Monthly Archives: August 2017

Debtors Prison

There’s a wonderful term called “technical debt”. It’s what you accrue when you make dumb mistakes, and instead of correcting the mistake, and taking the hit up front, you take out a small loan, patch up the crap with spittle and cardboard, and ship the product.

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Yay! Free money!!!

Outside R&D technical debt doesn’t seem to matter. It’s like taking your family to a restaurant and racking up more debt; the kids don’t care, to them, the little credit card is a magical piece of plastic, and the kids are wondering why you don’t use it more often. If they had the card, it would be new PlayStations and drones every day.

Technical debt is a product killer; as the competition heats up, the company wants to “rev the engine”, but all the hacks and quick fixes mean that as soon as you step on the gas, the damn thing falls apart. The gunk and duct tape that gave you a small lead out of the gate, but in the long run, the weight of all that debt will catch up. It’s like a car that does 0-60 in 3 seconds but then dies after 1 mile of racing. Sure it might enter the race again, limp along for a few rounds, then back to the garage, until it eventually gives up and drops out.

Duct Tape Car Fix - 03

Might get you home, but you won’t win the race with this fix

Why does this happen?

A company may masquerade as a software company and simply pile more and more resources into “just fix it” and “we need” tasks that ignore the real need to properly replace the intake pipe shown above. “If it works, why are you replacing it”, the suit will ask, “my customer needs a sunroof, and you’re wasting time on fixing something that already works!”.

So, it’s probably wise to look at the circumstances that caused the company to take on the debt in the first place. An actual software company might take technical debt very seriously, and very early on they will schedule time for 3 distinct tasks:

  1. Ongoing development of the existing product (warts and all),
  2. Continued re-architecting and refactoring of modules,
  3. Development of the next generation product/platform

Any given team (dependent on size, competency, motivation, and guidance) will be able to deliver some amount of work X. The company sells a solution that requires the work Y. Given that Y < X, the difference can be spent on #2 and #3. The bigger the difference, the better the quality of subsequent releases of the product. If the difference is small, then (absent team changes), the product will stagnate. If Y > X then the product will not fulfill the expectations of the customer. To bridge the gap until the team can deliver an X > Y, you might take on some “bridge debt”. But if the bridge debt is perpetual (Y always grows as fast or faster than X), then you’re in trouble. If Y > X for too long, then X might actually shrink as well, which is a really bad sign.

Proper software architecture is designed so that when more (competent) manpower is added, X grows. Poor architecture can lead to the opposite result. And naturally, incompetent maintenance of the architecture itself (an inevitable result of a quick-fix culture), will eventually lead to the problematic situation where adding people lead to lower throughput.

A different kind of “debt” is the inability to properly value the IP you’ve developed. The cost of development is very different from the value of the outcome. E.g. a company may spend thousands of hours developing a custom log handler, but the value of such a thing is probably very low. This is hard to accept for the people involved, and it often leads to friction when someone points out that the outcome of 1000 hours of work is actually worthless (or possibly even provides a net negative value for the product). A lot of (additional) time may be spent trying to persuade ourselves that we didn’t just flush 1000 hours down the drain, as we’re more inclined to believe a soothing lie than the painful truth.

Solutions?

A company that wants to solve the debt problem must first take a good look at its core values. Not the values it pretends to have, but the actual values; what makes management smile and how it handles the information given to them. Does management frown when a scalability issue is discovered, do they yell and slam doors, points out 20 times that “we will lose the customer if we don’t fix this now!”. The team lead hurries down the hallway, and the team pulls out cans of Pringles and the start ripping off pieces of tape.

The behavior might make the manager feel good. The chest-beating alpha-manager put those damn developers in their place, and got this shit done!. However, over the long run, it will lead to 3 things : 1) Developers will do a “quick fix”, because management wants this fixed quickly, rather than correctly, 2) Developers will stop providing “bad news”, and 3) developers that value correctness and quality will leave.

To the manager, the “quality developer” is not an asset at all. It’s just someone who wants to delay everything to fix an intake that is already working “perfectly”. So over time, the company will get more and more duct-tapers and hacks, and fewer craftsmen and artisans.

The only good thing about technical debt (for a coder) is that it belongs to the company, and not to the employees. Once they’re gone, they don’t have to worry about it anymore. Those that remain do, and they now have to work even harder to pay it back.

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