The human side of technical debt

When we talk about technical debt we typically talk about its business impact. It allows us to gain short-term efficiency at the expense of long-term productivity. Technical debt isn’t always bad. Sometimes it’s the right business decision. When running experiments that may or may not become part of a final product taking on technical debt is often a good idea. If the experiment doesn’t work out we can throw away the piece the incurred the debt and there’s no need to “pay it back”.

But technical debt has side effects that we often forget about. Developers hate working with technical debt that isn’t their own. Nobody likes cleaning up somebody else’s mess. Whenever a developer touches code or infrastructure plagued by technical debt she is likely to feel frustrated and demotivated, and that feeling will spill over to other aspects of her work. This effect on human motivation is hard to quantify, but extremely important to consider.

Then there’s the cascading effect. The presence technical debt increases the probability of developers adding more technical debt in adjacent components. It’s messed up anyway, so adding a bit more won’t hurt, right? Individual developers often make such decisions on the spot, and the result can get out of hand rather quickly.

The price of technical grows with number of people and the number of components that touch it.  We need to think of its impact in terms of people, not just code or infrastructure. As much as possible debt should stay confined to isolated components that are “owned” by individuals or teams who are responsible for managing and paying back the debt over time.