Technical Debt is a Systemic Problem, Not a Personal Failure

You often hear technical debt described as a personal failure for software developers of the Scrum team. Why didn’t you code with greater rigor? By creating technical debt, how could you have made life harder on people working in the code? More often than not, technical debt is the result of bigger, systemic problems. Chances are, you are not a bad person. You didn’t want this to happen. It is the system, not you, that is chiefly responsible.

This talk presents some conclusions from the Agile Alliance’s technical debt working group, which has looked into the systemic causes and consequences of technical debt. While marginal amounts of technical debt will always accrue, that does not explain why substantial technical debt is a widespread phenomenon. The organization in which software development teams work is the much bigger culprit. Many systemic causes, such as deadline pressures, under-investment in skills, and even the unwillingness to measure technical debt, conspire to create a growing burden on software professionals, who would otherwise choose not to create this problem if given the opportunity.

Just as technical debt has systemic causes, the real cost of technical debt lies at the system level. The increasing drag on software innovation has effects not just on individual and team productivity, but on the software value stream, the portfolio, and the organization as a whole. Sometimes, the cost is obvious, such as the valuation of a start-up company’s code; other times, the consequences are far more subtle and insidious.

This session uses the language and methods of systems theory to better come to grips with the causes and consequences of technical debt. Don’t worry if systems thinking is unfamiliar — we will cover the basics during the talk. Ultimately, the goal of this presentation is to give you the tools to better deal with technical debt. Rather than blaming individual developers, you will be able to show the systemic sources of technical debt, and assess the relative value of addressing each of them. Rather than depending on technical measures to convey the costs of technical debt, we will help you to put the costs of technical debt in stark business terms.

Video producer: http://www.torontoagilecommunity.org/

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