Useful projections of MPrin might not be attainable

Last updated on November 28th, 2017 at 11:32 am

SummaryExpect the unexpected with technical debt retirement efforts. Technical debt retirement efforts can conflict with ongoing operations, maintenance of existing capabilities, development of new capabilities, cyberdefense, or other technical debt retirement efforts. Although these conflicts are technical in nature, resolving them can involve business priorities at any level. Planners must be aware of these potential conflicts, and coordinate with their leaders. Policymakers can make important contributions to the enterprise mission if they can devise guidelines and frameworks for resolving these conflicts as closely as possible to the technical level.

For planning purposes, it’s necessary from time to time to project the size of the MPrin for given class of technical debt. The need arises when planning debt retirement, or when preparing debt retirement options for determining resource allocations. Although retiring some kinds of technical debt is straightforward, other kinds of debt can be intertwined with each other. Still others might appear to be easily retired, but actual retirement efforts expose unanticipated entanglements. Moreover, debt retirement efforts can sometimes interact with other debt retirement efforts, operations, maintenance, cyberdefense, and new development in both expected and unexpected ways. For these reasons, making estimates of the MPrin with enough precision to be useful can be notoriously difficult.

A tangle of cordage
A tangle of cordage on board ship. Different kinds of technical debt can be tangled with each other, and untangling them can affect various other engineering efforts. Preparing an asset for a debt retirement effort by doing some preliminary untangling might be wise before trying to estimate the MPrin of any affected class of technical debt.

These considerations rarely arise when planning retirement of financial debts, because money is fungible. We might indeed have other uses for financial resources, but every unit of cash is equivalent to every other. That freedom is not necessarily available when planning resource allocations for technical debt retirement.

For example, not every engineer is equally qualified to address every problem. Some people are particularly capable for certain kinds of work, and not very qualified for other kinds. The problem of scheduling specialists is notorious for generating bottlenecks. And split assignments create even more trouble. People are not fungible.

Planning retirement of a particular set of technical debt classes requires knowledge of any efforts with which that retirement effort might interact. That information might not be available or might not be known. In general, preliminary work to decouple these activities — often called refactoring — can greatly simplify technical debt retirement planning. Even before undertaking refactoring, gathering information about the entanglements of different classes of technical debt can be very helpful. Because allocating resources to such efforts can be difficult in feature-oriented cultures, policymakers can take the lead in raising the priority of such efforts.

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