What is technical debt?

This article is my own synthesis of ideas presented at Lean Agile Scotland in September 2014 by Dan North, Jabe Bloom and Torbjörn Gyllebring, with some of my own embellishments. Any misunderstanding of their points is mine! I’ve linked to their original talks at the foot of this post.

Conway’s Law says that the design of our system will be rooted in the design of our organisation.

So, we can never design a system from scratch: some of the design will have already started before we start designing.

This isn’t necessarily a problem, however: indeed, we should embrace it, because organisations suck if they don’t have the right APIs and other architectural borders in place between where teams are (that’s when teams start to get bureaucratic layers preventing their work from proceeding as their pace.) We should take time to get this right, and this is why having micro-services to do communication between teams is a good idea.

However much we work on this, however, we will face problems in the code we write, many of which will relate to the architecture. We can either chose to fix the symptom (via a quick fix) or to fix the underlying problem (which is generally more time-consuming). Quick fixes aren’t necessarily bad when applied in conjunction with a longer-term fix but remember they are akin to painkillers, and you can’t take painkillers indefinitely.

Quick fixes often take the form of a mandated structure: we might add too much or too little process, a particular build system, an architectural design ‘recommendation’, a decision on a particular source control system or IDE, or similar. As managers, we should be especially careful with such quick fixes. We are aiming to apply a ‘Goldilocks’ amount of constraint on our teams: too constrained and development will stop because the people can’t do their job; too little constraint and there will be too many options to do the right thing. The right amount is a strategy that’s clear enough to give us a task for today and a constrained set of options for the future. That strategy is actually a conversation – top-down constraints from management, and bottom-up information and designs from the development teams.

Partly because of the difficulty of identifying the ‘Goldilocks amount’ without information from the team (which presupposes time taken to do investigation), quick fixes generally tend to exhibit more unintended consequences than fixes that correct the underlying problem.

In a Cynefin sense, rather than taking time to analyse a problem as demanded by Complicated scenarios, our quick fix has made matters worse by creating a Complex relationship. The side effects can’t be foreseen, but become apparent in retrospect. Worse still, the quick fix may fail to address the root cause of the problem, and so we may get a positive feedback loop causing problems to increase as a result of our solutions.

This is technical debt, because the system starts constraining what we can do.

Cynefin tells us we should monitor for this positive feedback and, when we sense it, take time to respond to it, possibly by rolling back the change and trying a different approach.

To check for technical debt, therefore, we should periodically take time to ensure that our system isn’t constraining us. We can do this, for example, by ensuring our tools haven’t become our masters by checking that we can still build our products using a single command line (without complex CI systems) and that refactoring can be done in Notepad (without Resharper).

Original videos: