Technical Debt: Poor System Understanding While Time Constrained

Jun 14, 2019 · 5 min read

Technical Debt occurs when a local optimum is prioritized over a global solution. This commonly occurs when there there is poor understanding of the system combined with a time constraint. Viewing technical debt as a systems problem along the dimensions of time and system understanding can lead to insights on how better alignment can help reduce technical debt in projects. Time and System Understanding are two common contributors to technical debt, this blog explains how they are related, how they can promote or reduce technical debt, and some strategies for keeping technical debt at bay or removing it completely.

An Anecdote

This week I had a task that required changing the initialization of a service. I had spent a number of hours trying to understanding the complex initialization of a service in order to minimize the risk of modifying the initialization. This is essentially understanding what order a complex graph of dependencies can be executed in:

I was trying to develop a systems understanding of each of the major components and how they interacted. I had spent about 4 hours understanding this initialization. During standup I had mentioned that I was still trying to understand the initialization when a coworker suggested that I setup a runtime invariant that just check and fail if it’s dependencies aren’t yet initialized. This approach narrowed in on the specific component that needed to be changed without having to invest the time to understand each component and how they interact:

The approaches existed along a time continuum: Mine taking much longer to achieve the intended outcome with his being much faster. Both approaches were equally effective at minimizing risk. In this case his approach was much better because it met our time requirements, and involved a project that we rarely touched, so investing time was a poor return on investment. This got me thinking of the two approaches in the context of the system as a whole.

The first component is the first approach which I’ll call a “Systems Approach”, which takes a broader understanding of the system. This approach would have eventually been valid (after some unknown number of more hours) and involved developing an understanding of the full system vs part of the system. It maximizes knowledge at the cost of time.

The second approach was a local Optimum and was able to achieve results in constrained time, by ignoring the larger system. This approach minimizes time by minimizing knowledge.

System Understanding / Time Tradeoff

Combining these in 2 dimensions creates a time understanding space:

This results in 4 quadrants with very interesting characteristics:

Time Constrained / Poor Understanding (Local Optimum)

This promotes locally optimized solutions which are likely to result in technical debt.

Time Constrained / Good Understanding

This is able to deliver solutions which consider the affect on the global system. This is the golden zone and what organizations should shoot for. There are a number of technical and organizational approaches that can be used to achieve this.

Abundant Time / Poor Understanding

This is a dangerous area. It can either provide an opportunity to learn the system and develop an understanding of the system. This is also a huge risk to fail without time constraints. Unfortunately failing without constraints is real. I didn’t think it was possible but I witnessed a project not having any accountability, which was unable to deliver to any expectations, until it finally resulted in completely failure and had to be scrapped. The project probably cost close to 6 figures, and then had to be completely re-started from the ground up.

A Series of Tradeoffs

Each approach (local optimum or maintaining a system view) makes significant tradeoffs along the delivery-time dimension. One delivers on a fast timeline while sacrificing a system view, resulting in technical debt, while the other requires regular time investment while maintaining the system view.

This tradeoff should be intuitive, and industry talks about it frequently; as soon as the system view is lost it results in technical debt. Repaying that technical debt enables regaining the system context which usually requires an increase in technical resources. This is exactly what is meant by paying down technical debt: re-developing a system view and beginning to evolve within a system context instead of a making local optimum changes.

One reason that rewrites/migrations are an effective way to temporarily address technical debt is because they reset the system context. They force a new system view.

There are many technical strategies that can help maintain a system context throughout the lifetime of a project, while minimizing overhead. These can help completely avoid the cycle of locally optimized solutions, increasing technical debt a then a big push to rewrite or reduce technical debt. These are:

Another approach to maintaining system context is around alignment. In order to keep the system’s perspective, engineers familiar with the system (knowledge) should be aligned with doing the work or curating the work. This makes it more likely that the systems view will be present throughout the lifecycle of the project.

If a system understanding is not maintained it becomes easy to fall into making risk adverse locally optimized decisions which can lead to technical debt. Because locally optimized decisions are prone to increase the overall complexity of the system it can make it even harder for the next developer to gain any understanding (Thinking in Systems refers to this as a Reinforcing feedback loop).


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