No need to manage technical debt

There are a lot of articles and presentations out there that discuss how to manage technical debt. In my opinion, most of these approaches are workarounds to fix a broken system. As usual, it’s much better to treat the disease than the symptoms.

Most of the discussions around technical debt take for granted that technical debt is unavoidable and will increase over time until it grinds development down to a halt. Unless we figure out a way to manage it.

This rests on two debatable assumptions.

The first assumption is that there has to be a battle of some kind between development and “product” or “the business” where “product” always wins, leading to technical debt. Consider an excerpt from this article:

The product manager describes the next feature they want to be added to the product. Developers give a high estimate for the time it takes to implement, which is seen as too long. The developers talk about having to deal with the implications of making changes to lots of hard to understand code or working around bugs in old libraries or frameworks. Then the developers ask for time to address these problems, and the product manager declines, referring to the big backlog of desired features that need to be implemented first.

The assumption is that a product manager or “the business” decides how software developers spend their time. While this might seem logical, since “the business” pays the developers’ salaries, it’s a very poor setup.

First of all, let’s consider this from a roles and responsibilities angle. Who will get yelled at (hopefully figuratively) when technical debt increases to the point that delays become a problem? If you think the product manager, then think again. If the developers are accountable for maintaining a sustainable pace of delivery, then they should have the responsibility to address technical debt as well. Otherwise we’re just setting developers up to fail.

Secondly, let’s look at this from a skills and knowledge perspective. Technical debt is just a fancy term for poor maintainability. Maintainability is one of several quality dimensions. For example, here’s how ISO 25010 defines quality:

Product managers are great at functionality and (hopefully) usability, but they aren’t qualified to make tradeoffs between all these quality attributes. That’s what we have architects for. (Whether a team employs dedicated architects or has developers do architecture is besides the point for this discussion.)

If we take a more balanced approach to software development instead of always prioritizing new features, then technical debt will not grow uncontrollably.

The assumption that product managers should make all the decisions is wrong. We’ve long ago uncovered better ways of developing software. Let the product manager collaborate with the development team instead of dictating their every move. Then most of this self-inflicted pain that we call technical debt will simply never materialize and doesn’t need to be managed.

The second assumption underlying most of the discussions around technical debt is even more fundamental.

In the text above I mentioned a tradeoff between quality attributes and a collaboration to resolve priorities. But a sizable portion of what people call technical debt isn’t even about that. It’s about cutting corners to save a couple of minutes or hours of development time to make a deadline.

Let’s not go into how many (most?) deadlines are fairly arbitrary. Let’s accept them and look at how to deal with them.

Many developers overestimate the ratio of development time to total time for a feature to become available to end users (lead time). The savings of cutting corners in development really don’t add up to as much as one would think. Re-work negates many of the initial savings.

But the costs down the road are significant, so we shouldn’t be cutting corners as often as we do. Even under time pressure, the only way to go fast is to go well.

Developers have a responsibility to the organization that pays them to deliver software at a sustainable pace. They shouldn’t let anyone “collaborate” them out of that responsibility, much less let anyone dictate that. What would a doctor do when their manager told them just before an emergency operation not to wash their hands to save time? Maybe first do no harm wouldn’t be such a bad principle for software development either.

Technical debt will most likely not go away completely. But we shouldn’t let it get to the point that managing it is a big deal worthy of endless discussions, articles, and presentations.

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