Ward Cunningham was the first to write about the concept of technical debt (Cunningham 1992). He defined it as follows:

Shipping first time code is like going into debt. A little debt speeds development so long as it is paid back promptly with a rewrite. . . . The danger occurs when the debt is not repaid. Every minute spent on not-quite-right code counts as interest on that debt. Entire engineering organizations can be brought to a stand-still under the debt load of an unconsolidated implementation. . . .

Cunningham used the technical debt metaphor to explain to his business team why creating software fast to get feedback was a good thing. In doing so, however, he emphasized two key points: The team and organization need to be vigilant about repayment of the debt as their understanding of the business domain improves, and the design and implementation of the system need to evolve to better embrace that understanding.

Since the introduction of the term in the early 1990s, the software industry has taken some liberties with Cunningham’s definition. Nowadays, technical debt refers both to the shortcuts we purposely take and also to the many bad things that plague software systems. These include:

• Unfit (bad) design—a design that once made sense but no longer does, given important changes to the business or technologies we now use

• Defects—known problems in the software that we haven’t yet invested time in removing

• Insufficient test coverage—areas where we know we should do more testing but don’t

• Excessive manual testing—testing by hand when we really should have automated tests

• Poor integration and release management—performing these activities in a manner that is time-consuming and error-prone

• Lack of platform experience—for example, we have mainframe applications written in COBOL but we don’t have many experienced COBOL programmers around anymore

• And many more, because the term technical debt today is really used as a placeholder for a multidimensional problem

Consequences of Technical Debt:

  As the level of technical debt rises, so does the severity of the consequences. Let’s discuss a few of the more notable consequences of high levels of technical debt

Unpredictable Tipping Point: At the tipping point, even small changes to the product become major occasions of uncertainty. This nonlinear characteristic is a significant business risk; we don’t know when the next piece of straw is going to break the camel’s back, but when it does, all consequences are amplified.

Increased Time to Delivery: Taking on technical debt means taking a loan today against the time required to do future work. The greater the debt today, the slower the velocity tomorrow. When velocity slows, it takes longer to deliver new features and product fixes to customers. So, in the presence of high technical debt, the time between deliverables actually increases rather than decreases. In ever-competitive marketplaces, technical debt is actively working against our best interests.

Significant Number of Defects: Products with significant technical debt become more complex, making it harder to do things correctly. The compounding defects can cause critical product failures to happen with alarming frequency. These failures become a major disruption to the normal flow of value-added development work. In addition, the overhead of having to manage lots of defects eats into the time available to produce value-added features. At some point, we begin to drown but are so busy treading defect-filled waters we can’t see how to pull ourselves out of the mess we are in.

Rising Development and Support Costs: As technical debt increases, development and support costs start rising. What used to be simple and cheap to do is now complicated and expensive. In the presence of increasing levels of technical debt, even small changes become very expensive.

Product Atrophy: As we stop adding new features or fixing defects that could rejuvenate our aging product, the product becomes less and less appealing to current and potential customers. As a result, the product starts to atrophy and simply ceases to be a viable option for most customers. Those who stay with the product are typically stuck with it for the time being. But as soon as the first opportunity to switch to another product appears, they’ll probably take it!

Decreased Predictability: For a product with high levels of technical debt, making any sort of prediction is nearly impossible. For example, estimates become bad estimates even for the most experienced team members. There is simply too much uncertainty surrounding how long something might take when dealing with a debt-ridden product. Consequently, our ability to make commitments and have a reasonable expectation of meeting them is seriously impaired. The business stops trusting anything development has to say, and customers stop trusting anything the business has to say!

Underperformance: Sadly, as technical debt increases, people come to expect increasingly lower development performance and therefore reduce their expectations of what is possible. Of course, the lowered expectations start to propagate through the value chain, resulting in lower overall performance on an organization-wide basis.

Universal Frustration: The unfortunate human consequence of high technical debt is that everyone in the value chain becomes frustrated. The accumulation of all of those small but annoying shortcuts makes work on the product painful. Eventually the joy in development disappears and is replaced with the day-to-day grind of fighting issues that no one wants to (or should have to) deal with.

Decreased Customer Satisfaction: Customer satisfaction will decrease as customer frustration increases. So the extent of the damage caused by technical debt is not just isolated to the development team or even to the development organization as a whole. Even worse, the consequences of technical debt can substantially affect our customers and their perception of us.

Technical Debt Must Be Managed

Technical debt management requires a balanced technical and business discussion that must involve technical and business people. That is one reason why each Scrum team has a product owner. Having the product owner as part of the Scrum team allows for a balanced discussion of business and technical perspectives to make good economic trade-offs. It is therefore essential that we choose a product owner with the proper business acumen to participate in these discussions. There are three principal technical debt management activities.

Managing the Accrual of Technical Debt:  A critical dimension of managing technical debt is to manage the debt accrual process. As I discussed earlier, there is only so much technical debt we can take on before we reach a critical mass. By analogy, continuously accruing technical debt is equivalent to continuously borrowing money against our house. At some point we just need to stop and say, “No more!” because the consequences become too severe.

First, we need to stop adding naive debt to our products (stop being reckless and creating messes). We also need to realize that there is only so much strategic debt or unavoidable debt we can accrue without repayment before we reach the tipping point.

Making Technical Debt Visible: One of the principal benefits of the technical debt metaphor is that it enables the development team and the business people to have a necessary conversation using a shared context. To have that conversation, both need visibility into the product’s technical debt position in a way that each can understand.               

It is essential to provide business people with visibility into the product’s technical debt position. If I could quantify technical debt numerically—and there is significant current research work in the area of how to quantify technical debt (SEI 2011)—I might consider entering short-term and long-term technical debt line items on the organization’s balance sheet right next to financial debt.

Servicing the Technical Debt: The last activity in managing technical debt is to service or repay the debt. When discussing debt servicing, I find it helpful to use the following status categories:

• Happened-upon technical debt—debt that the development team was unaware existed until it was exposed during the normal course of performing work on the product. For example, the team is adding a new feature to the product and in doing so it realizes that a work-around had been built into the code years before by someone who has long since departed.

• Known technical debt—debt that is known to the development team and has been made visible using one of the previously discussed approaches.

• Targeted technical debt—debt that is known and has been targeted for servicing by the development team.

Based on these categories, I generally apply the following algorithm when servicing technical debt:

1. Determine if the known technical debt should be serviced (as I will discuss, not all debt should be serviced). If it should be serviced, go to step 2.

2. If you are in the code doing work and you discover happened-upon technical debt, clean it up. If the amount of happened-upon technical debt exceeds some reasonable threshold, clean it up until you reach that threshold. Then classify the nonserviced, happened-upon technical debt as known technical debt (for example, by creating entries in the technical debt backlog).

3. Every sprint, consider designating some amount of known technical debt as targeted technical debt to be serviced during the sprint. Favor servicing known technical debt with a high interest rate that is aligned with customer-valuable work.