On Runners Debt

Hint: It’s like Tech Debt

I became a runner only a few years ago. I tried a few times over the years but always exacerbated a knee injury and had to give up. I was turned on to the couch to 5K program via a Tweet by Stacey Mulcahy and was able to start running, yay!

I had an astonishingly terrible job at the time and I leaned heavily on running to manage my stress, which led me to be a pretty serious runner in a short amount of time. I loved running: the mental cleansing that came with it, the increased energy, better sleep, better focus, weight loss and more. And I did more and more, to the point where I started doing local races and started thinking about running a marathon.

The thing is, all my physical activity was focused on running. I started getting some occasional pain but kept pushing forward and going ahead with the same approach. And those minor pains became debilitating pains that made me abandon running completely.

Simultaneously I’ve been working in tech leadership roles in companies dealing with or ignoring their system’s tech debt. And I realized that I had fallen into the same trap as companies that ignore tech debt until it is too late: they end up buried in production/stability issues and business results plummet.

Bear with me: the analogy

Take my corpus as the system, and running fitness the desired “business” outcome. I started with an approach (running, 100%) that gave good results early on. But, I ignored signs that this approach was not scaling well (as I added more miles to my regimen) and neurotically kept going with what had worked before. My “velocity” started suffering and I did not address the underlying issues. I kept putting in miles, on top of a system with emerging issues that continued to get worse. I could still go forward, but only with great pain and discomfort.

Does this sound familiar? This is a classic anti-pattern that has affected many organizations trying to scale.

The Solution

For my own issues, I had to do the equivalent of a re-platform. I added in a much broader range of activity on top of my running, in particular the preposterously challenging hot yoga down the street from my office.

Re-platforming sucks! Your organization may choose to go to a new platform when they realize that their current system just won’t get you there. But that’s very different than being forced to do an unexpected re-platform. No company is excited about taking a multi-month feature vacation!

I had to start anew with running and it took me over a year to get back to where I was before I let things get out of hand. Had I paid attention to the signs earlier, I could have adjusted my regimen with much less cost/effort and would have achieved much better results earlier.

The Lesson

It’s much cheaper and effective to deal with issues as they emerge (see also benefits of Agile methodology, CI/CD for getting early feedback in product development process). If you ignore systemic problems, they compound and become astronomically more painful and expensive to address.

Are your developers complaining about emerging aches and pains? What problems in your organization are being ignored? What will the cost of those issues be down the road?