Failure to communicate the technical debt concept

Last updated on July 7th, 2021 at 07:48 pm

A tensegrity 3-prism
A tensegrity three-prism. Read about tensegrity structures. Image (cc) Bob Burkhardt courtesy Wikimedia.

The behavior of internal customers and users of enterprise technological assets can contribute to technical debt formation and persistence. Because of these contributions, introducing effective technical debt management practices requires widespread behavioral changes on the part of those internal customers and users. Accepting these changes, and the initiative and creativity they require, is possible only if people understand the technical debt concept. When they do, they can appreciate the benefits of controlling technical debt, and the consequences of failing to control it. Similarly, when they do not understand or accept the technical debt concept, progress toward effective technical debt management is unlikely. Policymakers can contribute to the planning and execution of the required organizational transformation.

Even when engineering teams are aware of the technical debt concept, and when they do try to manage technical debt, progress can be elusive. Significant progress requires the support and understanding of engineering management, internal customers, and customers’ managements. Everyone must understand that controlling technical debt—and retiring it—is a necessary engineering activity that has a business purpose. Everyone must understand that technical debt arises as a result of everyone’s behavior—not just the behavior of technologists.

Part of the job of Management is to ensure that engineers have what they need to avoid incurring technical debt unnecessarily. Management must also ensure that they have what they need to retire elements of legacy technical debt on a regular basis. Internal customers must understand that communicating their long-term business strategies to Engineering is essential for limiting unnecessary creation of artifacts that become nonstrategic technical debt. Only by understanding the technical debt concept can internal customers learn to avoid the behaviors that lead to nonstrategic technical debt, and adopt behaviors that limit new technical debt.

The tensegrity structure metaphor for technical debt management

Tensegrity structures provide a metaphor for organizations that have mastered the technical debt concept. Tensegrity structures use isolated rigid components in compression, held by a network of strings or cables in tension. The rigid components are usually struts or masts, and they aren’t in contact with each other.

The struts correspond to the users or customers of technological assets. The cables correspond to the engineering activities required to support the customers. The organization is stable relative to technical debt only when the two kinds of elements (struts and cables) work together, each playing its own role, but each appreciating the role of the other.

Advocating for cultural transformation

Advocates of any change to organizational culture are often seen as acting in their own self-interest. That’s a common risk associated with cultural transformation. It’s a risk that can lead to failure when inserting practices related to technical debt management into the culture. The risk is greatest when advocates for change are drawn exclusively from the technical elements of the enterprise. The ideal advocates for these ideas and practices are the internal customers of the technical organizations, and senior management.

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