Chris Oldwood from The OldWood Thing
Once upon a time the term Technical Debt seemed to have a very clear meaning but over the last few years that has been diluted to generally mean any crap code or process which is holding back delivery. I’m sure any scholars of Wittgenstein will be at pains to point out that “meaning is use” and therefore if everyone uses it this way who am I to argue?
For me the canonical source of information on the technical debt metaphor comes from the wiki of the person who coined the phrase in the first place – Ward Cunningham. The entry on Technical Debt there suggests to me that the choice to enter into debt is a wholly conscious one, not the unconscious acts of a less professional bunch of programmers.
By way of example I thought I’d take the opportunity to write up one of those occasions where I’ve been involved with taking debt on (in the original spirit of the term) and how we dealt with it, to show where the distinction lies.
Soon after going live with v1.0 of a new calculation system in a large financial organisation we discovered that a number of key counterparties were missing from the daily report. The report generator was a late addition and there were various other issues around it’s development and testing which muddied the waters somewhat but suffice to say that this wasn’t delivered as cleanly as the core system was. (You might consider the more recent meaning of the term to apply here.)
More importantly what transpired was that due to various mergers in the company’s history a few counterparties had the same “unique” code in different back-end systems. This wasn’t just news to my team (we were all recent hires) but also to quite a few people in the business too. Due to only dealing with a limited set of “books” the codes were always unique to them in their context, but our new system cut right across them all.
The Root Cause
The generation of calculations was ultimately based around a Cartesian product of two counterparties, however given that most of those were pointless there was an optimisation which used another source of data to reduce that by more than an order of magnitude.
This optimisation should have been fairly simple but due to a need to initially use some existing manually managed counterparty data to ease the cutover (so regression testing should then reconcile exactly) it was somewhat more complicated than first envisaged.
Our system was designed to use the correct source of data eventually, but do a reverse lookup for the time being. It might sound simple but the lookup actually involved multiple lookups using combinations of keys that had to make assumptions about which legacy back-end system might hold the related data. The right person who could explain how we could do what we needed to do correctly also seemed elusive; there were many people with “heuristics”, but nobody who knew for sure.
In total there were ~100 counterparties out of a total of ~15,000 permutations that suffered from this problem. Unfortunately a handful of those 100 had a significant effect on the “bottom line” and therefore the usefulness of the system as a whole was in doubt at that point.
Entering Into Debt
Naturally once we unearthed this clanger we had to decide how to tackle it. After getting our heads around what this all meant and roughly where in the code the missing logic probably needed to go we had to make a decision – do we try and fix the underlying issue right away or try and put a workaround in place (assuming that’s even possible) to mitigate the problem, at least temporarily.
We were all very aware of going down the dark road of putting a tactical fix in place because we’d all seen where that can lead. We had made a concerted effort over the 12 months required to build the system to refactor relentlessly  and squash any bugs as soon as possible. This felt like a backwards step.
On the positive side by adopting a Design for Testability approach in most parts of the code we had extra switches on our processes  that allowed us to make per-counterparty requests, usually for diagnostic purposes. Hence the workaround took the form of sticking the list of missing counterparties in a simple text file, then using a command prompt FOR loop  to read the file and invoke the tool in “single counterparty mode”. Yes it was a little slow due the constant restarting of the process but it was easy to surgically insert into the workflow with the minimum of testing or risk.
Paying Back the Debt
With the hole plugged for now, and an easy mechanism in place for adding any other missing counterparties – update the text file – we were in a position to sort out the root problem without feeling under pressure to get the system working correctly 100%, ASAP.
As you can probably imagine the real solution wasn’t easy, not least because it was one of a few areas of SQL code that didn’t have any unit tests and was a tangled web of tables and views which had grown organically in an attempt to graft the old and the new worlds together .
What Did it Cost?
If we assume that the gung-ho approach would have been to just jump in and start fixing the real code, then what did we lose by not doing that? It’s possible that the final fix was simple and a little more investigation may have lead to that solution instead.
In contrast, the risk is that we end up in one of those “have we fixed it or not” scenarios where we spend an indeterminate amount of time being “real close” to getting towards “done”. The old adage about the last 10% also taking 90% of the time springs immediately to mind. Instead we were almost positive we had a simple workaround that could be deployed and get the system running correctly enough in an estimable amount of time. I believe there is a lot of value in having that degree of confidence.
What I think was critical was being able to remove the pressure on finding the right solution as this gave us time to really consider what needed to be done. Any fix done under pressure is not going to be given the attention to detail that it probably deserves. You then run the risk of making the system worse and having an even deeper hole to dig yourself out of.
The customer does not care about strategic versus tactical decisions per-se, they just want the thing to work. We cared about the solution because we knew it would be a burden in the short term as everyone had to remember about the bit “grafted on the side”. The general trust the team had built up by keeping quality at the forefront meant that the business would be more willing to trust us to reconcile the problem appropriately when the time came.
Use Language With Care
I really hope the term Technical Debt doesn’t continue to get watered down even further as it’s a powerful concept which is incredibly useful in the right hands. We already have far too many words for “alternate implementation” that are pejoratives carrying an air of unprofessionalness about them. I would like this one to remain in the hands of the professionals so they can continue to have “grown up” conversations with their customers about when it’s appropriate to consider taking shortcuts for a short term business need without them rolling their eyes, yet again.
 See “Relentless Refactoring” for more thoughts around this (unfortunately) contentious topic.
 “From Test Harness To Support Tool”, “Building Systems as Toolkits” and “In The Toolbox - Home-Grown Tools” all look at the non-functional side of tooling.
 A batch file just wouldn’t be complete without a for loop, see “Every Solution Starts With ‘FOR /F’”.
 This one feature seemed destined to plague us forever, see “So Many Wrongs, But No Rights” for another tale of woe.