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Friday Philosophy – “Technical Debt” is a Poor Term. Try “Technical Burden”?

Recently my friend Sabine Heimsath asked a few of us native English speakers what the opposite of “technical debt” was. My immediate reaction was to say:

I’d say (sarcastically) “proper development” or “decent designer” or even “what we did 25 bloody years ago when we were allowed to take pride in the software we created!”

But my next comment was less reactive and more considered. And that was to say that I did not like the phrase “Technical Debt”:

A debt is when you owe something to someone, to be paid back. You do not owe anything to someone when you build poor systems, you are actually creating a “technical burden” – something those in the future will need to live with and may eventually have to sort out. Those who created the bad app or design will probably not be the ones fixing it – as in paying the debt.

That is of course not always true. Some of us have had to end up fixing a poor solution that we implemented – usually implemented despite our protestations that it was a daft thing to do. But the usual case is that a badly thought-out solution is implemented in a rush, with little design, or with inadequate testing, because of a management pressure to be “agile” or “fast moving”. And it is done with cheap or over-stretched resource.

Also, “technical debt” to me sounds too organised and too easy to fix. If you have a financial debt, you simply pay it back with some interest. In almost all situations I have seen where there is a “technical debt”, the interest to pay – the extra effort and time – is considerably more than was saved in the first place. Sometimes it is more than the original cost of the whole project! Loan Shark territory.

When the poorly designed/implemented system falls over in a heap sometimes the hard-pressed local staff lack the skills or bandwidth to fix it and “Experts” are called in to sort it out. And part of the time taken to fix it is the expert going “why in f**k did you ever think this was a good idea?” (Maybe using better terminology, but that is what they mean!). Being more serious, sometimes the largest slice of time is when as an “Expert” you have to persuade the people who own this mess that it really does need sorting out properly, not just another quick hack – and it really will take much , much more effort than what they originally saved by deciding to implement this fast & dirty. Sorry, I mean “lean & mean”.

This situation often has a secondary impact – it makes the people who originally implemented the solution look poor. And that may or may not be fair. I’ve seen many cases where the original staff (including myself) were forced to do things they did no like by timing constraints, lack of budget or simply the ridiculous demands by someone higher up the organisation who thought simply shouting and demanding would make good things happen. They don’t, you end up creating a burden. Though I have also seen poor solutions because the original team were poor.

I think at the moment a lot of what is called “systems development” is more like a desperate drive to constantly cut corners and do things quicker. If it goes wrong, it’s just a debt, we pay it back. No, no it is not. It’s often a bloody mess and a Burden for years. I keep hoping that, like many things in I.T. this will be a phase we can cycle out of and back into doing proper planning and implementation again. Yes, anything that speeds things up without losing planing/design is great. And if you have the skills, you can do proper Agile, designing the detail as you go – IF you have the general over-arching design already in place. But I wish there was more consideration of the later cost of quick & dirty.

So what was the term Sabine wanted? Well, I can’t speak for her, I am not 100% sure what she was looking for. But from my perspective, we should not say “Technical Debt” but “Technical Burden”. And the opposite might be “technical Investment”. You spend a bit of time and effort now in considering how you can create a solution that can expand or is flexible. I know from my own personal experience that it is when you are given the chance to do those things that you provide a solution that last and lasts and lasts. Only when I have been allowed to properly consider the business need do I create something still used in 10 years. Or 15. Or maybe even 20. That might need some checking!

So, if you really want to build systems to support a successful business, and not a short-lived flash, perhaps you should be saying something like:

You are asking me to create a Technical Burden. Would you rather not help me create a Technical Investment?

If anything else, you might at least be adding a new entry to “Buzzword Bingo”.