The true cost of technical debt

Whether you like to think of it as technical debt or an unhedged call option we’re all surrounded by bad code, bad decisions and their lasting impact on our day to day lives. But what is the long term impact of these decisions? Are we really making prudent choices? Martin Fowler talks about the four classes of technical debt – from reckless and deliberate to inadvertent and prudent.



Deliberate reckless debt

Deliberate reckless technical debt is just that: developers (or their managers) allowing decisions to be made that offer no upside and only downside – e.g. abandoning TDD or not doing any design. Whichever way you look at it, this is just plain unprofessional. If the developers aren’t capable of making sensible choices, then management should have stepped in to bring in people that could. Michael Norton labels this “cruft not technical debt“. If we’re getting no benefit and simply giving ourselves an excuse to write crappy code then it’s not technical debt, it’s just crap.

Inadvertent debt

Inadvertent technical debt is tricky. If we didn’t know any better, how could we have done any differently? Perhaps industry standards or best practices have moved on. I’m sure once upon a time EJBs were seen as a good idea, now they look like pure technical debt. Today’s best practice so easily becomes tomorrow’s code smell.
Or perhaps we’d never worked in this domain before, if we had the domain knowledge when we started – maybe the design would have turned out different. Sometimes technical debt is inevitable and unavoidable.

Prudent deliberate debt

Then there’s prudent, deliberate debt. Where we make a conscious choice to add technical debt. This is a pretty common decision:

We need to recognise the revenue this quarter, no matter what
We’ve got marketing initiatives lined up so we’ve got to hit that date
We’ve committed to a schedule so don’t have time for rework

Sometimes, we have to make compromises: by doing a sub-standard job now, we get the benefit of finishing faster but we pay the price later.
Unlike the other types of technical debt, this is specifically a technical compromise. We’ve made a conscious decision to leave the code in a worse state than we should do. We know this will slow us down later; we know we need to come back and fix it in “phase 2?; but to hit the date, we accept compromise.

Is it always the right decision?

1. Compromise is always faster in the short-term and slower in the long-term

Given a choice between what we need now and some unspecified “debt” to deal with later – the obvious choice is always to accept compromise.

2. Each compromise is minor, but they compound

Unlike how most people experience “debt”, technical debt compounds. Each compromise we accept increases the cost of all the existing debt as well. This means the cost of each individual compromise may be small, but together they can have a massive impact.

First of all I decide not to refactor some code. Next time round, because its not well factored, it’s harder to test, so I skip some unit tests. Third time round, my test coverage is poor, so I don’t have the confidence to refactor extensively. Now it’s getting really hard to test and really hard to change. Little by little, but faster and faster, my code is deteriorating. Each compromise piles on the ones that went before and amplifies them. Each decision is minor, but they add up to a big headache.

3. It’s hard to quantify the long term cost

When we agree not to rework a section of code, when we agree to leave something half-finished, when we agree to rush something through with minimal tests: it’s very difficult to estimate the long term cost. Sure, we can estimate what it would take to do it right – we know what the principal is. But how can we estimate the interest payments? Especially when they compound.
How can I estimate the time wasted figuring out the complexity next time? The time lost because a bug is harder to track down. The extra time it takes because I can’t refactor the code so easily next time. The extra time it takes because I daren’t refactor the code next time; and the extra debt this forces me to take on. How can I possibly quantify this?
At IMVU they found they:

underestimated the long-term costs [of technical debt] by at least an order of magnitude

Is it always wrong?

There are obviously cases where it makes sense to add technical debt; or at least, to do something half-assed. If you want to get a new feature in front of customers to judge whether its valuable, it doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to be out there quickly. If the feature isn’t useful for users, you remove it. You’ve saved the cost of building it “perfectly” and quickly gained the knowledge you needed. This is clearly a cost-effective, lean way to manage development.
But what if the feature is successful? Then you need a plan for cleaning it up; for refactoring it; making sure it’s well tested and documented sufficiently. This is the debt. As long as you have a plan for removing it, whether the feature is useful or not – then it’s a perfectly valid approach. What isn’t an option is leaving the half-assed feature in the code base for years to come.

The difference is having a plan to remove the debt. How often do we accept compromise with a vague promise to “come back and fix later” or my personal favourite “we’ll fix that in phase 2?. My epitaph should be “now working on phase 2?.
Leaving debt in the code with no plan to remove it is like the guy who pays the interest on one credit card with another. You’re letting the debt mount up, not dealing with it. Without a plan to repay the debt, you will eventually go bankrupt.

The Risk of Technical Debt

Perhaps the biggest danger of technical debt is the risk that it represents. Technical debt makes our code more brittle, less easy to change. As @bertvanbrakel said when we discussed this recently:

Technical debt is a measure of code inflexibility

The harder it is to change, the more debt laden our code. With this inflexibility, comes the biggest risk of all: that we cannot change the code fast enough. What if the competitive or regulatory environment suddenly changes? If a new competitor launches that completely changes our industry, how long does it take us to catch up? If we have an inflexible code base, what will be left of our business in 2, 3 or 4 years when we finally catch up?

While this is clearly a worst case scenario, this lack of flexibility – this lack of innovation – hurts companies little by little. Once revolutionary companies become staid, unable to react and release only derivative products. As companies find themselves unable to innovate and keep up with the ever changing landscape – they risk becoming irrelevant. This is the true cost of technical debt.
Without a plan to repay the technical debt; with no way to reliably estimate the long term cost of not repaying it, are we really making prudent, deliberate choices? Isn’t the decision to add technical debt simply reckless?

References: The true cost of technical debt from our NCG partner David Green at the Actively Lazy blog.

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