Nontechnical precursors of nonstrategic technical debt

Last updated on July 8th, 2021 at 01:09 pm

Nonstrategic technical debt is technical debt that appears in the asset without strategic purpose. We tend to introduce nonstrategic technical debt by accident, or as the result of urgency, or from changes in standards, laws, or regulations—almost any source other than asset-related engineering purposes. In this thread I examine a variety of precursors of nonstrategic technical debt that aren’t directly related to technology. Sources of these precursors include:

  • Communication between and among people
  • Organizational policies relating to job assignments
  • Cognitive biases [Kahneman 2011]
  • Performance management policy
  • Incentive structures
  • Organizational structures
  • Contract language
  • Outsourcing
  • …and approaches to dealing with budget depletion.

Precursors vs. causes

The cables of the Brooklyn Bridge are an example of nonstrategic technical debt
Some of the suspension cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. Washington Roebling, the chief engineer, designed them to be composed of 19 “strands” of wire rope [McCullough 1972]. Each strand had 278 steel wires. Thus, the original design called for a total of 5,282 wires in each of the main cables. After the wire stringing began, the bridge company made an unsettling discovery. The wire supplier, J. Lloyd Haigh, had been delivering defective wire by circumventing the stringent inspection procedures. In all, Roebling estimated that 221 U.S. tons (200 metric tons) of rejected wire had been installed. This was a significant fraction of the planned total weight of 3,400 U.S. tons (3,084 metric tons). Because they couldn’t remove the defective wire, Roebling decided to add about 150 wires to each main cable. That extra wire would be provided at no charge by Haigh [Talbot 2011]. I can’t confirm this, but I suspect that Roebling actually added 152 wires, which would be eight wires for each of the 19 strands. That made a total of 286 wires per strand, or 5,434 wires. The presence of the defective wire in the bridge cables—which remains to this day—is an example of technical debt. The fraud perpetrated by Haigh illustrates how malfeasance can lead to technical debt.
I use the term precursor instead of cause because none of these conditions leads to technical debt inevitably. From the perspective of the policymaker, we can view these conditions as risks. It’s the task of the policymaker to devise policies that manage these risks.

McConnell has classified technical debt in a framework that distinguishes responsible forms of technical debt from other forms [McConnell 2008]. Briefly, we incur some technical debt strategically and responsibly. Then we retire it when the time is right. We incur other technical debt for other reasons, some of which are inconsistent with enterprise health and wellbeing.

The distinction is lost on many. Unfortunately, most technical debt is nonstrategic. We would have been better off  if we had never created it. Or if we had retired it almost immediately. In any case we should have retired it long ago.

It’s this category of nonstrategic technical debt that I deal with in this thread. Although all technical debt is unwelcome, we’re especially interested in nonstrategic technical debt, because it’s usually uncontrolled. In these posts I explore the nontechnical mechanisms that lead to formation of nonstrategic technical debt. Schedule pressure is one exception. Because it’s so important, it deserves a thread of its own. I’ll address it later.

Last words

Here are some of the more common precursors of nonstrategic technical debt.

I’ll be adding posts on these topics, so check back often, or subscribe to receive notifications when they’re available.

References

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

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Cited in:

[McConnell 2008] Steve McConnell. Managing Technical Debt, white paper, Construx Software, 2008.

Available: here; Retrieved November 10, 2017.

Cited in:

[McCullough 1972] David McCullough. The Great Bridge: The epic story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

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Cited in:

[Talbot 2011] J. Talbot. “The Brooklyn Bridge: First Steel-Wire Suspension Bridge.” Modern Steel Construction 51:6, 42-46, 2011.

Available: here; Retrieved: December 20, 2017.

Cited in:

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With all deliberate urgency

Last updated on July 7th, 2021 at 03:21 pm

Dusty Baker as Manager of the Washington Nationals in 2017
Dusty Baker (center) as Washington Nationals’ Manager, at a game at the home field of the Baltimore Orioles, May 8, 2017. At right is Davey Lopes, the first base coach. I can’t identify the man on the left. If you can, let me know. Photo (cc) Keith Allison courtesy Wikimedia

One of the drivers of technical debt—one of the most important generators of technical debt—is pressure to complete projects. It is pressure that leads to crossing the fine line from urgency to panic when it comes to deadlines.

On October 12, 2017, the Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals met at the Nationals’ home field for Game 5 of the National League Divisional Series. The series was tied 2-2. It was a high-pressure game that would decide the division championship. By the end of the second inning, the Nationals led 4-1. They would eventually lose, 9-8.

Pressure situations are tough.

After losing the first game of the series, Dusty Baker, the Nationals’ manager, conducted a press conference before Game 2. A difficult situation for any manager. He’s quoted [Gonzales 2017] as saying, “There’s a fine line between urgency and panic, and the thing that you never want to do, you never want to panic.”

“The thing that you never want to do, you never want to panic”

These are words of wisdom that apply just as well in business, especially with respect to technical debt. Consider this scenario:

Sales at Unbelievable Growth, Inc.,(UGI) have been only fair this fiscal year—far from “unbelievable.” But a new product is under development, an app for Android and iPhone called StrawIntoGold 1.0. It has an uncanny ability to predict the price movements of specific common stocks over the next 60 seconds. (This is totally fictitious) Unfortunately, StrawIntoGold development is behind schedule. After the all-hands meeting yesterday, the core engineering team had a three-hour meeting. They found some ways to wrap things up in the next ten days. They think they can do it by eliminating some testing and performing other tests manually. And they plan to re-use some code from the beta version that they had previously decided to replace.

If the UGI engineers succeed, they’ll be incurring technical debt. They’ve crossed the “urgency line.” Although it’s too soon to say definitively that they’ve panicked, the risk of reaching some degree of panic is high. And that risk will get higher as the deadline approaches.

Urgency focuses our energy and attention. As Dusty Baker says, “You have to be of the coolness of mind, but then bring desire to succeed in your heart, and then respond.” When urgency is deliberate, urgency gets the job done. Deliberate urgency is what Kotter calls healthy urgency [Kotter 2014].

Consequences of panic

Panic is something else. It can cause us to choose to cut corners, a choice commonly cited as a source of technical debt. When it makes clear thinking difficult, it impedes memory, increases error rates, reduces attention spans, and contributes to toxic conflict. In short, it makes any kind of brainwork more difficult, less effective, and less reliable.

It’s reasonable to suppose that panic isn’t helpful in avoiding or removing technical debt in any kind of technological asset. It’s just as reasonable to suppose that panic actually contributes to technical debt formation and persistence.

Urgency, good. Panic, bad. Once you let panic into an organization’s culture, the effect on technical debt is predictable. Over time, technical debt will increase out of control.

So what alternatives do the UGI engineers have? In most organizations, they would probably have no alternative. StrawIntoGold 1.0 would be offered to customers in a very sorry state that might not affect its performance, but its maintainability—its sustainability—would be poor. The prospects for version 2.0 would not be bright.

Redefining the word “done”

But some organizations do find alternative approaches. What they do, in effect, is redefine the word “done” as it applies to the StrawIntoGold 1.0 product. In that redefined form, “done” has two stages.

In Stage 1, UGI does release StrawIntoGold 1.0, despite its unsustainable state. But then UGI management makes a clever decision. Instead of moving the StrawIntoGold team on to begin version 2.0, or what is worse, reassigning the team members to other projects, UGI management charters the StrawIntoGold 1.0 team with retiring the technical debt they incurred to meet the version 1.0 deadline.

In Stage 2, they restrict the team’s efforts to technical debt retirement only, so that they produce a version 1.1 that is identical to version 1.0 from the customer perspective. That becomes Stage 2 of “done.” They defer any work on version 2.0, because starting 2.0 would cause fragmentation of the 1.0 team. StrawIntoGold 1.0 is thenceforth shelved, and any new orders are filled with StrawIntoGold 1.1. Then work on version 2.0 begins.

By carefully managing their technical debt, UGI can make its products more sustainable in the very dynamic mobile device app market. They exploit urgency deliberately. They do not panic. Then, at UGI, situations like the one that hit StrawIntoGold 1.0 become rare.

Do you have any teams that have crossed the fine line between urgency and panic?

References

[Gonzales 2017] Mark Gonzales. “Nationals manager Dusty Baker preaches calm vs. Cubs,” ChicagoTribune.com, October 7, 2017.

Available: here; Retrieved: December 13, 2017.

Cited in:

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

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Cited in:

[Kotter 2014] John P. Kotter. “To Create Healthy Urgency, Focus on a Big Opportunity,” Harvard Business Review, February 21, 2014.

Available: here; Retrieved: December 13, 2017.

Cited in:

[McConnell 2008] Steve McConnell. Managing Technical Debt, white paper, Construx Software, 2008.

Available: here; Retrieved November 10, 2017.

Cited in:

[McCullough 1972] David McCullough. The Great Bridge: The epic story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Talbot 2011] J. Talbot. “The Brooklyn Bridge: First Steel-Wire Suspension Bridge.” Modern Steel Construction 51:6, 42-46, 2011.

Available: here; Retrieved: December 20, 2017.

Cited in:

Other posts in this thread

MICs can differ for different instances of the same kind of technical debt

Last updated on July 8th, 2021 at 12:46 pm

For financial debts, the interest charges associated with a unit of debt are (usually) the same for every unit of debt incurred under the same loan agreement. But for technical debt, the MICs associated with a given instance of a class of technical debt might differ from the MICs associated with any other instance of the same class of technical debt. They can differ even if we incurred those instances of technical debt at the same time. And they can differ even if they formed as results of a single decision or sequence of events. Unlike the transactions on a credit card, the interest charges can vary for instances of the same kind of technical debt.

Why MICs can differ from instance to instance

Collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota
The I-35W Bridge collapse, day 4, Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 5, 2007. Underweight gusset plate design made the bridge vulnerable due to the increased static load from concrete road surfacing additions. And it was especially vulnerable due to the weight of construction equipment and supplies during a repair project that was then underway. But the root cause of the failure was that the bridge was “fracture critical.” It was vulnerable to collapse if any one of a set of critical bridge members failed. The 18,000 fracture critical bridges in the U.S. were built (or are being built) because they’re cheaper than are bridges that have zero fracture critical members [CBS News 2013]. Expedient shortcuts are among the most prolific generators of technical debt. For bridges, the MICs could include inspections, repairs, and temporary closures for inspections and repairs. Variations of design from bridge to bridge clearly could create variations in MICs from bridge to bridge. Photo by Kevin Rofidal, United States Coast Guard,  courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
For most financial debts, a single algorithm determines the interest charges for every unit of a particular class of debt. Following the technical debt metaphor, people tend to assume that the MICs on every instance of a particular class of technical debt are uniform across the entire class.

But in practice, uniformity assumptions with regard to MICs are generally invalid. Given two different instances of the same kind of technical debt, the MICs associated with modifying asset components in and around those two instances can differ significantly. For any given instance of a particular class of technical debt, MICs can depend on whether engineers must interact with that part of the asset. And when they do interact with a given asset component, MICs can also depend upon the transparency and condition of that asset component.

Two examples illustrating varying MICs

For example, an instance of technical debt might reside in a setting that relatively few local experts understand. The people who are capable of doing that work might be in high demand, or heavily committed, or expensive. Subsequent scheduling difficulty can lead to delays or service interruptions associated with completing the required work. That can result in lost revenue, which also contributes to MICs. Meanwhile, instances of the same kind of technical debt residing in other parts of the asset might be addressable by less expert staff. They might be in lesser demand, and less well compensated. Service interruptions might be shorter, and lost revenue less. The MICs associated with these two cases can therefore differ significantly.

As a second example, consider documentation deficits. Suppose an engineer needs documentation to determine how to proceed, and that documentation doesn’t exist. The engineer must then resort to alternatives that might be more time-consuming. He or she might read code or specifications, or interview colleagues. But for two instances of the same kind of technical debt, the need to refer to documentation can differ. The engineer might need documentation for one instance in one part of the asset, but not for another.

Last words

Another form of documentation deficit can be especially costly. Suppose engineers need documentation, and it does exist, but it’s out of date or incorrect. Those engineers might make costly, potentially irreversible errors when they undertake maintenance or extension activity. When testing uncovers the defects the engineers unwittingly introduced due to the defective documentation, the damage is less. But if testing doesn’t catch the defects, they might somehow find their way into production. If they do, the revenue or liability impact can be substantial. And the impact can vary from instance to instance of the technical debt in question. These effects are all forms of MICs.

So MICs can vary almost on an instance-by-instance basis. Or they might be constant across instances. It’s difficult to say. But the easy assumption—that MICs are the same for all instances of a given class of technical debt—the easy assumption is probably incorrect.

References

[CBS News 2013] CBS News and the Associated Press. “Thousands of U.S. bridges vulnerable to collapse,” May 25, 2013.

Available: here; Retrieved: November 29, 2017

Cited in:

[Gonzales 2017] Mark Gonzales. “Nationals manager Dusty Baker preaches calm vs. Cubs,” ChicagoTribune.com, October 7, 2017.

Available: here; Retrieved: December 13, 2017.

Cited in:

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

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Kotter 2014] John P. Kotter. “To Create Healthy Urgency, Focus on a Big Opportunity,” Harvard Business Review, February 21, 2014.

Available: here; Retrieved: December 13, 2017.

Cited in:

[McConnell 2008] Steve McConnell. Managing Technical Debt, white paper, Construx Software, 2008.

Available: here; Retrieved November 10, 2017.

Cited in:

[McCullough 1972] David McCullough. The Great Bridge: The epic story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Talbot 2011] J. Talbot. “The Brooklyn Bridge: First Steel-Wire Suspension Bridge.” Modern Steel Construction 51:6, 42-46, 2011.

Available: here; Retrieved: December 20, 2017.

Cited in:

Related posts

MICs can fluctuate dramatically

Last updated on July 8th, 2021 at 11:54 am

A common assumption vis-à-vis technical debt is that we can model its productivity-depressing and velocity-reducing effects. We model them as the “interest” on the technical debt (MICs). And we assume that MICs are relatively constant over time. In practice, MICs can fluctuate dramatically. Those fluctuations provide planners valuable insight and flexibility, if they choose to use it. Unfortunately, most plans I have seen make the assumption that MICs are relatively stable.

An example of MICs behavior

30-year average fixed mortgage rates in the United States, 2012-2017
30-year average fixed mortgage rates in the United States, 2012-2017, in %. Over this five-year period, rates did fluctuate. But they did so in a narrow range of from 3.3% to just over 4.5%. When we speak of “interest,” we evoke an impression of relative stability. This happens even when we’re speaking of technical debt. MICs for technical debt can vary from 0 to well above MPrin in any given time period. That’s one thing that makes the term “interest” so misleading in the context of technical debt. Data provided by U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis [Federal Reserve 2017].
As an example of this assumption is available in a paper by Buschmann [Buschmann 2011b]. He states that the longer we wait to retire technical debt in design and code, the larger the amount of interest. This presumes constant or non-negative MICs. That assumption that might be valid for some situations, but it isn’t universally applicable.

Consider a project that entails maintenance or extension of parts of the system that don’t manifest a specific class of technical debt. And suppose that the assets in question don’t depend on elements that do manifest that debt. Such a project is less likely to incur the MICs associated with that debt. So with respect to any particular class of technical debt, there might be time periods in which no projects incur MICs. During those periods, the interest accrued can be zero. In other time periods, the interest accrued on account of that same class of technical debt could be very high indeed.

These effects are quite apart from the tendency of MPrin to grow with time, as we noted in an earlier post (see “Debt contagion: how technical debt can create more technical debt”).

Last words

A capacity for projecting MICs associated with a particular class of technical debt can be useful to planners as they work out schedules for maintenance projects, development projects, and technical debt retirement projects. Technical debt retirement projects are also subject to MICs, including from classes of technical debt other than the debt they’re retiring.

Analogous to the functioning of governance boards, a technical debt resources board could provide resources for evaluating assessments of likely MICs for maintenance projects, development projects, and technical debt retirement projects. Decision makers could use these assessments when they set priorities for these various efforts. I’ll say more about technical debt resources boards in future posts.

References

[Buschmann 2011b] Frank Buschmann. “To Pay or Not to Pay Technical Debt,” IEEE Software, November/December 2011, 29-31.

Available: here; Retrieved: March 16, 2017.

Cited in:

[CBS News 2013] CBS News and the Associated Press. “Thousands of U.S. bridges vulnerable to collapse,” May 25, 2013.

Available: here; Retrieved: November 29, 2017

Cited in:

[Federal Reserve 2017] Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. “30-Year Fixed Rate Mortgage Average in the United States (MORTGAGE30US).” Weekly time series.

Available: here; Retrieved: November 25, 2017.

Cited in:

[Gonzales 2017] Mark Gonzales. “Nationals manager Dusty Baker preaches calm vs. Cubs,” ChicagoTribune.com, October 7, 2017.

Available: here; Retrieved: December 13, 2017.

Cited in:

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

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Kotter 2014] John P. Kotter. “To Create Healthy Urgency, Focus on a Big Opportunity,” Harvard Business Review, February 21, 2014.

Available: here; Retrieved: December 13, 2017.

Cited in:

[McConnell 2008] Steve McConnell. Managing Technical Debt, white paper, Construx Software, 2008.

Available: here; Retrieved November 10, 2017.

Cited in:

[McCullough 1972] David McCullough. The Great Bridge: The epic story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Talbot 2011] J. Talbot. “The Brooklyn Bridge: First Steel-Wire Suspension Bridge.” Modern Steel Construction 51:6, 42-46, 2011.

Available: here; Retrieved: December 20, 2017.

Cited in:

Related posts