Cheating on Technical Debt

One bad practice guaranteed to cause dismay amongst your colleagues is passing on technical debt without full disclosure. There could only be two reasons for this. Either the developer or DBA didn’t know the difference between good and bad practices, or concealed the debt. Neither reflects well on their professional competence.

Technical debt, or code debt, is a convenient term to cover all the compromises between the ideal solution and the actual solution, reflecting the reality of the pressures of commercial coding. The one time you’re guaranteed to hear one developer, or DBA, pass judgment on another is when he or she inherits their project, and is surprised by the amount of technical debt left lying around in the form of inelegant architecture, incomplete tests, confusing interface design, no documentation, and so on.

It is often expedient for a Project Manager to ignore the build-up of technical debt, the cut corners, not-quite-finished features and rushed designs that mean progress is satisfyingly rapid in the short term. It’s far less satisfying for the poor person who inherits the code. Nothing sends a colder chill down the spine than the dawning realization that you’ve inherited a system crippled with performance and functional issues that will take months of pain to fix before you can even begin to make progress on any of the planned new features. It’s often hard to justify this ‘debt paying’ time to the project owners and managers. It just looks as if you are making no progress, in marked contrast to your predecessor.

There can be many good reasons for allowing technical debt to build up, at least in the short term. Often, rapid prototyping is essential, there is a temporary shortfall in test resources, or the domain knowledge is incomplete. It may be necessary to hit a specific deadline with a prototype, or proof-of-concept, to explore a possible market opportunity, with planned iterations and refactoring to follow later. However, it is a crime for a developer to build up technical debt without making this clear to the project participants. He or she needs to record it explicitly.

A design compromise made in to order to hit a deadline, be it an outright hack, or a decision made without time for rigorous investigation and testing, needs to be documented with the same rigor that one tracks a bug. What’s the best way to do this? Ideally, we’d have some kind of objective assessment of the level of technical debt in a software project, although that smacks of Science Fiction even as I write it. I’d be interested of hear of any methods you’ve used, but I’m sure most teams have to rely simply on the integrity of their colleagues and the clear perceptions of the project manager…