Saturday, April 29, 2017

Debt is not all bad

Debt is not all bad; it's not living beyond you means if you have the means -- and commitment and discipline -- to pay it back. In fact, debt can be a source of leverage, a means of managing risk, and a means to bring the future closer to the present.

And so it is in the metaphor of technical debt in a project. Technical debt has been around as long as there have been projects. It's just that until the past 25 years we've not really called it "technical debt". More likely you've used these terms:
  • Punch lists of things not done
  • Low priority stuff deferred
  • Action items from a design review
  • Future resources borrowed for near term action (aka: mortgage the future)
  • And, others .....
And so Mike Cohn, noted Agilist, in an emailing on the subject tells us:
"Ward Cunningham introduced the idea of technical debtat the 1992 OOPSLA conference. Cunningham’s term is often used by development teams to claim that technical debt is evil and all technical debt is to be avoided.

Cunningham’s point was exactly the opposite. It was that technical debt can be OK. He wrote, “A little debt speeds development so long as it is paid back promptly with a rewrite.”

So it’s not technical debt itself that is evil. It’s letting technical debt accumulate."
And, so the point is:
Don't let "deliver the best" be the enemy of getting on with it and making progress. For those old enough to remember, Win 95, Microsoft's first real windows OS (forgetting an even earlier version that I can hardly recall) was replete with "technical debt". And, Win 98 wasn't much better.  But, a lot was learned with those early efforts -- even if Apple was learning faster and delivering better.

Indeed, the whole point is to get something out there and gain experience from user's interaction. But, at the same time, have a plan to "learn fast". The slow learner will lose all advantage of going into debt.

Of course, if the customer's domain and culture is that "failure is not an option" and "it has to work the first time", then the debt needs repayment sooner than later.

But even if those are the constraints and the height of the bar, the opportunity for leverage and learning are not forfeited by the quality standard; they are simply sequenced differently.

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