We need to discuss technical debt……

Last week an engineer, who I did not know, approached me for having a short talk. He explained to me that he is working on a piece of embedded software containing significant levels of technical debt. He would like to achieve that a certain percentage of the team effort would be spent on handling technical debt, only 10% would already be appreciated.

However, due to time pressure to deliver functionality the product owner does not want to grant the percentage for handling technical debt. The engineers question was whether I had some tricks and tips which could help him. He had read some parts of my book “What is Software Quality?”.

I pointed out that we, as a software community, need to stand for our profession. It is our responsibility to mitigate technical debt in a context of finding the right balance between short term and long term. We need to engage the dialogue on the subject with our stakeholders like product owners, project managers and management in general. We need to point out the consequences of technical debt and why it needs to be addressed.

First of all we need to have a look at ourselves; what can we do to mitigate technical debt. Like, developing software as it should be; applying good development practices with craftsmanship and producing clean code while demonstrating the needed discipline to do so despite time pressure. And even then, technical debt is inevitable and will creep into our software. So, we need to do something additional.

Considering technical debt itself we can distinguish between small TD and big TD. An example of small TD is this compiler warning which is not yet fixed. Or this function or method with a too high cyclomatic complexity. Small TD can be handled by the boy-scout rule; leaving code cleaner than you encountered it. Whenever altering a piece of code, get rid of small TD in this piece of code. We always should apply the boy scout rule and, in my opinion, we do not need to ask for ‘permission’ to do so. It is part of our craftsmanship.

An example of big TD is a required redesign of a module which will take a significant amount of effort. In this case the technical debt is so big that it cannot be solved instantly. We need to register big TD on e.g. a Technical Debt Backlog (TDB). This TDB then needs to be considered on a regular basis in the context of the features to be planned for the next release. Which TDB-items are needed to be addressed for the implementation of the prioritized User Stories? Preferably TDB-items will be ‘connected’ to one or multiple User Stories, thus whenever the User Story is prioritized the ‘connected’ TDB-items will be as well.

To be able to discuss and prioritize big TD with the stakeholders it is important the stakeholders do understand what technical debt is and which consequences it has. Therefore, they need to be educated by us; by the software professionals. In my book I try to explain technical debt in such a way that it can be understood by people who do not have software knowledge as well.

Engaging with the stakeholders and explaining and discussing the consequences of technical debt is necessary; using metaphors, explaining the complexity of execution paths, visualizing the size of software and showing the vast diversity of technical debt and pointing out the long term consequences of technical debt on development speed and efficiency. Personally, I like to talk about ‘a sustainable pace of development’ instead of ‘development speed’, in accordance with the Formula-1 in which they talk about ‘race-pace’ instead of ‘race-speed’. This has reason, focus on speed in Formula-1 will increase tire-wear like focus on speed in software development will increase software-wear. In both cases velocity declines. Let’s take our responsibility and start discussing technical debt with our stakeholders, using metaphors like tire-wear in Formula-1.

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