A few weeks ago I set out to write a blog post about technical debt and the complexities of getting rid of it, or some of it, when you work for a company.
I wanted to see what others had written about it and of course I landed on Martin Fowler’s article about technical debt. When I started reading it I realized that up to that point I didn’t really know what tech debt was.
It seams that while being confronted with the eternal vastness of software engineering, this is what my brain does: when I hear a term for the first time and I can deduce its approximate meaning from context, I store it as a known term. Even though I don’t know exactly what it is.
What I deduced it to be was: “Legacy code, that makes it hard to maintain your code or to add features.”
And every time I heard or used the term “technical debt” there was a tiny little voice in the back of my head going: “Why is it “debt”!? I don’t get it.”
Anyways good ol' Martin cleaned up that part of my brain and made it crystal clear for me:
Technical Debt is a wonderful metaphor developed by Ward Cunningham to help us think about this problem. In this metaphor, doing things the quick and dirty way sets us up with a technical debt, which is similar to a financial debt.
Like a financial debt, the technical debt incurs interest payments, which come in the form of the extra effort that we have to do in future development because of the quick and dirty design choice.
We can choose to continue paying the interest, or we can pay down the principal by refactoring the quick and dirty design into the better design. Although it costs to pay down the principal, we gain by reduced interest payments in the future.
It’s a metaphor! It is actually a term that was invented in order to explain consequences of sloppy coding to people in suits!
Fowler goes on to write:
The metaphor also explains why it may be sensible to do the quick and dirty approach. Just as a business incurs some debt to take advantage of a market opportunity developers may incur technical debt to hit an important deadline.
The all too common problem is that development organizations let their debt get out of control and spend most of their future development effort paying crippling interest payments.
Thank. You. Technical debt can lead to crippling interest payments. These can slow down your development teams so badly that you can’t compete anymore.
The term “technical debt” carries all the information you need in order to make the argument to company leadership why getting rid of it or keeping it at bay may be a wise business decision.
Who knew?! 😂