I’ve been reading up on technical debt. I’d thought the name was self-explanatory. Nope. Much to my surprise, I found the term’s formal definition excludes quite a lot of debts of a technical nature.
According to most authors, “technical debt” is really application development debt.
Just as paleontologists changed Brontosaurus’s name to Apatosaurus in 1903 when they discovered Othniel Charles Marsh had given the genus that name back in 1877, so I have to respect the going definition of technical debt: a concept in software development that reflects the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing an easy solution now instead of using a better approach that would take longer.
Yes, “technical debt” excludes a lot of what IT typically owes the future, illustrating an important principle of organizational dynamics: Someone Else’s Problems rarely matter.
And so, from now on, here in KJR-land we’ll refer to Chronodebt, defined as the accumulated cost of remediating all IT assets that aren’t what engineering standards say they should be.
Chronodebt is what your IT organization owes the god of time.
Chronodebt includes technical debt. It also includes the costs of: Converting an application whose supplier is out of business to something supported by a financially solvent vendor; upgrading server operating systems from out-of-support versions to something more current; and replacing hardware that’s out of warranty and aging beyond its projected lifespan.
Chronodebt also encompasses a frequent outcome of mergers and acquisitions: Acquiring a business and failing to integrate it into the enterprise.
A nicety here: Not all acquisitions should be integrated. It’s perfectly valid to run an enterprise as a holding company whose separate lines of business are left alone to win in their marketplaces.
If those running the business want a holding company then taking on an acquisition does add the acquired company’s Chronodebt to the total, but doesn’t add the cost of deferred integration.
If, on the other hand, the M&A plan does include some level of business integration or standardization, then failing to consolidate applications does add to the Chronodebt load.
Then there are boundary issues — issues like poorly engineered integration. Sure, we can blame an applications team for deploying a custom-programmed interface to keep two systems synchronized.
Is this really technical debt? Yes it is, if the IT architecture includes an enterprise service bus (ESB) or functionally similar integration platform and the applications team either ignores it or disguises a custom-programmed interface by hiding it inside the ESB.
But calling a custom point-to-point interface technical debt when it’s the best engineering possible given the IT organization’s existing set of approved standards just doesn’t seem accurate. After all, there’s no remediation path to improve the interface and won’t be, unless and until IT adds an integration platform to the mix.
In most situations, then, a classic integration tangle isn’t technical debt no matter how big a mess it is in the aggregate. It is, on the other hand, part of IT’s total Chronodebt because a time will come when untangling it becomes a priority, and when that time comes the time, expense, and complexity of the effort will be, shall we say, non-trivial.
All of which leads to a question: Should your average CIO calculate the company’s total Chronodebt?
The answer: Sorta.
The first question is jurisdiction. If the company has an enterprise architecture or enterprise technical architecture management function, then this is the group responsible for calculating Chronodebt, wherever and whoever it reports to in the enterprise.
The second question is whether to treat Chronodebt as a financial measure or as a non-financial metric. For most businesses, most of the time, keeping track of Chronodebt’s components, and grading each one with some sort of size and complexity indicator that associates with the cost of fixing it should be sufficient, and avoids errors of false precision.
On top of which there’s little point to developing a financial Chronodebt estimate.
One reason: Chronodebt measures remediation costs, not the business impact of the problems. Financial debt measurement works this way too: It notes the cost of repaying a loan, not what the loan shark’s leg breaker will do to you if you don’t.
The other reason is built into the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) — the official standard of accounting professionalism. As mentioned last week, unlike financial debt, Chronodebt and other forms of borrowing from the future don’t and probably can’t appear as a liabilities on the balance sheet.
Chronodebt’s absence from the balance sheet explains why IT has so much trouble getting funding to repay it.