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What is technical debt?

“Rather go to bed without dinner than to rise in debt.” — Benjamin Franklin 

The thought of debt can be a scary one that conjures up images of credit cards, mortgages, car payments, and sleepless nights.  To most of us, it’s simple to define:  an amount of money you owe someone else. 

But, the concept of debt is not always related to dollars and cents.   

This was weighing heavily on my mind last week as I was looking at my end-of-year-calendar. 

In the IT field, the term “technical debt” is often used to describe the habit of taking technical shortcuts that, over time, accumulate and cause more work down the road.  Because it’s hard to quantify and often hidden from management until it’s out of control, the buildup of technical debt on a project is sometimes even more dangerous to a company than money owed on a balance sheet. 

Delaying IT infrastructure upgrades to save money, not testing software thoroughly because of a tight deadline, blowing off doing a disaster recovery plan—these are common examples of shortcuts that build up technical debts that will always come back to bite you if not paid off at some point. 

There are other types of debt as well.    

Some of us (me) eat too much and build up an “exercise debt” that we must pay off at some point if we want to maintain a healthy weight.   Some work too much, building up a “sleep debt.” Others play too much and amass a “work debt.”    

These non-financial “soft” debts are more difficult to measure than what we traditionally think of as debt, but they have real costs nonetheless.  And just like money debt, if you’re not careful, you can spend all your time and resources paying the interest instead of paying down the principal. 

Proactively managing different types of debt is an often overlooked but critical skill that determines the long-term viability of every business.  Soft debts should be tracked and managed in much the same way that financial debts are. 

In tech, we call it a “backlog.”  It’s simply a list of any tech-related shortcuts, band-aids or items we skimp on because of deadline or budget constraints, along with estimates of how much work (debt) it will take us to fix them down the road.  Some technical debts are intentional – a conscious choice to save time or money. Others are accidental, discovered in the form of bugs.   

As the backlog list grows, the key is to treat each item as a debt owed, the same way you would as if you were making payments on a bank loan.   This involves planning your “savings” (in the form of time) so that you can eventually make your “payments” (in the form of future work).    We basically mark off time on our calendars for every project to pay off our backlog debts. 

Earlier this year we began to explore this simple backlog approach to managing other areas of debt in our company.   As expected, just like tech, the constraints of time and budget created a backlog in everything from HR to marketing.  Things like updating our employee handbook and standardizing our email signatures made it to our backlog.  And just like tech debt, we have marked our calendars for our end of year payments to clear out the backlogs. 

Thinking of debt as something that is beyond a purely a financial metric has changed the way we operate.  It’s forced us to justify any shortcuts we take company-wide, because we are now tracking them as real costs rather than forgotten to-do lists that will inevitably come back to haunt us. Sleep well. 

JJ Rosen is the founder of Atiba.  A Nashville IT consulting and custom software development firm.  Visit www.atiba.com or www.atibanetworkservices.com for more info. 

 

 

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