James O'Neill's Blog

June 27, 2016

Technical Debt and the four most dangerous words for any project.

Filed under: Uncategorized — jamesone111 @ 9:15 am

I’ve been thinking about technical debt. I might have been trying to avoid the term when I wrote Don’t swallow the cat, or more likely I hadn’t heard it, but I was certainly describing it – to adapt Wikipedia’s definition it is the future work that arises when something that is easy to implement in the short run is used in preference to the best overall solution”. However it is not confined to software development as Wikipedia suggests.
“Future work” can come from bugs (either known, or yet to be uncovered because of inadequate testing), design kludges which are carried forward, dependencies on out of date software, documentation that was left unwritten… and much more besides.

The cause of technical debt is simple: People won’t say “I (or we) cannot deliver what you want, properly, when you expect it”.
“When you expect it” might be the end of a Scrum Sprint, a promised date or “right now”. We might be dealing with someone who asks so nicely that you can’t say “No” or the powerful ogre to whom you dare not say “No”. Or perhaps admitting “I thought I could deliver, but I was wrong” is too great a loss of face. There are many variations.

I’ve written before about “What you measure is what you get” (WYMIWIG) it’s also a factor. In IT we measure success by what we can see working. Before you ask “How else do you judge success?”, Technical debt is a way to cheat the measurement – things are seen to be working before all the work is done. To stretch the financial parallel, if we collect full payment without delivering in full, our accounts must cover the undelivered part – it is a liability like borrowing or unpaid invoices.

Imagine you have a deadline to deliver a feature. (Feature could be a piece of code, or an infrastructure service however small). Unforeseeable things have got in the way. You know the kind of things: the fires which apparently only you know how to extinguish, people who ask “Can I Borrow You”, but should know they are jeopardizing your ability to meet this deadline, and so on.
Then you find that doing your piece properly means fixing something that’s already in production. But doing that would make you miss the deadline (as it is you’re doing less testing than you’d like and documentation will have to be done after delivery). So you work around the unfixed problem and make the deadline. Well done!
Experience teaches us that making the deadline is rewarded, even if you leave a nasty surprise for whoever comes next – they must make the fix AND unpick your workaround. If they are up against a deadline they will be pushed to increase the debt. You can see how this ends up in a spiral: like all debt, unless it is paid down, it increases in future cycles.

The Quiet Crisis unfolding in Software Development has a warning to beware of high performers, they may excel at the measured things by cutting corners elsewhere. It also says watch out for misleading metrics – only counting “features delivered” means the highest performers may be leaving most problems in their wake. Not a good trait to favour when identifying prospective managers.

Sometimes we can say “We MUST fix this before doing anything else.”, but if that means the whole team (or worse its manager) can’t do the thing that gets rewarded then we learn that trying to complete the task properly can be unpopular, even career limiting. Which isn’t a call to do the wrong thing: some things can be delayed without a bigger cost in the future; and borrowing can open opportunities that refusing to ever take on any debt (technical or otherwise) would deny us. But when the culture doesn’t allow delivery plans to change, even in the face of excessive debt, it’s living beyond its means and debt will become a problem.

We praise delivering on-time and on-budget, but if capacity, deadline and deliverables are all fixed, only quality is variable. Project management methodologies are designed to make sure that all these factors can be varied and give project teams a route to follow if they need to vary by too great a margin. But a lot of work is undertaken without this kind of governance. Capacity is what can be delivered properly in a given time by the combination of people, skills, equipment and so on, each of which has a cost. Increasing headcount is only one way to add capacity, but if you accept adding people to a late project makes it later then it needs to be done early. When me must demonstrate delivery beyond our capacity, it is technical debt that covers the gap.

Forecasting is imprecise, but it is rare to start with plan we don’t have the capacity to deliver. I think another factor causes deadlines which were reasonable to end up creating technical debt.

The book The Phoenix Project has a gathered a lot of fans in the last couple of years, and one of its messages is that Unplanned work is the enemy of planned work. This time management piece separates Deep work (which gives satisfaction and takes thought, energy, time and concentration) from Shallow work (the little stuff). We can do more of value by eliminating shallow work and the Quiet Crisis article urges managers to limit interruptions and give people private workspaces, but some of each day will always be lost to email, helping colleagues and so on.

But Unplanned work is more than workplace noise. Some comes from Scope Creep, which I usually associate with poor specification, but unearthing technical debt expands the scope, forcing us to choose between more debt and late delivery. But if debt is out in the open then the effort to clear it – even partially – can be in-scope from the start.
Major incidents can’t be planned and leave no choice but to stop work and attend to them. But some diversions are neither noise, nor emergency. “Can I Borrow You?” came top in a list of most annoying office phrases and “CIBY” serves as an acronym for a class of diversions which start innocuously. These are the four dangerous words in the title.

The Phoenix Project begins with the protagonist being made CIO and briefed “Anything which takes focus away from Phoenix is unacceptable – that applies to whole company”. For most of the rest of the book things are taking that focus. He gets to contrast IT with manufacturing where a coordinator accepts or declines new work depending on whether it would jeopardize any existing commitments. Near the end he says to the CEO Are we even allowed to say no? Every time I’ve asked you to prioritize or defer work on a project, you’ve bitten my head off. …[we have become] compliant order takers, blindly marching down a doomed path”. And that resonates. Project steering boards (or similarly named committees) can to assign capacity to some projects and disappoint others. Without one – or if it is easy to circumvent – we end up trying to deliver everything and please everyone;  “No” and “What should I drop?” are answers, we don’t want to give especially to those who’ve achieved their positions by appearing to deliver everything, thanks to technical debt.

Generally, strategic tasks don’t compete to consume all available resources. People recognise these should have documents covering

  • What is it meant to do, and for whom? (the specification / high level design)
  • How does it do it? (Low level design, implementation plan, user and admin guides)
  • How do we know it does what it is meant to? (test plan)

But “CIBY” tasks are smaller, tactical things; they often lack specifications: we steal time for them from planned work assuming we’ll get them right first time, but change requests are inevitable. Without a spec, there can be no test plan: yet we make no allowance for fixing bugs. And the work “isn’t worth documenting”, so questions have to come back to the person who worked on it.  These tasks are bound to create technical debt of their own and they jeopardize existing commitments pushing us into more debt.

Optimistic assumptions aren’t confined to CIBY tasks. We assume strategic tasks will stay within their scope: we set completion dates using assumptions about capacity (the progress for each hour worked) and about the number of hours focused on the project each day. Optimism about capacity isn’t a new idea, but I think planning doesn’t allow for shallow / unplanned work – we work to a formula like this:
In project outcomes, debt is a fourth variable and time lost to distracting tasks a fifth. A better formula would look like this

Usually it is the successful projects which get a scope which properly reflects the work needed, stick to it, allocate enough time and capacity and hold on to it. It’s simple in theory, and projects which go off the rails don’t do it in practice, and fail to adjust. The Phoenix Project told how failing to deliver “Phoenix” put the company at risk. After the outburst I quoted above, the CIO proposes putting everything else on hold, and the CEO, who had demanded 100% focus on Phoenix, initially responds “You must be out of your right mind”. Eventually he agrees, Phoenix is saved and the company with it. The book is trying to illustrate many ideas, but one of them boils down to “the best way to get people to deliver what you want is to stop asking them to deliver other things”.

Businesses seem to struggle to set priorities for IT: I can’t claim to be an expert in solving this problem, but the following may be helpful

Understanding the nature of the work. Jeffrey Snover likes to say “To ship is to choose”. A late project must find an acceptable combination of additional cost, overall delay, feature cuts, and technical debt. If you build websites, technical debt is more acceptable than if you build aircraft. If your project is a New Year’s Eve firework display, delivering without some features is an option, delay is not. Some feature delays incur cost, but others don’t.

Tracking all work: Have a view of what is completed, what is in Progress, what is “up next”, and what is waiting to be assigned time. The next few points all relate to tracking.
Work in progress has already consumed effort but we only get credit when it is complete. An increasing number of task in progress may mean people are passing work to other team members faster than their capacity to complete it or new tasks are interrupting existing ones.
All work should have a specification
before it starts. Writing specifications takes time, and “Create specification for X” may be task in itself.
And yes, I do know that technical people generally hate tracking work and writing specifications. 
Make technical debt visible. It’s OK to split an item and categorize part as completed and the rest as something else. Adding the undelivered part to the backlog keeps it as planned work, and also gives partial credit for partial delivery – rather than credit being all or nothing. It means some credit goes to the work of clearing debt.
And I also know technical folk see “fixing old stuff” as a chore, but not counting it just makes matters worse.
Don’t just track planned work. Treat jobs which jumped the queue, that didn’t have a spec or that displaced others like defects in a manufacturing process – keep the score, and try to drive it down to zero. Incidents and “CIBY” jobs might only be recorded as an afterthought but you want see where they are coming from and try to eliminate them at source.

Look for process improvements. if a business is used to lax project management, it will resist attempts to channel all work through a project steering board. Getting stakeholders together in a regular “IT projects meeting” might be easier, but get the key result (managing the flow of work).

And finally Having grown-up conversations with customers.
Businesses should understand the consequences of pushing for delivery to exceed capacity; which means IT (especially those in management) must be able to deliver messages like these.
“For this work to jump the queue, we must justify delaying something else”
“We are not going be able to deliver [everything] on time”, perhaps with a follow up of “We could call it delivered when there is work remaining but … have you heard of technical debt?”


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