Strategies for Technical Debt:
A Workshop for Enterprise Leaders

Technical Debt Management for Enterprise Leaders

Mercury vapor street light along Terrace Boulevard in Ewing, New Jersey. The light is mounted on a wooden utility pole, which also serves as a mount for electric power, telephone, and cable TV. In storms, poles such as this are extremely vulnerable compared to alternative below-grade distribution systems. For above ground systems like this, the economic losses from outages due to storm damage are severe. Over time these losses easily exceed the cost of creating and maintaining below-grade systems. The above-ground system is an example of technical debt in the domain of national infrastructure.

Technical debt is much more than a new piece of IT jargon. It refers to the accumulated set of technical artifacts — hardware and software both — that really ought to be retired, replaced, rewritten, or re-implemented. It includes things that are now obsolete, or were badly designed, or were well designed for the time, but which we now know how to do much better.

We can find technical debt in almost any system, including those that seem to be working well. So what's the problem?

The problem is the interest charges on the "debt." Systems that carry technical debt are more difficult to maintain, more difficult to extend or enhance, and more difficult to use, than they would be if we could somehow "retire" the debt. Just like financial debt, carrying technical debt isn't a real problem if you can afford the interest payments.

But in today's hyper-competitive markets, reaching the market first is a critical advantage; reaching the market second — or even later than that — can be a critical disadvantage. And excessive technical debt makes reaching the market first more difficult, if not impossible.

So why doesn't IT just pay off the technical debt? The short answer: they can't. The problem is too big for IT to handle alone. Devising strategies for retiring accumulated technical debt, and keeping subsequent debt levels manageable, is what this workshop is about.

Five limiting issues

Many long-standing problems like technical debt owe their longevity to not dealing effectively with their causes and not dealing effectively with their resilience. In the case of technical debt, five issues limit our ability to control it.

  1. Check out my blog, "Technical Debt for Policy­makers," offering resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!Important generators of technical debt lie beyond the control of IT
  2. The technical debt metaphor suggests unfavorable and misleading associations
  3. The language we use to discuss technical debt affects our ability to deal with it
  4. We regard technical debt as a real thing, rather than the abstract construct it is
  5. Cultural debt leads some to regard IT as an expense to be minimized rather than a strategic partner

In this workshop, we explore each of these issues, noting their causes. Some of them have a distinctly psychological component, which is part of the reason why the technical debt problem is so resistant to purely technological solutions. Technology is part of the answer, but only part. Leadership must provide the rest.

But Leadership in which direction?

Guidelines for technical debt strategies

In this workshop, we develop five guidelines for designing technical debt management strategies for the modern enterprise. Here are they are in brief:

  1. Control issuance of new technical debt
  2. Exploit the psychology of communications
  3. Be guided by the indirect effects of technical debt
  4. Make technical debt projections
  5. Address outstanding cultural debt

They might seem obvious in some respects, but their implications are far-reaching. For example, much technical debt arises as a result of unanticipated market events that create needs so urgent that there isn't time to develop capabilities using the state-of-the-art approaches we would prefer. We use other methods "for the time being," which means that we issue technical debt. Do we track such debt? Do we budget for its retirement? If not, technical debt formation is out of control.

In one engaging and eye-opening day, this workshop points the way to a pathway that leads your organization out of technical debt, to make it more adaptable, more transformable, more resilient, and more agile.

Program structure and content

This program is available as a keynote, workshop, seminar, breakout, or clinic. We explore not only what makes managing technical debt so uniquely difficult, but how to deal with the problems that arise. Our approach is unusual in the sense that, although we do take technical issues into account, we emphasize both psychology and politics as the fundamental drivers of technical debt accumulation.

The importance of psychology and politics perhaps explains why technology-oriented approaches to resolving the technical debt problem are have such limited success. It also explains the success of organizations in which enterprise leaders and senior managers take active roles in resolving the technical debt problem — their leadership shapes the politics into a more constructive configuration. In this program, we show participants how to do precisely that.

One more thing. Over the years, much has been written about resolving the technical debt problem, and as it becomes increasingly urgent, much more will be written. Sadly, misinformation abounds. We examine four categories of misinformation:

  • The Blame Model: The fault lies within IT, due to low quality work or mismanagement
  • The Invisibility Model: Technical debt is invisible, and it accumulates by stealthy means
  • The Hopeless Model: Once systems acquire technical debt, it's impossible to fix them — we must start again from scratch
  • The Reset-to-Zero Model: the only way to deal with technical debt in a system is to rehab it top to bottom and go from there

There are other models, but these appear to be the most popular. We address the whole zoo, including any models of interest to participants. This gives participants a clear roadmap that enables them to avoid investing in approaches that don't address the problem effectively.

Participants receive an annotated bibliography of publications related to managing technical debt, and a copy of my slide set, which contains numerous links to further related information. They also receive a copy of my paper, "The Psychology and Politics of Technical Debt," which appeared in the March, 2016, issue of The Cutter Business Technology Journal.

Target audience

Technical leaders, senior managers, and executives. Familiarity with technical debt is not required.

Program duration

Half-day to one day. The longer formats allow for more coverage and deeper understanding of issues specific to audience experience.

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Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
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