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Technical Debt - Should you avoid it?

posted under category: Software Quality on February 16, 2011 by Nathan

I had a phone call a couple weeks ago with a good friend who was chest-high in technical debt. I was thinking of writing about how to avoid technical debt, but instead I found myself questioning if you should avoid technical debt.

Oh, that may not be a familiar term. I wrote about it last year, but the basics are like this: technical debt is a way of explaining how some problems in software development have a serious monetary drawback. Like any debt, it's usually something you take on by a couple of decisions, and if you're not careful, you end up bankrupt. Most money terms apply here, all puns are usually intended.

So the question comes to me, should we even avoid technical debt? Is it strange that the answer is a definite "No?"

Backing up, we need to really define technical debt. That takes us to the discussion between Robert "Uncle Bob" Martin and Martin Fowler. Uncle Bob says A mess is not a technical debt and Martin Fowler rebuttes with the technical debt quadrant. I think that Mr. Fowler has it right, especially when he reminds us that it's a metaphor, and it applies to both intentional and unintentional debtors.

When I realized that technical debt is just a metaphor, it becomes obvious that it isn't a villain. You can choose to take on technical debt. In fact, many of us do it, but maybe we don't realize it. We do it when we cut corners. We do it when we make our navigation static even though we know it should have been dynamic. We do it when the budget gets in the way of our architecture. We do it when we let our customers or managers push us around about adding features and we don't push back on refactoring. We do it when we know we'll lose a job if we bid too high. Sometimes it's just necessary. Either we take on technical debt, or we feed our kids ramen for a month.

Avoiding all technical debt is not an option. Reducing the amount you take on can be done by refactoring as you go, but sooner or later you will have to do it. When that time comes, don't shy away! Cut that corner! Make the customer happy! Feed your family! Just make sure you follow the golden rule of technical debt:

Keep Your Technical Debt Visible

It should written on the whiteboard. It should be high priority in your bug tracker. It should come up in meetings often. It should be in your email signature. (Ok maybe not that last one.) If you keep it in sight, your management will hear and know about it. Your customers will know about it. It will stay near the top of the to-do list until it's fixed. As soon as you lose sight of it, everyone else will be eager to forget it. You will never be able to squeeze it in without a lot of pain. When you keep it visible, you will keep yourself sane.

Nathan is a software developer at The Boeing Company in Charleston, SC. He is essentially a big programming nerd. Really, you could say that makes him a nerd among nerds. Aside from making software for the web, he plays with tech toys and likes to think about programming's big picture while speaking at conferences and generally impressing people with massive nerdiness and straight-faced sarcastic humor. Nathan got his programming start writing batch files in DOS. It should go without saying, but these thought and opinions have nothing to do with Boeing in any way.
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