainability Institute, 1999.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 2, 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:

[Weinberg 1992] Gerald M. Weinberg. Quality Software Management Volume 1: Systems Thinking. New York: Dorset House, 1989.

This volume contains a description of the “diagram of effects” used to explain how obstacles can induce toxic conflict. Order from Amazon

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The resilience error and technical debt

Last updated on July 10th, 2021 at 07:46 am

I’ve mentioned the reification error in a previous post (see “Metrics for technical debt management: the basics”), but I haven’t explored its dual, the resilience error. Let me correct that oversight now.

Reification risk is the risk that an error of reasoning known as the reification error might affect decisions—in this case, decisions regarding technical debt. The reification error [Levy 2009] [Gould 1996] (also called the reification fallacy, concretism, or the fallacy of misplaced concreteness [Whitehead 1948]) is an error of reasoning in which we treat an abstraction as if it were a real, concrete, physical thing. Reification is useful in some applications, such as object-oriented programming and design.

Where reification risk is most likely

The future USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) in sea trials, December 2015
The future USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) is underway for the first time conducting at-sea tests and trials in the Atlantic Ocean Dec. 7, 2015. The first of the Zumwalt class of US Navy guided missile destroyers, it is designed to be stealthy, and to be supported by a minimal crew. After the program experienced explosive cost growth, the class has been downsized from 32 ships to three, and complement increased from 95 to over 140 to reduce capital costs. The three vessels on order now have significantly reduced missions.

As one might expect, the causes of these troubles are much debated. But it’s possible that the resilience error plays a role. Before the first of a new class of ships goes to sea, it exists as an abstraction—a collection of concepts, plans, promises, and technologies, tried and untried. Many elements of this collection have never inter-operated with other elements. The first ship represents the first opportunity to see how all the elements work together. Although troubles often appear even before the ship is fully assembled, anticipating all troubles is extraordinarily difficult.

But when we reify in the domain of logical reasoning, troubles can arise. For example, we can encounter trouble when we think of “measuring” technical debt. Strictly speaking, we cannot measure technical debt. It isn’t a real, physical thing that can be measured. What we can do is estimate the cost of retiring technical debt, but estimates are only approximations. And in the case of technical debt, the approximations are usually fairly rough—they have wide uncertainty bands. That’s one way for trouble to enter the scene. When we regard the estimate as if it were a measurement, we tend to think of it as more certain than it actually is. Technical debt retirement projects then overrun their budgets and schedules, and chaos reigns.

For example, if we think we’ve measured the MPrin of a class of technical debt, rather than that we’ve estimated it, we’re more likely to believe that one measurement will suffice, and that it will be valid for a long time (or indefinitely). On the other hand, if we think we’ve estimated the MPrin of a class of technical debt, we’re more likely to believe that obtaining a second independent estimate would be wise, and that the estimate we do have might not be valid for long. These are just some of the many consequences of the reification error.

The resilience error

If the reification error is risky because it entails regarding an abstraction as a real, physical thing, we might postulate the existence of a resilience error that’s risky because it entails regarding an abstraction as more resilient, pliable, adaptable, or extensible than it actually is.

When we commit the resilience error with respect to an abstraction, we adopt the belief—usually without justification, and possibly outside our awareness—that if we make changes in the abstraction without fully investigating the consequences of those changes, we can be certain that the familiar properties of the abstraction we modified will apply, suitably modified, to the new form of the abstraction. Or we assume incorrectly that the abstraction will accommodate any changes we make to its environment.

Sometimes we benefit when we modify abstractions; usually we encounter unintended and unpleasant consequences. For example, unless we examine our modifications carefully, it’s possible that the implications of a modification might conflict with one or more of the fundamental assumptions of the abstraction.

A metaphorical example of the resilience error

Perhaps a (ahem) concrete example will illustrate. Consider the steel hull of an ocean liner. We can manufacture it more cheaply if we can devise a way to use less steel. So one approach to using less steel is to remove a small portion of the bottom of the hull. We decide to cut out of the hull a circular hole one meter in diameter. We send some people into the ship to do the work, and they return with panicky reports of water coming in. But the ship seems fine, so we reject the reports. Even a day later, all seems well. But by the end of the second day, the trouble is obvious. The ship is sinking.

The problem in our example is that the circular hole in the hull violated a fundamental assumption about how ship hulls work. They work by keeping all water out of the ship. We had extended the idea of hull to make it lighter, but in doing so, we encountered some unintended consequences because our extension violated a fundamental property of hulls.

A more realistic example of the resilience error

Now for a more realistic example. Let’s consider a fictitious business situation.

Consider the fictitious company Alpha Properties LLC. Alpha manages small condominium associations of from 25 to 100 units. Things have been going swimmingly at Alpha. They’ve decided to expand to handle large condominium associations. Alpha’s financial accounting software has worked well, and their employees have become quite expert in its use. Alpha management has heard good reports about a different software package. Because the reports are from other management companies that deal with large client associations, Alpha decides to use the same software for its larger accounts too. But things don’t work out so well.

The software is fine, but the processes used by Alpha’s staff are cumbersome and slow. For example, setting up a new association requires much manual data entry. For a 100-unit association, client setup wasn’t a burden, but for a 900-unit association the problem is just unmanageable.

This is a fine example of the resilience error. When we make this error, we fail to appreciate how an abstraction can encapsulate assumptions from one context when we apply that abstraction in another context. In this example, Alpha’s data flow processes are the abstraction. The context is signing up a new client association. When the context (signing up a large new client) changes, it violates an internal assumption of the abstraction (the data flow process for signing up a new client).

How the resilience error leads to technical debt

In many cases, the resilience error is at the heart of the causes of technical debt. It works like this. We have an asset that works perfectly well in one set of contexts. We want to apply that asset in a new way, which might (or might not) require some minor extensions. When we try it, we find that the asset incorporates some assumptions about the original context, and one or more of those assumptions are violated by the new context. Scrambling, we find some quick fixes that can get things working again. But those fixes usually aren’t well-designed or easily maintained. The result is a trail of technical debt.

Acquiring companies is like that. Before the acquisition, we think we’ll be able to merge the IT operations to save some expenses in operations. But when we actually try it, merging them proves to be far more expensive than we imagined. Ah, the resilience error.

What makes this situation so difficult is that often we’re unable to anticipate what assumptions we might be about to violate. That’s why we make the resilience error.

Last words

Spotting difficulties with adapting to new applications and new contexts isn’t so difficult with physical entities. For example, we can see in advance that a square peg won’t fit into a round hole. But with abstractions, we can’t always see the problems in advance. Piloting, prototypes, games, and simulations can help us avoid some trouble, but not all.

References

[Gould 1996] Stephen Jay Gould. The mismeasure of man (Revised & Expanded edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.

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

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[Levy 2009] David A. Levy, Tools of Critical Thinking: Metathoughts for Psychology (second edition). Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc., 2009.

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[McConnell 2006] Steve McConnell. Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art. Microsoft Press, 2006.

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Cited in:

[Meadows 1999] Donella H. Meadows. “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” Hartland VT: The Sustainability Institute, 1999.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 2, 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:

[Weinberg 1992] Gerald M. Weinberg. Quality Software Management Volume 1: Systems Thinking. New York: Dorset House, 1989.

This volume contains a description of the “diagram of effects” used to explain how obstacles can induce toxic conflict. Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Whitehead 1948] Alfred North Whitehead. Science and the Modern World. New York: Pelican Mentor (MacMillan), 1948 [1925].

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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:

[Gould 1996] Stephen Jay Gould. The mismeasure of man (Revised & Expanded edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

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

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Cited in:

[Levy 2009] David A. Levy, Tools of Critical Thinking: Metathoughts for Psychology (second edition). Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc., 2009.

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Cited in:

[McConnell 2006] Steve McConnell. Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art. Microsoft Press, 2006.

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Cited in:

[Meadows 1999] Donella H. Meadows. “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” Hartland VT: The Sustainability Institute, 1999.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 2, 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:

[Weinberg 1992] Gerald M. Weinberg. Quality Software Management Volume 1: Systems Thinking. New York: Dorset House, 1989.

This volume contains a description of the “diagram of effects” used to explain how obstacles can induce toxic conflict. Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Whitehead 1948] Alfred North Whitehead. Science and the Modern World. New York: Pelican Mentor (MacMillan), 1948 [1925].

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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:

[Gould 1996] Stephen Jay Gould. The mismeasure of man (Revised & Expanded edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

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

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Levy 2009] David A. Levy, Tools of Critical Thinking: Metathoughts for Psychology (second edition). Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc., 2009.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[McConnell 2006] Steve McConnell. Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art. Microsoft Press, 2006.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Meadows 1999] Donella H. Meadows. “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” Hartland VT: The Sustainability Institute, 1999.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 2, 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:

[Weinberg 1992] Gerald M. Weinberg. Quality Software Management Volume 1: Systems Thinking. New York: Dorset House, 1989.

This volume contains a description of the “diagram of effects” used to explain how obstacles can induce toxic conflict. Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Whitehead 1948] Alfred North Whitehead. Science and the Modern World. New York: Pelican Mentor (MacMillan), 1948 [1925].

Order from Amazon

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:

[Gould 1996] Stephen Jay Gould. The mismeasure of man (Revised & Expanded edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

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

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Levy 2009] David A. Levy, Tools of Critical Thinking: Metathoughts for Psychology (second edition). Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc., 2009.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[McConnell 2006] Steve McConnell. Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art. Microsoft Press, 2006.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Meadows 1999] Donella H. Meadows. “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” Hartland VT: The Sustainability Institute, 1999.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 2, 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:

[Weinberg 1992] Gerald M. Weinberg. Quality Software Management Volume 1: Systems Thinking. New York: Dorset House, 1989.

This volume contains a description of the “diagram of effects” used to explain how obstacles can induce toxic conflict. Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Whitehead 1948] Alfred North Whitehead. Science and the Modern World. New York: Pelican Mentor (MacMillan), 1948 [1925].

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

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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:

[Gould 1996] Stephen Jay Gould. The mismeasure of man (Revised & Expanded edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

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

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Levy 2009] David A. Levy, Tools of Critical Thinking: Metathoughts for Psychology (second edition). Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc., 2009.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[McConnell 2006] Steve McConnell. Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art. Microsoft Press, 2006.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Meadows 1999] Donella H. Meadows. “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” Hartland VT: The Sustainability Institute, 1999.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 2, 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:

[Weinberg 1992] Gerald M. Weinberg. Quality Software Management Volume 1: Systems Thinking. New York: Dorset House, 1989.

This volume contains a description of the “diagram of effects” used to explain how obstacles can induce toxic conflict. Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Whitehead 1948] Alfred North Whitehead. Science and the Modern World. New York: Pelican Mentor (MacMillan), 1948 [1925].

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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:

[Gould 1996] Stephen Jay Gould. The mismeasure of man (Revised & Expanded edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

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

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Levy 2009] David A. Levy, Tools of Critical Thinking: Metathoughts for Psychology (second edition). Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc., 2009.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

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

Available: here; Retrieved: February 5, 2018.

Cited in:

[McConnell 2006] Steve McConnell. Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art. Microsoft Press, 2006.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Meadows 1999] Donella H. Meadows. “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” Hartland VT: The Sustainability Institute, 1999.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 2, 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:

[Weinberg 1992] Gerald M. Weinberg. Quality Software Management Volume 1: Systems Thinking. New York: Dorset House, 1989.

This volume contains a description of the “diagram of effects” used to explain how obstacles can induce toxic conflict. Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Whitehead 1948] Alfred North Whitehead. Science and the Modern World. New York: Pelican Mentor (MacMillan), 1948 [1925].

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

Other posts in this thread

Separating responsibility for maintenance and acquisition

Last updated on July 8th, 2021 at 01:28 pm

Separating responsibility for maintenance and acquisition or development of technical assets can lead to uncontrolled growth of technical debt. The problem arises when we measure without regard for technical debt the performance of the business acquisition function or the performance of the development organization. In that circumstance, technical debt is likely to expand unchecked. To limit such expansion, policymakers must devise performance measures that hold these organizations accountable for technical debt resulting from their actions.

Software systems

Road damage in Warwick, Rhode Island, resulting from historic storms in March 2010
Road damage in Warwick, Rhode Island, resulting from historic storms in March 2010 [NOAA 2013]. The storms were so severe that the floodwaters overtopped the gauge’s measurable range. Moreover, the National Weather Service (NWS) lacked a database of measurable ranges for flood gauges. Quoting the NWS report: “A lesson learned here was that maximum recordable river levels should be known by NWS staff, not only so staff aren’t surprised when this type of issue arises, but also to notify USGS personnel so that they can install a temporary gage and remove or elevate threatened equipment.” Technical debt, if ever I’ve seen it.
For systems consisting solely of software, separating responsibility for maintenance and acquisition or system development is risky. It enables the acquiring organization to act with little regard for the consequences of its decisions vis-à-vis maintenance matters [Boehm 2016]. This is unfortunate—it increases the rate of accumulation of new technical debt. And it increases the lifetime of legacy technical debt. This happens more frequently when the acquiring organization doesn’t suffer the MICs associated with the technical debt.

For example, a focus on performance of the organization that’s responsible for acquisition biases them in favor of attending to the direct and immediate costs of the acquisition. They are likely to have little or no regard for ongoing maintenance issues. The maintenance organization must then deal with whatever the acquired system contains (or lacks).

An analogous mechanism operates for organizations that develop, market, and maintain products or services. When there are software elements in their respective infrastructures, separation of the development function from the maintenance function enables the development function to act independently of the maintenance consequences of its decisions.

Systems that include hardware

But the separation-of-responsibilities mechanism that leads to uncontrolled technical debt isn’t restricted to software. Any technological asset that has ongoing maintenance needs (and most of them do) can potentially present this problem.

For example, in the United States, and many other countries, two streams of resources support publicly-owned infrastructure [Blair 2017]. The funding stream covers construction, operations and maintenance, and repairs. Its usual sources are taxes, tolls, licenses, other user fees, sale of ad space, and so on. The financing stream covers up-front construction costs, to bridge the period from conception through construction, until the funding stream begins delivering resources. The financing stream usually comes from bond sales.

Although legislatures, or agencies they establish, control both streams of resources, the effects of the streams differ fundamentally. The financing stream is dominant during construction and the early stages of the asset’s lifecycle. The funding stream is dominant after that—when maintenance and operations are most important. Legislators and agencies are generally reluctant to supply funding because of the impact on taxpayers and users. Legislators and agencies find financing much more palatable. For this reason, among others, funds for U.S. infrastructure maintenance are generally insufficient, and technical debt gradually accumulates.

So it is with technological assets in organizations. For accounting purposes, capital expenses are treated differently from operational expenses. The result is that operational expenses can have a more significant impact on current financial results than capital expenses do. This leads organizations to underfund operations and maintenance, which contributes to technical debt accumulation.

Last words

Control of new technical debt accumulation and enhancement of technical debt retirement rates is possible only if we can somehow hold accountable the acquisition or development organizations for the MICs that result from their actions. Securitization of the debt incurred, as I’ll address in a forthcoming post, is one possible means of imposing this accountability. But reserves are also required, because some of the debt incurred might not be known at the time the asset is acquired or created.

Separating responsibility for maintenance and acquisition or system development is actually a form of stovepiping. See “Stovepiping can lead to technical debt” for more on stovepiping.

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:

[Blair 2017] Hunter Blair. “No free bridge: Why public–private partnerships or other ‘innovative’ financing of infrastructure will not save taxpayers money,” Economic Policy Institute blog, March 21, 2017.

Available: here; Retrieved: January 29, 2018

Cited in:

[Boehm 2016] Barry Boehm, Celia Chen, Kamonphop Srisopha, Reem Alfayez, and Lin Shiy. “Avoiding Non-Technical Sources of Software Maintenance Technical Debt,” USC Course notes, Fall 2016.

Available: here; Retrieved: July 25, 2017

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:

[Gould 1996] Stephen Jay Gould. The mismeasure of man (Revised & Expanded edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

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

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Levy 2009] David A. Levy, Tools of Critical Thinking: Metathoughts for Psychology (second edition). Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc., 2009.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

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

Available: here; Retrieved: February 5, 2018.

Cited in:

[McConnell 2006] Steve McConnell. Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art. Microsoft Press, 2006.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Meadows 1999] Donella H. Meadows. “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” Hartland VT: The Sustainability Institute, 1999.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 2, 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:

[NOAA 2013] NOAA/National Weather Service. “The March, 2010 Floods in Southern New England,” WFO Taunton Storm Series Report #2013-01, January 2013.

Available: here; Retrieved: January 30, 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:

[Weinberg 1992] Gerald M. Weinberg. Quality Software Management Volume 1: Systems Thinking. New York: Dorset House, 1989.

This volume contains a description of the “diagram of effects” used to explain how obstacles can induce toxic conflict. Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Whitehead 1948] Alfred North Whitehead. Science and the Modern World. New York: Pelican Mentor (MacMillan), 1948 [1925].

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

Other posts in this thread