Tension between policymakers and technologists

Last updated on July 11th, 2021 at 08:57 am

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

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

Technical debt is not just a technical problem

The objective of technical debt management policy is effective, sustainable control of technical debt. In an enterprise that has achieved this objective, technical debt serves as a strategic tool. That tool assists in attaining and maintaining market leadership. In such an organization, technical debt does exist, and some legacy technical debt might remain in place. But the enterprise manages technical debt growth strategically, if growth occurs at all. The enterprise addresses any technical debt that carries significant MICs. And it pays special attention to technical debt that compromises productivity and enterprise agility. In short, the enterprise addresses technical debt not only as a technological issue, but also as a component of business strategy.

This stance is at odds with the historical position most enterprises have adopted vis-à-vis technical debt. In the historic view, technical debt is a technical problem, if it is recognized at all. Most enterprises relegate technical debt management to the technologists. Frequently, then, technologists view as interlopers any policymakers who enter the discussion about technical debt. Any such policymakers usually arrive late to the discussion. Technologists often view them as less-than-knowledgeable invaders attempting to seize control of a piece of the technologists’ domain. In this way tensions can arise between policymakers and technologists. Such tensions complicate the problem of managing technical debt.

Sources of tension

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

Last words

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

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

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