Technical debt smell

Last updated on July 7th, 2021 at 05:16 pm

“The Young Chief Uncas,” 1869 chromolithograph by John Mix Stanley (1814–1872)
“The Young Chief Uncas,” 1869 chromolithograph by John Mix Stanley (1814–1872). Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Uncas then deduces amazing details about the man who left the track he examined—150 years ahead of Sherlock Holmes. Natty Bumppo, Cooper’s Hawkeye character, calls the signs Uncas uses tell-tales.

Technical debt smell would be a useful indicator of the presence of a severe problem of technical debt in an organization. Unfortunately, technical debt doesn’t usually have a smell, as such. But metaphorically, it might have indirect indicators, just as we might say, “I smell a rat” when probing a mystery. Actually, the idea of indirect indicators has a long and storied tradition. In one scene midway through James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, Uncas (who is the actual last of the Mohicans) demonstrates his tracking skills [Cooper 1857]:

The young Mohican bent over the track, and removing the scattered leaves from around the place, he examined it with much of that sort of scrutiny that a money-dealer, in these days of pecuniary doubts, would bestow on a suspected due-bill. At length he arose from his knees, satisfied with the result of the examination.

Tell-tales in Nature

Nature abounds with examples of such skill at noticing tell-tales. Lions, tigers, bears, and all sorts of fauna use their olfactory senses to detect food, predators, mates, offspring, weather, and even the change of seasons. Smell gives them access to information they need, often before sight or hearing can.

That’s probably a part of why smell has become a useful metaphor in software engineering. The technical literature about code smells is vast and growing [Haque 2018]. In a blog post titled “CodeSmell,” Martin Fowler defines code smell as, “…a surface indication that usually corresponds to a deeper problem in the system.” [Fowler 2006] Code smells are traits that are easy to recognize, and often—but not always—indicators of problems.

Enter the “red flag”

The concept is also useful in the business domain, though there we use a different metaphor and a different term. In the business context, we call smells red flags. Investopedia defines a red flag as, “…an indicator of potential problems with a security, such as any undesirable characteristic that stands out to an analyst as it pertains to a company’s stock, financial statements or negative news reports.” But I’ve heard the term red flag used in the context of evaluating proposals, assessments, status reports, personnel, and intelligence of all kinds.

Whether called tell-tales, smells, red flags, or just indicators, their value is that they suggest the outlines of something we haven’t yet seen clearly enough to identify with certainty. Their principal attributes are that they’re available at the surface of the domain we’re surveying, they’re relatively cheap to obtain, and, if found, they suggest trouble, and deeper investigation might be worthwhile.

Cultural smells

In the software engineering community, technical debt is regarded as a smell that indicates trouble in the system’s software. So we might ask, “Among policymakers, what are the smells that indicate trouble in the organization?” If technical debt is the trouble we’re looking for, what are the cultural smells that indicate that technical debt might be a problem?

Said differently, can we find, or can we develop, a set of attributes of enterprise culture that indicate the degree of severity of an organization’s problems with technical debt?

Here are some possible “technical debt smells”—aspects of enterprise culture that could indicate problems with technical debt:

  • There is a general belief that technical debt afflicts some organizations, but not ours
  • We’re a new startup—just a year old—so we have no technical debt.
  • We don’t build software, therefore no technical debt
  • Nontechnical members of our executive team have little if any knowledge of the concept of technical debt
  • No enterprise resources are allocated to educating nontechnical employees about technical debt
  • The VP of Marketing doesn’t believe that anything she does could possibly contribute to technical debt
  • There is a general belief that if we have technical debt, it’s due solely to malpractice on the part of engineers
  • We’ve tried to assess the total cost of eliminating all of our technical debt. But we found the estimates so unreliable that we decided to leave well enough alone.
  • We do believe that technical debt does have costs. But because it only affects the productivity of engineers, we just hired more engineers and decided to live with it.

Last words

Clearly we could assemble a list of technical debt smells—beliefs about technical debt and behaviors that affect it—and check for their presence in a given organization. But fortunately, some of that work has already been done, albeit in a very different context; That context is a malady psychiatrists call “Substance Use Disorder.” More about that next time.


[Cooper 1857] James Fenimore Cooper. The Last of the Mohicans, New York: Bantam Classics, 1982.

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Cited in:

[Fowler 2006] Martin Fowler. “CodeSmell,” Martin Fowler (blog), February 9, 2006.

Available: here; Retrieved: June 6, 2018

Cited in:

[Haque 2018] Md Shariful Haque, Jeff Carver, and Travis Atkison. "Causes, impacts, and detection approaches of code smell: a survey." Proceedings of the ACMSE 2018 Conference. ACM, 2018.

Cited in:

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