Management – an end of year postscript

The end of the year is almost here, a year which has seen two mini-series in this blog: Management and Agile ERP. Well, I was catching up with my reading backlog a little something about management by Tim O’Reilly caught my eye.

Writing about the future of management in MIT Sloan Management review O’Reilly makes he following suggestion:

“a large part of the work of these companies [Google, Facebook, Amazon.com]— delivering search results, news and information, social network status updates, and relevant products for purchase — is performed by software programs and algorithms. These programs are the workers, and the human software developers who create them are their managers.”

O’Reilly’s argument is that the traditional management role was about organizing workers. Now the workers are often electronic systems and their work is governed by programs then the programmers are in effect the managers. Programmers – and others in the development arena – instruct the workers using algorithms and code.

In my management series one of the arguments I made was: no matter how self-organizing and managing teams are there is a residual amount of “management work”. In a team without (or just fewer) managers this work is spread around. Among the most obvious examples are the NCO managers (Scrum Masters, Technical Leads, etc.) teams often have. And, because management work is spread around among more people there are more people who need to understand management and business.

O’Reilly’s argument leads you to the same place.

If we assume more management and business decisions are being taken at-the-code-face then more programmers (and other technical staff) need to learn about management and business. Paradoxically, firms should have fewer managers but more management training.

Some aren’t going to like that, some want to take an engineering view of everything.

I suspect there is a corollary: if technical staff need to spend more time considering management and business issues then there is less time for coding, less space for technologies which require really deep understanding (e.g. C++) and fewer opportunities for those who only want to code and ignore all the management, business and political stuff.

Quite on the blog front – #NoProjects and Mimas

This blog has been a lot quieter in the last couple of months than normal. My energy has been going elsewhere.

If you would like to catch up with latest thinking – particularly #NoProjects – then please check out my latest work-in-progress book, #NoProjects: Correcting Project Myopia.

Early versions of this are available to buy and download now, most of my free time between now and the new year is directed at advancing this book (after one or two false starts.)

Come January my “spare time” time will be absorbed by reviewing the Agile on the Beach submissions (see the call for speakers). Which also helps explain the other reason for the quiet blog…

My summer programming endeavour is a thing I call Mimas – named after one of Saturn’s moons. It is a conference submission and review system for Agile on the Beach. I really should write a blog about the things I learned writing Mimas…

Like all software endeavours there is a lot more I could do. And like so many programmers I wonder…. could this be useful to other people?

Technical liabilities: not technical debt

(This is refactored version of my earlier blog post Technical Liabilities and not Technical Debt – its shorter and contains few of the references to banking and finance.)

Wherever I go I hear developers talk about “Technical debt”. Unfortunately the expression isn’t used in the way Ward Cunningham originally intended it.

The time has come to retire the technical debt metaphor, in its place we should talk about Technical Liabilities. This is a small change in language with big implications.

The big big problem with talking about “debt” is that debt is not necessarily a bad thing; debt is often good, particularly in a business context. This leads to misunderstanding between engineers and non-engineers and can even lead engineers into poor habbits.

To many people in business – and particularly bankers – debt is good. Debt allows you to grow business and improve earnings. When an engineer says “This will add technical debt” the engineer thinks they are warning about something bad, but to a non-engineer business person, debt is often the preferred form of funding. So buying new capability with (technical) debt sounds like a good deal.

Let me go a bit deeper…

The essential part of Wards explanation was this:

“there were plenty of cases where people would rush software out the door and learn things but never put that learning back into the program, and that by analogy was borrowing money thinking that you never had to pay it back.”

However the metaphor has been widely interpreted as something you might intentionally do. “Debt thinking” goes like this:

“We are (time and money) poor, but we can borrow from tomorrow’s riches, rather than write good code today we can save time (and money) by just getting something that works and later (when we are rich) we can come back and do all that good stuff which we should do. (And by the way, if it turns out that our initiative fails then we have saved effort and money.)”

This thinking is ripe both among developers and those who employ developers.

This kind of debt thinking is, perhaps, similar to a mortgage:

“I don’t have the money to buy a house right now but if I borrow the money from a bank I can pay back the money over time with the money I save on rent.”

Yet many engineers are the first to bemoan the fact that despite the best intentions they never get to pay back the debt. Instead they merely service the debt, that is to say, they (at best) pay the interest but never the principle debt remains. Indeed all too often the payments are not even sufficient to pay the interest which gets added to the principle.

With any debt the important question is: can you afford to payments? The bigger the debt, the higher the interest rate the greater the amount of todays resources (time, money, effort) that needs to be devoted to servicing the debt. Yesterday you borrowed so you could buy something beyond your resources, today you must devote some of your resources to pay those who provided the loan.

Over time “technical debt” massively hinders the ability of organizations to change both the software and themselves.

Technical debt is less more like a pay-day-loan than a mortgage: a loan you take when you have no choice, the high interest rate can be crippling, payments eat into your ability to do any useful work.

Only those who are desperate and/or financially naive would accept a pay-day-loan. Let me suggest those who willingly take on technical debt similarly desperate or technically naive.

This logic is why I say: There is no such thing as quick and dirty, only dirty and slow.

So, talking about technical debt is loaded with problems, when is a debt good? when is it bad? what is the interest rate? do those who advocate incurring debt know what they are saying? And do you have a repayment plan?

Simply changing our language from Technical Debt to Technical Liability removes these problems.

Liability is something neither business and technical folk consider good. If I look at my dictionary it tells me:

“Liability:

1. Subject to an obligation

2. Exposed to a possible risk

3. Responsible for

and some more…”

These attributes, both in a technical setting and non-technical context, can be agreed by everyone.

Businesses have to list liabilities on their balance sheet and reducing the liabilities produces a more attractive balance sheet. (Debt on the other hand is listed as an asset on bank balance sheets, and even Apple sometimes chooses to issue debt rather than use capital.)

Let us let “Technical debt” go back to Wards original meaning. Lets talk about Technical Liabilities in our systems.

Technical liabilities that cost us because they create obligations – obligation which slow us down, obligations which must be repaid; and they create risks, we don’t know when an obligation is going to bite us.