Technical Debt Management: What's the Best Way to Tackle It?
Thinking of this as paying interest versus paying off principal can help you decide which cruft to tackle.
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Software systems are prone to the build up of cruft: deficiencies in internal quality that make it harder than it would ideally be to modify and extend the system further. Technical Debt is a metaphor, coined by Ward Cunningham, that frames how to think about dealing with this cruft, thinking of it like a financial debt. The extra effort that it takes to add new features is the interest paid on the debt.
Imagine I have a confusing module structure in my code base. I need to add a new feature. If the module structure was clear, then it would take me four days to add the feature, but with this cruft, it takes me six days. The two day difference is the interest on the debt.
What most appeals to me about the debt metaphor is how it frames how I think about how to deal with this cruft. I could take five days to clean up the modular structure, removing that cruft, metaphorically paying off the principal. If I only do it for this one feature, that's no gain, as I'd take nine days instead of six. But if I have two more similar features coming up, then I'll end up faster by removing the cruft first.
Stated like that, this sounds like a simple matter of working the numbers, and any manager with a spreadsheet should figure out the choices. Sadly, since we cannot measure productivity, none of these costs are objectively measurable. We can estimate how long it takes to do a feature, estimate what it might be like if the cruft was removed, and estimate the cost of removing the cruft. But our accuracy of such estimates is pretty low.
Given this, usually the best route is to do what we usually do with financial debts, pay the principal off gradually. On the first feature, I'll spend an extra couple of days to remove some of the cruft. That may be enough to reduce the interest rate on future enhancements to a single day. That's still going to take extra time, but by removing the cruft I'm making it cheaper for future changes to this code. The great benefit of gradual improvement like this is that it naturally means we spend more time on removing cruft in those areas that we modify frequently, which are exactly those areas of the code base where we most need the cruft to be removed.
Thinking of this as paying interest versus paying off principal can help decide which cruft to tackle. If I have a terrible area of the code base, one that's a nightmare to change, it's not a problem if I don't have to modify it. I only trigger an interest payment when I have to work with that part of the software (this is a place where the metaphor breaks down, since financial interest payments are triggered by the passage of time). So crufty but stable areas of code can be left alone. In contrast, areas of high activity need a zero-tolerance attitude to cruft, because the interest payments are cripplingly high. This is especially important since cruft accumulates where developers make changes without paying attention to internal quality: the more changes, the greater the risk of cruft building up.
The metaphor of debt is sometimes used to justify neglecting internal quality. The argument is that it takes time and effort to stop cruft from building up. If there are new features needed urgently, then perhaps it's best to take on the debt, accepting that this debt will have to be managed in the future.
The danger here is that most of the time this analysis isn't done well. Cruft has a quick impact, slowing down the very new features that are needed quickly. Teams who do this end up maxing out all their credit cards, but still delivering later than they would have done had they put the effort into higher internal quality. Here the metaphor often leads people astray, as the dynamics don't really match those for financial loans. Taking on debt to speed delivery only works if you stay below the design payoff line of the Design Stamina Hypothesis, and teams hit that line in weeks rather than months.
There are regular debates whether different kinds of cruft should be considered as debt or not. I found it useful to think about whether the debt is acquired deliberately and whether it is prudent or reckless.
I originally published this post on October 1, 2003. I gave it a thorough rewrite in April 2019.
Published at DZone with permission of Martin Fowler, DZone MVB. See the original article here.
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