Unintended associations of the technical debt metaphor

Last updated on July 31st, 2018 at 09:54 am

Summary
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 are not 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 it is properly managed and understood. Unfortunately, that risk is often unrecognized, and when it is unrecognized it remains 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. It is this phenomenon that I call unintended association.

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, two concepts we understand well in the realm of finance. Unfortunately, our understanding from finance does not 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 shall explore these differences in some detail in the next three chapters.

A most significant unintended association is that 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 technology managers. They see supportive evidence in the technology managers’ uncertainty about the size of the debt or how they acquired the debt. To the extent that non-technical decision makers adopt this attitude, they are unlikely to support enterprise policy changes. They are 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 issue is explained in a classic work of Lakoff and Johnson [Lakoff 1980] 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 do have a significant weakness. When the recipient receives the container, he or she opens the container and extracts the idea, completing the communication. Unfortunately things are not so simple. Lakoff and Johnson observe that the recipient must interpret the linguistic expressions of the container relative to a context. Because the choice of context is left to the recipient, the breadth of choices possible can determine how well the metaphor serves the sender’s purposes. A broad array of possible context choices gives recipients relative freedom to interpret the linguistic expressions. That freedom is what leads to what I have been calling unintended associations.

For example, even within the technology sectors of the enterprise, the technical debt metaphor can create communication problems between technologists and their managers. To technologists, technical debt is unequivocally disfavored. It makes their work more expensive and more annoying, and it limits their ability to enhance the assets for which they are responsible. To management, by contrast, the term debt evokes the idea of financial debt, which is a useful tool when employed responsibly. Managers do not personally experience the frustrations and annoyance that technical debt often causes. They do not experience the visceral revulsion that technologists feel when contemplating instances of technical debt. The differences in degree of urgency perceived by managers and technologists are therefore due, in part, to the technical debt metaphor and the use of the word debt.

Moreover, 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 be troubled by the technologists’ admissions of total or partial ignorance of what led to the problem, or by their admitted difficulties in providing precise estimates of the cost of retiring the technical debt. Such questions have definite answers for financial debt. For technical debt, they do not, even though the terms financial debt and technical debt share the word debt.

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 is not 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.

References

[Falessi 2014] D. Falessi, P. Kruchten, R.L. Nord, and I. 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] G. Lakoff and M. 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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