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Technical Debt: 3 ways to articulate and get buy-in from “that person”

The decision of removing technical debt can be crucial and is often a grey area. In some cases, to increase the speed of delivery, we have to carry the debt as long as we have control over it. When shit gets real and everything is slowly getting out of hands, we need to repay this debt by investing time and effort in, say refactoring. But it can be a hassle to carry out when we need it the most; not because we hate it but because we never get buy-in from “that person” who doesn’t think it’s important.

 

In self managed teams it may not be an issue but other teams may have faced a discussion at least once around this in their lifetime. “Refactoring doesn’t provide any value to the end user” – most common reply when we try to prioritise housekeeping. In several cases the person standing in your way is non-technical or have limited knowledge of the architecture which needs this debt removed asap. At this moment we have to open up bravely and explain “that person” why we need it happen, now. Here are 3 analogies that I use often to articulate the situation and get the buy-in.

Swim back to Shore Alive

I came up with this after watching Gattaca (**spoiler alert**) where two brothers compete to swim as far as they can, far from the shore. In the climax, Vincent was willing to die to beat his brother Anton, to prove to himself that his dream is larger than his own life.

 

Anyway, as a regular swimmer the hardest part of challenging yourself is to know your true capability and stamina. Just because you have stamina to swim 1 mile at one go, you don’t attempt to swim 1 mile inside the sea. You go 500m in and pivot so that you can use the other 500m capacity to come back to the shore, alive. You repeat this thousand times to increase your stamina and never ever lie about it. Lying to yourself and being overconfident will kill you. You will be fooling no one but yourself.

Now, apply this analogy to technical debt where the distance and capability is comparable to the threshold of debt we can carry at a given time. Within a team it should be non-negotiable, we shouldn’t keep building technical debt because someone have promised a deadline to launch, without asking us. You can try going that extra mile to deliver more ignoring this technical debt but sooner than later you will be screwed big time, your software will not be scalable anymore. You will have no choice but to stop everything and start from scratch. Stop early to analyse and always keep a recovery plan.

The Boiling Frog

This analogy is out there for a while (Source – 1, 2), although not used often in reference to technical debt (except the linked articles). Here’s how the story goes.

Researchers found that when they put a frog in a pan of boiling water, the instant reaction from the frog is to jump out asap. Because it’s sudden, it changes the environment within fraction of seconds and the pain is unbearable (I guess).

On the other hand, when they put a frog in cold water and put the water to boil over time, the frog just boiled to death. This time the change in temperature was so gradual that the frog does not realise it’s boiling to death.

When our business is hit by a sudden change and we see it going out of hand, we react quickly. If a continuous integration run fails blocking everyone from using the code base without rebuilding it, we have to fix it right away. Therefore, we act asap and jump out of the problem right away. In case of technical debt, it is slow and gradual, a death threat on the rise. It’s so subtle to begin with that no one cares (we may not even know). We eventually find it out and choose to delay the necessary changes. At one point it becomes so bad, we cannot recover anymore. Before we realise that the threshold of acceptance has crossed far back, we are already in deep trouble.

Financial Debt

The most widely used analogy around technical debt is simply comparing it with financial debt.

Assume you got a new credit card with a 40% APR. Your card limit is £1200 and you get a month interest free usage. As long as you borrowed money and paid within that 1 month window, you pay nothing on interest. Even if you go above the duration and keep paying a minimum about back every month it is within your control. The moment you stop paying anything after borrowing, you are screwed as the Capital plus the interest becomes your new capital which adds more interest and your loose the control.

Technical debt is exactly that. If you have to borrow debt to go fast and deliver an extremely important feature, by all means do it. Just make sure you keep a track of the debt you are creating by not maintaining the code regularly. Loose coupling is fine and still scalable. The moment we start writing hard coded software and tightly coupled features, we slowly increase the debt to never pay it back fully without loosing everything and starting from scratch. Pay the minimal debt back when you can and make it a habit, a practice. Don’t let the debt ruin your business.

End Note

Be true to yourself and leave the decision of controlling the technical debt to the community who knows best, the developers. We are not working in the code base daily, they do. Trust their instinct. If you are a big fan of velocity like me, let them estimate keeping refactoring in mind. The team shouldn’t entertain “that person” who always ask a silly question like “can’t we wait till the next month?”. On the contrary, if they have a business strategy to back it up with data, don’t ignore it either. We just have to know what we are capable of supporting and stop lying to ourselves.

Hope this helps. If you have few more ways, feel free to share the ideas/analogies !

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