Unintended associations of the technical debt metaphor

Last updated on July 8th, 2021 at 10:00 am

Because the term technical debt is a metaphor, it causes us to think in ways that sometimes create barriers to managing technical debt responsibly. Like all metaphors, the technical debt metaphor carries with it unintended associations—attributes of the metaphor’s source that the listener or reader attributes to the metaphor’s target, even though the attributions aren’t intended by the metaphor’s author. For the technical debt metaphor, these unintended associations relate to the concepts of debtor, principal, and interest, and they can cause enterprise decision makers to arrive at erroneous decisions.

Because metaphors compel our minds to accept the identification between source and target in toto, they can cause us to make errors of thought. Those errors create risks for the enterprise as we attempt to manage technical debt. The risk arises because we begin to regard technical debt as a form of financial debt, when in reality it is not. This misidentification is an acceptable risk, if we understand the risk and if we manage it properly. Unfortunately, we rarely recognize that risk. And unrecognized risks usually remain unmitigated. A significant source of this risk is our inability to control which attributes of the metaphor’s source the reader or listener chooses to associate with the metaphor’s target. I call this phenomenon unintended association.

Interest and principal have unintended associations

University graduates celebrate commencement
University graduates celebrate commencement. Some, perhaps most, carry a burden of student loan debt in addition to their diplomas. Student loans, now familiar to many, act as a source for the technical debt metaphor. They are therefore also a source for its unintended associations.
Two sets of unintended associations that frequently arise in the context of the technical debt metaphor relate to interest and principal. In the world of finance, we understand these concepts well. Unfortunately, our understanding from finance doesn’t fit well with the details of the corresponding properties of technical debt.

For example, van Haaster [van Haaster 2015] writes: “Financial debt has two well understood dimensions: the amount owing and its cost to repay over time, consequently when you take on financial debt, the total cost of that debt over time is either known or can be calculated.” Such beliefs about financial debt have consequences for our thinking about technical debt, because van Haaster’s statement is inapplicable to technical debt, for two reasons. First, the cost to repay a technical debt might not be well known. Second, the interest charges on technical debt might not be known, might not even be knowable, and often cannot be calculated [Falessi 2014]. These are just two examples of differences between financial debt and technical debt. We’ll explore these differences in some detail in coming posts.

How technical debt can be seen as evidence of mismanagement

A most significant unintended association is related to the concept of debt itself. Consider, for example, the social status of debtors in society. For many, excessive financial debt evokes images of profligate spending, laziness, and moral decay. These associations can hinder technology leaders within organizations as they urgently advocate for resources for technical debt management.

Because of unintended association, some decision makers outside the technology-oriented elements of the enterprise might regard technical debt as evidence of mismanagement. They might tend to attribute the cause of technical debt to professional malpractice by technologists. They see supportive evidence in the technology managers’ uncertainty about the size of the debt or how they acquired it. To the extent that nontechnical decision makers adopt this attitude, they are unlikely to support enterprise policy changes. They’re even less likely to support additional resources for technical debt management.

But the problems of the technical debt metaphor can be even more significant. The classic work of Lakoff and Johnson [Lakoff 1980] offers an explanation in terms of a metaphor (of course). In this metaphor:
  • Ideas are objects
  • Linguistic expressions are containers for ideas
  • Communication is the process of sending the containers along a conduit to a recipient

Metaphors have a significant weakness

Metaphors do have a significant weakness. When the recipient receives the container, he or she opens the container and extracts the idea. Unfortunately, things aren’t so simple. Lakoff and Johnson observe that the recipient must interpret the container’s contents relative to a context. But the recipient’s choice of context determines how well the metaphor serves the sender’s purposes. A broad array of context choices gives recipients freedom to interpret the linguistic expressions. That freedom is what leads to what I’ve been calling unintended associations.

For example, even within the enterprise’s technology sectors, the technical debt metaphor can create communication problems between technologists and their managers. Technologists are uniformly averse to technical debt. It makes their work more expensive and annoying. It limits their ability to enhance the assets they work with. To management, by contrast, the term debt evokes the idea of financial debt, which is useful when employed responsibly. Non-technologist managers don’t personally experience the frustrations and annoyance technical debt often causes. They don’t experience the visceral revulsion technologists feel when dealing with technical debt. The technical debt metaphor therefore accounts somewhat for differences in perceptions of technical debt.

When making the case for technical debt retirement, technologists must provide estimates of the scale of the problem, and explain how it arose. Those who interpret the term technical debt against a background of financial experience are likely to find unsettling the technologists’ admissions of total or partial ignorance of what led to the problem. Just as unsettling are the technologists’ admitted difficulties in estimating precisely the cost of retiring the technical debt. Such questions have definite answers for financial debt. For technical debt, they don’t, even though the terms financial debt and technical debt share the word debt.

Last words

Debates have erupted in the engineering literature about the meaning of the term technical debt. Is incomplete work technical debt if there had not been a conscious decision to postpone it? Is work performed shoddily to meet a tight schedule technical debt? The real problem isn’t ambiguity in the term technical debt; rather, it is that the term is only a metaphor. With regard to the technical debt metaphor, the range of possible interpretations is somewhat wider than some would like. Nearly all metaphors are subject to such problems.

It is this problem—a problem of all metaphors—that accounts for much of the difficulty enterprises have when they try to control technical debt.

But let’s turn now to a closer examination of the two most important unintended associations—principal and interest. We begin with principal next time.


[Falessi 2014] D. Falessi, Philippe Kruchten, Robert L. Nord, and Ipek Ozkaya. “Technical Debt at the Crossroads of Research and Practice: Report on the Fifth International Workshop on Managing Technical Debt,” ACM SIGSOFT Software Engineering Notes 39:2, 31-33, 2014.

Available: here; Retrieved: March 16, 2017

Cited in:

[Lakoff 1980] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

The classic and fundamental study of metaphor. Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[van Haaster 2015] Kelsey van Haaster. “Technical Debt: A Systems Perspective,” Better Projects blog, January 8, 2015.

Available: here; Retrieved: October 2, 2017

Cited in:

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