Software Development

Debt in IT and Software Development

I love this quote from Jeff Attwood on technical debt in 2009:

periodically pay down your technical debt

and the Computer Weekely article about half a year ago:

Short-term speed may come at the price of long-term delays and cost.

Lately, I find that I need to explain Debt in relation to IT and Software Development more and more often.

We now all know what happens with the financial system when we let debt get out of control.

The same holds for your IT and Software Development.

Debts get introduced by not “playing by the rules”. The quotes are there because you can not always play nicely, and the rules are not always clear or known.

Lets give a few examples of rules that – from experience at clients – are more often than not neglected. The examples are based on Windows, but could just as easily be Mac OS X, Unix, OS/400 or anything else.

  • Make sure you use a recent Windows version
    I often see companies lagging more than one version behind (i.e. still use Windows XP or SQL Server 2000). That’s too far.
  • Don’t run your users with too many privileges (and certainly not as Administrators)
    Especially running as Administrator will get you in trouble with User Account Control (UAC) in Windows Vista and up.
  • Using directories like C:\TEMP is a no-no.
    This should be a no-brainer, but truckloads of in-company software still thinks it can write everywhere.
    I know C:\TEMP used to be the Temporary Folder some 20 years ago.
    But that was then, and this is now:Use the %TEMP% environment variable or GetTempPath function (even better: theGetTempFileName function or the .NET Path.GetTempFileName function).
    More in general for known folders, use CSIDL or KNOWNFOLDERID whenever possible. Your favourite development tool usually has a library functions for that, for instance the .NET System.Environment.GetFolderPath function.

These few were examples ranged from technically very broad to specific. There are more, but these will give you a rough idea how wide the field of debt can be. Even debt outside the realm of Technical Debt can turn out to be really expensive.

Every time you postpone or skip a Windows version, you collect some debt in the hope (often wrongfully called expectation) that you earn more on the money/resource you just didn’t invest and putting that money/resource to use otherwise. The same holds for any other kind of debt.

The main problem with debt is not the total of the debt, it is the interest rate that makes the accrued debt grows faster than most people and organizations realize.

This is actually one of the main causes of the current world wide financial crisis, the same holds for many IT debts.

And for all kinds of debts, you often don’t know how high the interest rate will be, so the accrued value can be way beyond what you expect.

I’ve regularly seen projects collecting so much debt, that migration costs raised to thousands of hours because of it, resulting into management taking another very bad decision: rewriting the stuff from scratch. Don’t do that: Joel on Software excellently describes what happens when you do that.

What to do about it?

You might say “don’t collect debt”, but you can’t always avoid debt.

So you need to build periods where you pay off accrued debt. And you need to do that regularly, in order to avoid the interest pitfall.

This does not limit itself to software development (though that’s what I normally focus at). It covers a wide range of IT topics.

Sometimes, you can even pay your debt in advance. For instance, I was among the first to switch from Windows XP to the x64 of Windows Vista. I knew it would cause pain, but it immediately payed back by being able to use much more memory, and run more Virtual Machines at the same time. That made me more flexible and productive.

Reference: Debt in IT and Software Development (via: Coding Horror: Paying Down Your Technical Debt) from our NCG partner Jeroen Pluimers at the The Wiert Corner blog.

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