Sunday, 27 June 2010 00:00

The Snake Pit, Taking the Poison Out of Technical Debt

Rate this item
(0 votes)

Projects build in technical debt and maintenance groups remove it—if your organization has a maintenance group. Technical debt accrues in any product, whether or not it has a technical component. It is the result of taking shortcuts when building the product. Sometimes it is the result of not having enough time, on other occasions it is due to not having the right tools. Anything from the implementation of the software component to light fixture can have technical debt. Promises are made to correct it later, but later never comes.

Case Study: The "Snake Pit"

Recently there has been a resurgence in the popularity of the article Using Agile in a Project Recovery. As with any new implementation, there were a few problems—technical debt was one. One was experienced in the third iteration; a bug was introduced in the release. Because of the short development and testing cycle regression testing was constrained to a logical set of tests based on what was changed. However, this bug was in an area that was not worked on, so regression testing missed it. I asked the architect and the QA lead what went wrong. The architect regrettably shook his head and relied, "The Snake Pit." I had heard the developers refer to this before. It was a section of code that had been modified too hastily by too many people, too many times. The code was a mess, poorly written, and not well understood. I asked the architect to come back and give me a recommendation.

The next day Bob came back and told me that the four-week release cycle could not continue. The code was written so poorly that we would continue to trip over unexpected functionality. We got the developers together and talked about the options. The developers were very frustrated. In my haste to implement the process, I had missed telling them the importance of refactoring the code base. I told them that their estimates had to include a sensible amount of time to refactor the code.

Two guidelines were defined to help:

  1. Changes had to be sound. They could not be hurried; they needed to be able to be completed in a short amount of time.
  2. Additionally, each iteration had a few days set aside for unanticipated refactoring. When they touched code that was poor quality, they were supposed to change it.

The developers were ecstatic. They had never been given this leniency to use their discretion at how to do their work. Needless to say, the organization was not one to trust the judgment of its employees. This, and the implied trust that went with it, made pride soar.

Technical Debt's Effect

Trying to fix technical debt in a product can be a monumental, especially if it has accrued over time. Estimates for project work are often created with the assumption that the code base is sound. However, when the team starts working, they find that the product was not built to best practices or shortcuts were taken and now, before the enhancements can be added, the mess needs to be straightened up. This effort can be significant. The customer, of course, does not want to hear any of this, since they do not feel they caused it. It is up to the project to fix the code and make it maintainable.

It is worse than this, though. Technical debt is not just from poor practices. Products simply go out of date. Techniques and tools change, new products emerge, and better methods make the old structure passé and fragile. When adding new functionality, it usually does not makes sense, and sometimes it is impossible, to continue to use the old style. There are times that a remodel, or refactor, is a necessity. No one is to blame, it just needs to be added to the scope.

The Maintenance Group

Attending to technical debt is a never-ending process. A maintenance group is the best group of people to do this work. They can do this between projects providing a solid code base for the next project. However, budget cuts have relegated this to a luxury. This is a short path to a non-maintainable, costly, bug laden product.

Handling Technical Debt in a Project

As highlighted in the case study (see inset), technical debt is a serious issue. The best defense is a good plan. Discovering the problem early is critical since it gives the team time to understand its breadth and potentially start working on fixing it prior to working on the project's product.

The worse case is when the project team tries to remove technical debt and the project is not equipped to do it. This can be a result of two conditions—the project does not have the funds or management has made a decision to make a quick fix. Technologists hate these situations since they feel they are developing substandard product and will need to fix it at a later date. The case study in the article Finding Religion, Trusting Management describes just such a situation. Project managers need to pay special attention to stop this work.

Read 9073 times

Related items

  • People vs Process Track Session/Keynote Example

    If you want educational keynote many of our presentations can be keynotes or track sessions. In the example below, the presentation People or Process: Which Impacts Project Success More? is given as a track session.  

    Example People vs Process keynote as a track session

    This session was given at the PMI Sioux Empire Professions Development Day help in Sioux Falls SD on September 9, 2014.

  • Transform Your Project Leadership: For Professionals Leading Projects or Company Initiatives

    Todd Williams contributed Chapter 7, "Leaders Listen." You can buy it on Amazon.

    More coming soon!

  • Filling Execution Gaps: How Executives and Project Managers Turn Corporate Strategy into Successful Projects
    What Filling Execution Gaps Covers

    Filling Execution Gaps

    by Todd C. Williams
    ISBN: 978-1-5015-0640-6
    De G Press (DeGruyter), September 2017

    Project alignment, executive sponsorship, change management, governance, leadership, and common understanding. These six business issues are topics of daily discussions between executives, middle management, and project managers; they are the pivotal problems plaguing transformational leadership. Any one of these six, when improperly addressed, will hex a project's chances for success. And, they do—daily—destroying the ability companies to turn vision into value.

    Check it out on Amazon or the Filling Execution Gaps website

    Without the foundation of a common understanding of goals and core concepts, such as value being critical to success, communication stops and projects fail.

    Without change management, users fail to adopt project deliverables, value is lost, and projects fail.

    Without maintaining alignment between corporate goals and projects, projects miss their value targets and projects fail.

    Without an engaged executive sponsor, scope increases, goals drift, chaos reigns, value is lost, and projects fail.

    Without enough governance, critical connections are not made, steps are ignored, value is overlooked, and projects fail.

    Too much governance slows progress, companies cannot respond to business pressures, value drowns in bureaucracy, and projects fail.

    Without strong leadership defining the vision and value, goals are not set, essential relationships do not form, teams do not develop, essential decisions are not made, and projects fail.

  • Filling Execution Gaps: Building Success-Focused Organizations

    Executives define vision, strategy, and goals to advance the business. Projects enable companies to meet those goals. Between strategy and projects, there is a lot of work to be done—work that lays the foundation for project and operational success. Through experience and research, six common gaps exist in organizations that inhibit project success—an absence of common understanding, disengaged executive sponsors, misalignment with goals, poor change management, ineffective governance, and lackluster leadership.

  • Get Recognized as a Leader: Four Core Leadership Actions

    Leaders make decisions. This requires a core set of actions to gather the best information, hear out the concerns of others, and making a decision that everyone will follow—even if there is not unanimous agreement with the decision. Although there are hundreds of actions leaders must take, there are four core actions that all great leaders do—listening, dialog and discussion, selling a vision, and eliminating blame. This session will discuss those actions in a roundtable format that we call a "What Would You Do?" session. In these sessions, the presenter acts as a moderator spending 10 to 15 minutes per topic working with the audience talking about what the action is, how to best do it, and hearing from the group on how they have carried out the action. This brings significant audience interaction, involvement, and broader education. 

Leave a comment

Filling Execution Gaps

Available Worldwide

Filling Exectution Gaps cover

Filling Execution Gaps is available worldwide. Below are some options.


PG DirectLogo
Limited Time Price $20.99
Amazon logo
Book or Kindle
Flag of the United States Canadian Flag Flag of the United Kingdom Irish Flag Deutsche Flagge
Drapeau Français Bandiera Italiana PRC flag
Japanese flag
Bandera de España
Flag of India
Bandera de México
Bandeira do Brasil
Flag of Australia
Vlag van Nederland
DeG Press Logo
Barnes and Noble Logo
Books a Million Logo
Booktopia Logo
Worldwide: Many other
book sellers worldwide.

Rescue The Problem Project

Internationally acclaimed

Image of RPP

For a signed and personalized copy in the US visit the our eCommerce website.

Amazon logo
Buy it in the United States Buy it in Canada Buy it in the United Kingdom
Buy it in Ireland Buy it in Germany Buy it in France
Buy it in Italy Buy it in the PRC
Buy it in Japan
Book sellers worldwide.

Upcoming Events

Other's References

More Info on Project Recovery

Tell me More!

Please send me more information
on fixing a failing project.