Abstract/Description

You often hear technical debt described as a personal failing. 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’re not a bad person. You didn’t want this to happen. It’s the system, not you, that’s chiefly responsible.

In this talk, we will present some of the 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.

During this session, we will use 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. We will also do an exercise in which you will create a simple systems model of your own challenges with technical debt, and discuss how this model should help you shape a plan of action for dealing with technical debt.

Ultimately, the goal of this session 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.

About the Speaker(s)

Tom Grant is an independent consultant (GameChange LLC) who help clients break through the barriers to successful software innovation. In his practice, he combines Agile, Lean, and serious games to change the rules of innovation when they're not working as well as they could. Tom has worked with a wide variety of clients, from Fortune 100 companies to start-ups, from IT to software companies. Some of Tom's areas of specialization include technical debt, Lean and Agile, management and leadership, Agile in highly regulated industries, requirements, tools, and frameworks. Tom's great passion is using serious games in Agile to get better customer insights, test strategies through simulated outcomes, adopt new practices and principles through experiential learning, and make smarter decisions. Tom is a contributor to the Agile Alliance's working group on technical debt. Previously, Tom has worked as practice director at Cutter Consortium, as a consultant at Net Objectives, and an analyst at Forrester Research. A native Californian, Tom now lives in Washington, DC.