Using Credit Limits to Constrain “Development on Margin”
Buying (stocks) on margin is broadly recognized as a risky investment strategy. Funding long-term investments with short-term debt exposes the investor to margin calls as he/she might not be able to secure more financing when needed. The resultant margin call is never pleasant.
The accrual of technical debt in the course of aggressively developing functions and features is quite a similar phenomenon. The CTO is betting the functionality he/she is developing will pay off before the need to “pay back” the technical debt becomes imperative. The temptation to do so is particularly strong due to the lack of credit limits on technical debt. For all practical purposes the CTO is “developing on margin.”
In his comprehensive studies of the economics of software, Capers Jones has actually put a 3-5 year ceiling on the economical viability of developing on margin:
Indeed, the economic value of lagging applications is questionable after about three to five years. The degradation of initial structure and the increasing difficulty of making updates without “bad fixes” tends towards negative returns on investment (ROI) within a few years.
As the CEO leading a company, or the venture capitalist funding it, you can restrain development on margin by establishing credit limits. Use a combination of static code analysis with dynamic program analysis to calculate the amount of accrued technical debt in $$ terms. (An illustration of such calculation as well as a breakdown of the technical debt is given in the Sonar chart above). Set a limit (say $0.25 per line of code) on the amount of permitted technical debt. Once the limit is reached, developers are not allowed to continue developing new functionality – they have to first reduce (and hopefully eliminate) their technical debt.
A very simple “Lacmus test” is available to the CEO/VC until the code is instrumented and the analytics illustrated above generated. Ask your CTO about unit test coverage. If the coverage is low (say <30%), chances are the technical debt is high. Whether the CTO realizes it or not, low unit test coverage is a good indicator of technical debt of all kinds. Moreover, the investment required to develop a full-fledged suite of unit tests is often the largest component of the technical debt to be paid back.