Major Tech Projects

Last time we saw how a target architecture can guide you in your day to day technical decision making. But what do you do when your target architecture is considerably different from your current architecture?

Ways of working differ considerably between organizations, but most tech companies nowadays use some form of agile process (or at least claim to), where a Product Owner prioritizes a backlog of smallish items for the team to work on. That’s the context we’ll assume for this post.

The question then becomes how you convince a business-oriented Product Owner to prioritize technical improvement work over value-added work, such as new features. This question becomes even more pressing when the amount of tech work is not small, but rather an entire project in itself. This type of work doesn’t fit all that well into the agile model of continuous delivery of value through small increments. So what to do?

First of all, it’s always good if you can split the work into smaller pieces. Those are easier to squeeze in and, more importantly, carry less risk. But even if you manage to do that for a big tech overhaul, you’ll end up with a long list of tech items that somehow need to find their way to the top of the backlog.

You could try to persuade the Product Owner in a separate discussion about each and every one of these tech items. However, since Product Owners are judged by how much value they deliver sooner rather than later, you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle. That doesn’t mean it can’t work in your context, of course, but in general the chances aren’t great when the number of tech items grows.

Alternatively, you could treat this as technical debt, assuming you have a well-functioning process for handling that. That’s quite an assumption, by the way. Some teams use their slack time to dig themselves out of holes, but most teams are not fortunate enough to have slack time. (As an industry, we’re slow learners. Mythical man-month, anyone?) Many teams I’ve seen that keep track of tech debt just keep growing it year over year and I hate to think about the teams that don’t even keep track of it.

Under construction

Part of the problem with tech debt is that the metaphor is broken. Financial people will tell you that some amount of debt is good and that you shouldn’t get rid of all of it. That’s just not how developers see tech debt. I’ve also yet to see a team that regularly and consistently pays off tech debt, like one would make monthly payments to pay off, say, a mortgage.

Idea Flow argues that we should abandon the technical debt concept in favor of risk and that we should let the team be guided by both a Product Owner, for business value, and Technical Risk Manager, for keeping risk within an acceptable range. It’s an interesting concept that sounds like it may work, but the problem will be in estimating the risk. I haven’t seen this done in practice yet, so if you have experience with this, please leave a comment below.

A somewhat similar, but less refined, approach is to allocate two budgets for the team: one for doing value-added work and one for doing technical work. You could assign a 3:1 ratio to those budgets, for instance, which means 75% of developer time would be spent on adding business value and 25% on technical work items. Then if you have a year where you need to do some major technical work, you could ask for a temporary change in this ratio.

Yet another approach is the dreaded rewrite: you stop all value-added work for some time and do only technical work. This allows the team to make quick progress in the technical area, but is generally not liked all that much by the business. You can get away with this only every so often, as it tends to take a huge bite out of your political capital. But at some point it will become your only option if you don’t find a better way first.

What do you think? What ways to schedule time for major technical projects have worked for you? Please leave a comment below.

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