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Living With It

So now that I’ve talked about what I think of when I say “technical debt”, I want to dig in on the other half of the title, “Living With It”. What does it mean to live with technical debt? I want to be clear: it does not mean simply accepting or ignoring it. I’m certain that’s the wrong way to build long-lived, robust software. When we encounter technical debt, or something that feels hard, I think there are a few common, understandable, and dangerous reactions. These roughly fall into the categories of “I can do better”, “One more won’t hurt”, and “I can’t go on.”

When some engineers — even good (but not great) ones — encounter technical debt, their reaction may be “I can do better”. That is, “Oh, this is terrible, I can’t possibly work with code like this, I’ll rewrite this part of the system, and then I can get around to what I came here to do.” Rewriting or refactoring debt away may be the right decision, but this statement contains unspoken assumptions that better code is more important than new features or bug fixes for users. This is where the paradox of living with technical debt first shows itself: living with technical debt does not mean accepting it, but it also doesn’t mean fixing it. Right now. The business, the organization, has to make decisions about what’s most important. (Engineers need input into those decisions, and the business needs to respect that input, or the best engineers will go elsewhere, where their input will be respected.) It’s up to the business to decide “can we go dark for n days/weeks/months.” Sometimes the answer may be yes, and we’re free to improve the code with abandon. I think that’s a rare situation. More often the answer is “no”, so we need to live with the debt and develop strategies for improving it (more on that later).

Another reaction that I think is all too common is “I guess one more won’t hurt”. That is, “Well, we’re stupid is these five places, what’s one more?” Living with technical debt does not mean you continue to incur it. If anything, it’s essential to stop running up the tab. This requires rigor and strength of will, not just on the part of the engineer working on the code, but on her peers. The team needs to decide that incurring additional debt is not acceptable: you can maintain or you can improve, but you can’t backslide. The danger of “one more won’t hurt” is that the problem spreads: you build new features that repeat past mistakes, instead of providing a model for future work.

Finally, sometimes we look at code and think, “I can’t go on”. I find that those are the time it’s helpful to step away from a project, take a break, come back after a good night’s sleep. You don’t always have that luxury, but feelings of despair rarely coincide with my best work. I’ve observed that indulging in the first two ways of thinking — “I can do better” and “One more won’t hurt” — often leads to the final one — “I can’t go on”. “One more won’t hurt” just digs a deeper and deeper hole, until you can’t see your way out, and “I can do better” often leaves you with a piece of “perfect” code that doesn’t quite fit into the rest of the system, leaving you to shims and scotch tape, the very things you started out trying to avoid.

In “Good to Great”, Jim Collins writes about characteristics that separate good companies from great ones. One of the principles he identifies is “Confront the brutal facts, but never lose faith.” In other words, it does no good to pretend that your code (company in his case) is something that it isn’t. Collins talks about meeting Admiral Stockdale, and asking him, “Who didn’t make it out?” “Oh, that’s easy — the optimists.” Stockdale explains that the optimists were routinely disappointed, and eventually lost faith. “I can’t go on.” Collins quotes Stockdale as saying, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” Technical debt may be a far cry from Stockdale’s situation, but the principle holds as the heart of truly living with technical debt: we must confront things as they are, not as we wish they were. And we must believe that we can make things better, that we know where we’re going.