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Technical Debt is Not Bad!

“There once was a Master Programmer who wrote unstructured programs. A novice programmer, seeking to imitate him, also began to write unstructured programs. When the novice asked the Master to evaluate his progress, the Master criticized him for writing unstructured programs, saying, “What is appropriate for the Master is not appropriate for the novice. You must understand Tao before transcending structure.”
The Tao of Programming, Book 3, Verse 2.

I consider Ward Cunningham’s “technical debt” analogy as one of the most important metaphors in software development. According to him, he invented it to explain to his manager why his team needed to do refactorings: like financial debt, technical debt tends to grow over time and the burden gets bigger and bigger due to compound interest.

During the last decade, quality-minded developers have done a great job of educating their managers about technical debt but it seems to me that there is now the notion that all technical debt is bad and must be avoided. But Ward Cunningham never said such a thing — and rightly so.

In business, not all debt is considered bad. It’s a huge difference if someone takes out a 200k loan to buy a flashy sports car or if the owner of a construction company takes out the same 200k loan to buy a bulldozer. The sports car is a pure liability that makes the owner poorer whereas the bulldozer is an investment that will generate money in the future.

The same holds for technical debt. If you initially implement a limited version of a feature (e. g. slow, bloated, lacking proper error-handling) just to enable other teammates to carry on with their own work, that’s good technical debt.

So when does technical debt qualify as good technical debt? To me, good technical debt is

a) taken on consciously
b) managed
c) repaid timely

By contrast, bad technical debt arises out of laziness or incompetence, it lurks in the code base and won’t be repaid. Rather, like credit card debt in real life, more debt is accumulated over time and new loans are taken out just to repay the interest rates of other loans. This is the kind of technical debt that is to be avoided in the first place.

You can use a knife to kill somebody, but you can also use a knife to whittle and prepare food. Surgeons even use knives to save people’s lives. Thus, a knife is neither good nor bad per se and so is technical debt.