Technical Debt: Quick Start Guide For Managers

Added to Technology

These are exciting times in the IT industry. The cloud, DevOps, the internet of things, machine learning and countless other innovations are rapidly changing our marketplace.

While this is exciting, you may find it challenging to rise to these market opportunities. New technologies offer a myriad of choices often with steep learning curves. Maintaining existing systems and rolling out releases at market cadence places demands on internal technical capacity. The friction in rolling out new features is called Technical Debt. Without prudent management this debt will grow and severely impact your ability to deliver value.

The Agile Alliance Technical Debt Initiative has put together a four step approach, based on the OODA Loop, to help you manage technical debt.

 

Observe

The first step is to identify and measure the technical debt in your products. This could be as simple as asking developers to measure how much they are slowed by technical debt in certain products or parts of the code. Or you could use tools to automatically measure technical debt as part of your build process.

 

Orient

While raw technical debt measures are important, it is even more important to put them into a wider context by characterizing the impact of the technical debt. For example, technical debt in a product undergoing a lot of change is less important that technica debt in stable products that rarely change. You may also want to orient your teams to the technical debt concept. We have developed the Dice of Debt game which is a fun and informative way to explore the impact of technical debt.

 

Decide

Now that you have measured and oriented your teams to technical debt you could schedule technical debt iterations or add technical debt stories to your product backlog. See project management and technical debt for additional insights and approaches to dealing with technical debt.

 

Act

Let’s do this! The simplest, and most effective, technique for dealing with technical debt is to apply the “boy scout” rule and have teams commit to keeping the code clean through opportunistic refactoring. Teams could include technical debt reduction as part of their working agreement or Definition of Done. Once some action has been taken you can loop back to the Observe step and keep looping.

 

About the Authors

Agile Alliance is a nonprofit organization with global membership, supporting and serving the Agile software community since 2001. We support people who explore and apply Agile values, principles, and practices to make building software solutions more effective, humane, and sustainable. We share our passion to deliver software better every day.

Jean-Louis Letouzey is the author of the SQALE method for managing technical debt. Jean-Louis consults to the world’s leading organizations for the implementation of corporate solutions for managing technical debt. He is also frequently embedded in due diligence teams for assessing the technical debt of the acquired software. Jean-Louis is a frequent technical speaker at international conferences. He leads the Technical Debt Initiative of the Agile Alliance

Declan Whelan, declan@leanintuit.com. Declan is an agile consultant, co-founder of Leanintuit and a director at the Agile Alliance. Declan works with organizations to improve their products and services through agile and lean practices. His personal mission is to change the conversation around technical debt. Rather than viewing is a technical problem to be fixed we need to view it as valuable feedback of the health of our organizations. We can use these health checks to improve our product and service delivery.

Thierry Coq is a Principal Consultant and Surveyor in Systems and Software Reliability (SSR) at DNV GL (merger of “Det Norske Veritas” and “Germanischer Lloyd”). He is a Systems and Software Architect, Functional Safety Professional, Project Manager and Process Appraiser. He is and has been involved in large multi-site projects, in different industries: Aerospace, Nuclear, Automotive, Energy and Maritime. He has a drive on improving organizations’ and project teams’ processes efficiency and speed with a focus on reliability and safety, with an excellent understanding of deep technical issues. He is a co-author of the Integrated Software-Dependent System (ISDS) Recommended Practice and Offshore Standards published by DNVGL. He has participated in the construction of the SQALE software quality assessment method with Jean-Louis Letouzey. He is the author of the book “Méthodes et informatique: Réussite du projet informatique par la méthode”, Lavoisier, 2012 (“Making software projects successful with method”) and has published many articles. Previously, he was new technology manager, project manager and engineer at engineering firms Q-Labs, Dassault Systems and CISI.

Jean-Pierre FAYOLLE is a French expat, located in Madrid and working as a freelance consultant in Software Quality and Customer Success Management. Prior to this, Jean-Pierre was Technical Director or Head of Applications and Development for different software companies or service providers, with ample experience in consulting and implementing software solutions for large international companies. Jean-Pierre holds a Master of Advanced Studies in Business Administration from the University of Lyon (France) and in Computing Management from the University of Quebec (Canada). He is the founder and main author of the blog Qualilogy (www.qualilogy.com), about Software Quality.

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.

Dan Sturtevant is the CEO of Silverthread, Inc., a leading provider of tools and services that help organizations regain control of software systems and drive results by focusing on design quality and its long term impact on long-term maintainability, agility, and cost. Based on R&D done at MIT and Harvard Business School, Silverthread helps organizations build insight and systematically improve so that systems can be delivered on time with high quality, and so they remain adaptable in the face of change. Dan earned his Doctorate from MIT, where he measured development productivity, quality, and risk in complex codebases. Prior to cofounding Silverthread, Dan spent many years in the software field building supercomputers used in aeronautical design simulation and developing defensive cyber warfare systems.


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