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Technical Debt - How do you get out of it?

posted under category: Software Quality on April 2, 2011 by Nathan

So I was telling this story about my friend, but I was distracted by the thought of avoiding technical debt, or actually how you shouldn't. Then I completely lost focus and talked about how technical debt isn't really the bad guy; fancy cars are.

Back to the story though. My friend was telling me about his situation, and his application, but more than that, I began to feel something coming through the phone that I didn't expect. It's the change in voice someone begins to make when they are up to their shoulders in tar and they aren't sure how much longer they can hold out. I hoped I could help him.

My friend told me about this monolithic application, a company staple, the most important program in their world. It did everything for everyone. No customer was ever declined. No marketing directive was ever shot down. No timeline was ever exceeded.

Guess what comes out of that kind of meat grinder?

Dozens of developers piling feature upon feature over an old site with tight deadlines and owners who don't understand programming, delivers spaghetti almost every time. Maybe even mashed potatoes, if there is such a thing in programming terms. This is an incubator for technical debt.

So, true to my style, I unloaded everything I could think of about technical debt, like a verbal shotgun. It was 8 months of technical debt knowledge dropped into 3 minutes of monologue. Here are the big takeaways I tried to leave him with:

First, understand technical debt. You are drowning in technical debt interest payments.

Technical debt may be the problem, but more important, technical debt is the conversation. The conversation flows up to your boss and their boss. This conversation is what can bring change back down to you.

You have to refactor. The longer you go, the more you have to do it and the bigger it has to be.

If you can't get time to refactor, you have to take that time. It is part of your job, it has to be. I'll talk more about that later.

Last on this list, remember the golden rule of technical debt: make it visible. Write it where you can see it.

It takes a champion to do what my friend needs to do. I hope he can do it.

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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