Refactoring for policymakers

Last updated on July 16th, 2021 at 05:00 pm

An LED traffic light
An LED traffic light. This type of signal is more efficient and more cheaply and easily maintained than incandescent signals. But in terms of traffic control, LED signals and incandescent signals are equivalent.

Policymakers whose areas of expertise overlap minimally with software engineering might be at a slight disadvantage when the conversation turns to refactoring. That can happen when the matter at hand involves software assets that carry technical debt. The engineers are likely to argue for resources and time to be set aside for refactoring. Other “re” words are also likely to pop up: restructuring, re-architecting, rewriting, replacing, repairing, retiring, retreating, and reengineering are examples. Some of these are clear—and clearly unaffordable—but some are less clear. What’s needed is a lucid explanation of refactoring for policymakers.

To refactor1 a software asset is to improve its internal structure without altering its external behavior [Fowler 1999]. The improvements usually relate to maintainability or extensibility, and for software, that usually requires improving the readability of its code (for engineers), though it might entail some minor changes of other kinds. Instance by instance, these improvements are usually small in scale. Even so, a refactoring effort might involve small changes throughout the entire asset or throughout an entire suite of assets.

Although we usually regard refactoring as a software-related activity, refactoring, like technical debt, is a concept that can apply to any technological asset. To render the refactoring concept useful for assets other than software, we must be a bit more precise about the effects of the changes involved in refactoring.

A more general definition of refactoring

Refactoring an asset inherently changes that asset; what distinguishes refactoring from other kinds of changes is the observability of the changes. For the definition of refactoring used in software engineering, the changes are observable only to the software engineers who maintain or enhance the asset.

Here’s a definition of refactoring that’s somewhat more widely applicable:

To refactor a technological asset is to apply a series of small, behavior-preserving changes to improve the structure of the asset in ways that have effects that aren’t ordinarily observable externally. When effects are observable externally, they’re very specific, usually related to attributes such as quality and usability.

For example, after a municipality replaces incandescent traffic lights with LED traffic lights, there’s no effect on traffic control. To the untrained eye, the change isn’t noticeable. But those responsible for signal maintenance or for monitoring operating costs will notice significant advantages. With respect to traffic flow, we can regard the change to LED traffic lights as a refactoring of the traffic control system.

Refactoring in manufactured consumer items

Refactoring in manufactured consumer items can be more difficult to recognize, because the useful life of the item so often ends while the item is still in the hands of the consumer. For example, we might ask how to refactor a certain subassembly of an automobile that’s already in service. Some writers have identified the vehicle recall as a kind of refactoring [Shroyer 2016]. But I prefer to regard successive models of manufactured items as containing refactorings of earlier models.

For example, in robot vacuum cleaners, the iRobot Roomba is now available in a ninth-generation “series,” though the exact number of the generations depends on what one counts as first-generation. In laptop computers, most manufacturers’ offerings do change from one model to the next version of that model. Some of these changes are more significant than what we might consider to be refactoring, such as Apple’s removal of the MagSafe power connector [Spence 2018]. For laptops, more likely to be a refactoring would be a change to a slightly more efficient internal fan.

Other applications of the refactoring concept

The refactoring concept can also apply to processes. Indeed, failure to refactor business processes is sometimes a cause of needless complexity, high maintenance costs, and other difficulties. Some of these difficulties can appear in technological assets that must interact with processes that need refactoring [Distante 2014]. The refactoring concept might even find use in organizational restructuring and debt restructuring.


[1] One might wonder why this process is called refactoring. Martin Fowler, the author of the classic 1999 book about refactoring, has investigated the etymology of the word and concludes that it likely arose in the Forth and Smalltalk communities in the 1980s. [Fowler 2003] Jump back to the text


[Distante 2014] Damiano Distante, Alejandra Garrido, Julia Camelier-Carvajal, Roxana Giandini, and Gustavo Rossi. “Business processes refactoring to improve usability in E-commerce applications.” Electronic Commerce Research 14:4 (2014): 497-529.

Available: here; Retrieved: August 23, 2019

Cited in:

[Fowler 1999] Martin Fowler, Kent Beck (Contributor), John Brant (Contributor), William Opdyke, Don Robert, Erich Gamma (Foreword). Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code. Boston: Addison-Wesley Professional; first edition (July 8, 1999).

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[Fowler 2003] Martin Fowler. “TechnicalDebt,” blog entry at, 1 October 2003.

Retrieved January 2, 2016, available at here; .

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[Shroyer 2016] Alexander Shroyer. “Refactoring Hardware vs. Software,” Hoosier EE Blog, July 17, 2016.

Available: here; Retrieved: August 22, 2019

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[Spence 2018] Ewan Spence. “New MacBook Pro Leak Reveals Apple's Innovative Failure,” Forbes, June 7, 2018.

Available: here; Retrieved: August 22, 2019

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Outsourcing Technical Debt Retirement Projects

Last updated on July 16th, 2021 at 04:32 pm

Deciding about outsourcing technical debt retirement?
The dilemma: outsource technical debt retirement, or do the work in-house?

From time to time, people ask me about the wisdom of outsourcing technical debt retirement projects. Because the answer depends so strongly on the particulars of the situation, there’s no general answer. But there are general guidelines—factors to consider when making the decision. Let’s refine the question first, in the form of a case:

Our organization uses an array of software and hardware assets to execute our mission. We developed some of these systems so long ago that the original developers have departed. They left here for other companies, or they left in spinoffs, or they moved on to other parts of our company. Some of these moves were due to reorganizations, some to promotions, and some to personal career decisions.

Most of the people who are now maintaining these assets have learned by doing.  This has been necessary because we haven’t kept the documentation current enough to be a reliable reference. We know that the systems harbor significant levels of technical debt, and the documentation itself carries debt. So we want to retire all that debt, but it’s a big job. Should we hire contractors? Or a vendor who specializes in large scale technical debt retirement projects?

This is a typical situation, but many variables are unspecified. And typically, even more variables are unknown. Those unspecified or unknown variables make the decision tricky. To illustrate, I’ve listed below seven issues that would affect decisions about outsourcing technical debt retirement projects.

In-house staff probably has useful knowledge

If the in-house staff has much undocumented information about the current configuration of the assets, they have an enormous advantage over contractors or an outside vendor trying to do the same work. And even though the in-house staff wasn’t involved in initial development, they probably have valuable knowledge of the asset if they’ve been engaged in maintenance or enhancement to any significant degree. And they probably know more about the assets than any outsider would. So if the ultimate decision is to outsource the work, try to devise an arrangement in which the most knowledgeable in-house staff are acting in a reference role.

Outsourcing technical retirement effectiveness depends on knowledge of enterprise strategy

Knowledge of enterprise strategy is useful in technical debt retirement projects. For example, suppose we know that a future project will be rendering some or all of a given asset irrelevant. We can use that knowledge to focus the debt retirement effort.

However, in some cases, revealing strategy to outside vendors is risky, even with ironclad NDAs in place. So some asset owners avoid revealing strategy information. They accept that the outside vendor might perform otherwise-wasteful tasks. This approach can be a low-cost way to manage the risks that arise from revealing strategy. Others choose to perform the work in-house. Working in-house enables them to use their knowledge of strategic direction when allocating effort in debt retirement or when deciding what the transformed asset should look like.

Detailed knowledge of the debt retirement effort is itself valuable

Knowledge of the what and why of the actual debt retirement work can be helpful in resolving any difficulties that surface after completion. That knowledge is also helpful in future work on similar assets.

With outsourcing, after the work is done, any unreported information about what the vendor did and why they did it departs with them. If in-house staff perform the work, that information remains in-house. This can be very helpful if the asset is a critical asset, or if you expect further future enhancement work or debt retirement work on that asset or similar assets.

Debt retirement work almost inevitably generates new knowledge

When people work on debt retirement, they usually have specific objectives. Even so, as they work, they generally uncover issues they hadn’t anticipated. Both in-house staff and contractors experience these aha’s. The difference between them is what happens after the work is done.

If in-house staff does the work, they can use this newfound knowledge in other projects, including new development. Not necessarily so with the outside vendor. If the same vendor is employed again for another effort, they can apply that knowledge if doing so is in scope for the next contract. But if that vendor doesn’t return, or the scope of subsequent efforts doesn’t permit it, then they can’t apply that knowledge. Moreover, the vendor might not even report what they found, though most would because they hope it will lead to more work. If they do report it, the in-house contract monitor should be sophisticated enough to recognize how valuable that kind of information is. Sadly, many are not.

Asset service disruptions can be problematic

Another difficulty with outsourcing technical debt retirement projects relates to asset service disruptions. In some debt retirement efforts, some assets must be taken out of service for periods that are moderately disruptive or worse. In-house staff likely have relationships of long standing that make cooperation, negotiation, and consideration relatively easy.

If negotiation difficulties arise, the lowest level executive or manager who’s responsible for all parties can facilitate resolution. And over time, with practice, all parties learn to work out these issues more effectively. With outside vendors, this process can be more difficult, because of the absence of existing relationships, the termination of relationships when vendors exit the scene, and the lack of formal authority of some specific executive or manager.

If in-house staff can’t do the work, consider hiring

If the in-house staff is overloaded, or if they lack the skills necessary to take on the technical debt retirement effort, outsourcing can seem like the only workable approach. Not so fast though. If a stream of debt retirement projects is in your future, consider the advantages of building a debt retirement function with a long-term agenda. Examine again the factors cited above to determine the scale of the advantages of building such a team.

Outsourcing probably works well for refactoring

The one activity for which outsourcing can be a big win is refactoring. Refactoring doesn’t usually require much knowledge of company strategy. And it doesn’t require much “nonlocalizable” knowledge. That is, the requirement that the refactoring not cause changes in asset behavior enables the asset owner to write a very tight contract with the debt retirement team. They can then perform their work with confidence because they can test the asset’s behavior incrementally. Also, with refactoring, asset service disruptions are usually minimal.

Last words

One last suggestion. With outsourcing, the vendor might have significantly more experience with technical debt retirement efforts than does the client. This asymmetry gives the vendor an advantage at every stage. For technical debt retirement efforts, they know more about contracting, devising statements of work, defining acceptance criteria, and managing risk. Most important, they have experience dealing with the many speed bumps that can occur in these projects. To manage the risks of that advantage, consider retaining a consultant experienced in these situations. This person’s role is to monitor communications between enterprise and vendor to ensure fairness. The mere presence of such an individual can deter the vendor from some of the abuses that can be so tempting in these asymmetric situations when trouble arises.

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