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Implications of Technical Debt Uncertainty for Software Licensing Negotiations

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A few years ago, my friend Sebastian Hassinger characterized the state of affairs in enterprise software by the following chart a la Christensen:

The key point this charts gets across is that Open Source Software is becoming “good enough”. It has already met or will soon be meeting the minimum requirements of the enterprise customer. By so doing, open source software will steadily gain ground from traditional enterprise software vendors.

Consider this chart from a buyer’s perspective. Functionality (the vertical axis in the chart) can be thought of as value. Whatever the value might be, it is diminished by technical debt in the software as the debt manifests itself as application crashes, degradation of  performance and possible corruption of customer data. Everything else being equal, an application with lower technical debt per line of code is preferable to an application with a higher technical debt per line of code.

Traditional enterprise software vendors do not typically provide the technical debt data for the applications they sell/license. In contrast, a customer can carry out his/her assessment of technical debt straight off the open source code. For example, colleague and friend John Heintz carried out the following technical debt analysis on the Cassandra open source project:



As demonstrated in this chart, any customer can measure the level of technical debt in an open source software he/she considers. For better or worse, there is no uncertainty about the amount of technical debt the customer will need to live with in an open source software. In contrast, a customer will usually need to live with  uncertainty about the level of technical debt in proprietary software.

Uncertainty has economical consequences. For example, testing a product increases its value because it decreases operational uncertainty. The economical value of uncertainty about technical debt is conceptually depicted in the figure below in which value is adjusted in accord with the knowledge or lack thereof of the amount of technical debt. Please note that the following equation holds for the various intersection points on the Enterprise Customer Requirements line: {T3-T2} < {T1-T0}. What this equation means is that under conditions of uncertain technical debt open source software is becoming more attractive than proprietary software faster than it would without taking technical debt uncertainty into account.

Action Item: Before licensing an enterprise application or renewing an existing license, ask the vendor for technical debt data for the application and the plans to reduce the debt. If the vendor refuses to disclose this data or can’t generate it within a reasonable amount of time, ask for the number of open bugs against this application in the vendor’s bug data base. Use either kind of data to drive down the price. Consider  an open source solution (even if it provides less functionality than the proprietary software product) if the vendor you are dealing with refuses to disclose either the technical debt data or the number of open bugs in the enterprise application.

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Negotiating a major enterprise software deal? Let me know if you would like assistance in bringing up technical debt issues with the vendor to help with negotiating the price down. Click Services for details and contact information.

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Fresh Perspectives on Technical Debt

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Update, October 15: The issue has been posted on the Cutter website (Cutter IT Journal subscription privileges required).

Cutter is just about ready to post the October issue of the IT Journal for which I am the guest editor. Print subscribers should receive it by the last week of the month. Jim Highsmith and I will be reflecting on it in our forthcoming seminar on technical debt in the Cutter Summit.

This issue sheds light on three noteworthy aspects of technical debt techniques:

  1. Their pragmatic use as an integral part of Governance, Risk and Compliance (GRC).
  2. Extending the techniques to shed light on various nuances of technical debt that have alluded us so far.
  3. Applying the techniques in new domains such as devops.

Here is the Table of Contents for this exciting issue:

Opening Statement

by Israel Gat . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  3

Modernizing the DeLorean System: Comparing Actual and Predicted Results of a Technical Debt Reduction Project

by John Heintz . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7

The Economics of Technical Debt

by Stephen Chin, Erik Huddleston, Walter Bodwell, and Israel Gat . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11

Technical Debt: Challenging the Metaphor

by David Rooney . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16

Manage Project Portfolios More Effectively by Including Software Debt in the Decision Process

by Brent Barton and Chris Sterling . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19

The Risks of Acceptance Test Debt

by Ken Pugh . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25

Transformation Patterns for Curing the Human Causes of Technical Debt

by Jonathon Michael Golden . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  30

Infrastructure Debt: Revisiting the Foundation

by Andrew Shafer . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 36

 

Action Item: Apply the techniques recommended in this issue to govern your software assets in an effective manner.

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Overwhelmed by a “mountain” of technical debt? Let me know if you would like assistance in devising and carrying out plans to reduce the debt in a biggest-bang-for-the-buck manner. Click Services for details.

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Forthcoming Technical Debt Events

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In just about a week I will be sharing the latest and greatest in technical debt techniques through a Cutter webinar in which colleague John Heintz and I will be speaking . In a little over a month a special issue of the Cutter IT Journal [CITJ] on technical debt will be published. And, in a couple of months Jim Highsmith and I will deliver a workshop on the subject in the Cutter Summit.

Shifting from the process to its output (i.e. the code) is the common thread that runs through the three events. Rigorous that your implementation of the software process is, the proof of the pudding is the quality of the code your teams produce. The technical debt accrued in the code is the ultimate acid test for your success with the Agile roll-out and/or with any other software method you might be using.

Another important thread in all three events is a single source of truth. The technical debt data seen by the developer in the trenches, his/her project leader, the mid-level manager on the project, the vice president of engineering and the CFO/CEO represents different views of the realities of the code. Each level sees a different aggregation of data – all the way from a blocking violation at a specific line of code to the aggregate $$ amount required to “pay back” the debt. But, there is no distortion between the five levels of the technical debt data – all draw upon the code itself as the single source of truth.

Here is the announcement of the first event – the  Reining in Technical Debt webinar scheduled for August 19, 12:00PM EDT:

Do you really govern the software development process in your IT organization or do its uncertainty and unpredictability leave you aghast? Do you manage to bake in quality in every build? Can you assess the quality of your software in a way that quantifies the risk?

Recent developments in software engineering and in software governance enable you to tie quality, cost, and value together to form a simple and effective governance framework for software. This webinar will provide you with a preliminary understanding of how to assess quality through technical debt techniques, will familiarize you with state-of-the-art tools for measuring technical debt, and will demonstrate the effect on value delivery when technical debt is not “paid back” promptly.

Israel and John will also introduce a governance framework that ensures you can rigorously manage your software development process from a business perspective. This framework reduces a large number of complex technical considerations to a common denominator that is easily understood by both technical and non-technical people — dollars.

Get Your Questions Answered

Don’t miss your chance to get specific advice from Cutter’s experts on technical debt and toxic code. Join us on Thursday, August 19 at 12:00 EDT (see your local time here) to learn how both your software development process(es) and the corresponding governance process can be transformed in a manner that will make a big difference to your software developers and testers, to key stakeholders in your company, and to your firm’s customers.

Register Now!

Register to attend so you’ll have the opportunity to have your specific questions answered. We’ll send you the login instructions a day prior to the webinar.

As always, this Cutter Webinar is not vendor sponsored, and is available to Cutter clients and our guests at no charge. Register here.

Pass this invitation along!

Be sure to extend our invitation to your CIO, CFO and the other senior business-IT leaders and trainers in your organization who you think could benefit from this discussion.

If you have any questions prior to the program, please contact Kim Leonard at kleonard@cutter.com or call her directly at +1 781 648 8700.

Can’t Make the Live Event?

You won’t miss out — the recording will be added to the webinarsonline resource center for client access, along with the rest of these past events.

Written by israelgat

August 12, 2010 at 8:17 am

Technical Debt at Cutter

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No, this post is not about technical debt we identified in the software systems used by the Cutter Consortium to drive numerous publications, events and engagements. Rather, it is about various activities carried out at Cutter to enhance the state of the art and make the know-how available to a broad spectrum of IT professionals who can use technical debt engagements to pursue technical and business opportunities.

The recently announced Cutter Technical Debt Assessment and Valuation service is quite unique IMHO:

  1. It is rooted in Agile principles and theory but applicable to any software method.
  2. It combines the passion, empowerment and collaboration of Agile with the rigor of quantified performance measures, process control techniques and strategic portfolio management.
  3. It is focused on enlightened governance through three simple metrics: net present value, cost and technical debt.

Here are some details on our current technical debt activities:

  1. John Heintz joined the Cutter Consortium and will be devoting a significant part of his time to technical debt work. I was privileged and honored to collaborate with colleagues Ken Collier, Jonathon Golden and Chris Sterling in various technical debt engagements. I can’t wait to work with them, John and other Cutter consultants on forthcoming engagements.
  2. John and I will be jointly presenting on the subject Toxic Code in the Agile Roots conference next week. In this presentation we will demonstrate how the hard lesson learned during the sub-prime loans crisis apply to software development. For example, we will be discussing development on margin…
  3. My Executive Report entitled Revolution in Software: Using Technical Debt Techniques to Govern the Software Development Process will be sent to Cutter clients in the late June/early July time-frame. I don’t think I had ever worked so hard on a paper. The best part is it was labor of love….
  4. The main exercise in my Agile 2010 workshop How We Do Things Around Here in Order to Succeed is about applying Agile governance through technical debt techniques across organizations and cultures. Expect a lot of fun in this exercise no matter what your corporate culture might be – Control, Competence, Cultivation or Collaboration.
  5. John and I will be doing a Cutter webinar on Reining in Technical Debt on Thursday, August 19 at 12 noon EDT. Click here for details.
  6. A Cutter IT Journal (CITJ) on the subject of technical debt will be published in the September-October time-frame. I am the guest editor for this issue of the CITJ. We have nine great contributors who will examine technical debt from just about every possible perspective. I doubt that we have the ‘real estate’ for additional contributions, but do drop me a note if you have intriguing ideas about technical debt. I will do my best to incorporate your thoughts with proper attribution in my editorial preamble for this issue of the CITJ.
  7. Jim Highsmith and I will jointly deliver a seminar entitled Technical Debt Assessment: The Science of Software Development Governance in the forthcoming Cutter Summit. This is really a wonderful ‘closing of the loop’ for me: my interest in technical debt was triggered by Jim’s presentation How to Be an Agile Leader in the Agile 2006 conference.

Standing back to reflect on where we are with respect to technical debt at Cutter, I see a lot of things coming nicely together: Agile, technical debt, governance, risk management, devops, etc. I am not certain where the confluence of all these threads, and possibly others, might lead us. However, I already enjoy the adrenaline rush this confluence evokes in me…

Cutter’s Technical Debt Assessment and Valuation Service

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Source: Cutter Technical Debt and Valuation Service

The Cutter Consortium has announced the availability of the Technical Debt Assessment and Valuation Service. The service combines static code analytics with dynamic program analytics to give the client “x-rays” of the software being examined at any desired granularity – from the whole project portfolio to a single instruction. It breaks down technical debt into the areas of coverage, complexity, duplication, violations and comments. Clients get an aggregate dollar figure for “paying back” debt that they can then plug into their financial models to objectively analyze their critical software assets. Based on these metrics, they can make the best decisions about their ongoing strategy for the software development effort under scrutiny.

This new service is an important addition to the enlightened software governance framework that Jim Highsmith, Michael Mah and I have been thinking about and contributing to for sometime now (see Beyond Scope, Schedule and Cost: Measuring Agile Performance and Quantifying the Start Afresh Option). The heart of both the technical debt service and the enlightened governance framework is captured by the following words from the press release:

Executives in charge of software governance have long dealt with two kinds of dollar figures: One, the cost of producing and maintaining the software; and two, the value of the software, which is usually expressed in terms of the net present value associated with the expected value stream the product will generate. Now we can deal with technical debt in the same quantitative manner, regardless of the software methods a company uses.

When expressed in terms of dollars, technical debt ties neatly into value vis-à-vis cost considerations. For a “well behaved” software project, three factors — value, cost, and technical debt — have to satisfy the equation Value >> Cost > Technical Debt. Monitoring the balance between value, cost, and technical debt on an ongoing basis is an effective way for organizations to stay on top of their real progress, and for stakeholders and investors to ensure their investment is sound.

By boiling down technical debt to dollars and tying it to cost and value, the service enables a metrics-driven governance framework for the use of five major constituencies, as follows:

Technical debt assessments and valuation can specifically help CIOs ensure alignment of software development with IT Operations; give CTOs early warning signs of impending project trouble; assure those involved in due diligence for M&A activity that the code being acquired will adapt to meet future needs; enables CEOs to effectively govern the software development process; and, it provides critical information as to whether software under consideration constitutes an asset or a liability for venture capitalists who need to make informed investment decisions.

It should finally be pointed out that the technical debt assessment service and the governance framework it enables are applicable to any software method. They can be used to:

  • Govern a heterogeneous environment in which multiple software methods are used
  • Make apples-to-apples comparisons between disparate software projects
  • Assess project performance vis-a-vis industry norms

Forthcoming Cutter Executive Reports, Executive Updates and Email Advisors on the technical debt service are restricted to Cutter clients. As appropriate, I will publish the latest and greatest news on the subject in the Cutter Blog (which is an open forum I highly recommend).

Acknowledgements: I would like to wholeheartedly thank the following colleagues for inspiring, enlightening and supporting me during the preparation of the service:

  • Karen Coburn
  • Jennifer Flaxman
  • Jonathon Golden
  • John Heintz
  • Jim Highsmith
  • Ken Collier
  • Kim Leonard
  • Kara Letourneau
  • Michal Mah
  • Anne Mullaney
  • Chris Sterling
  • Cindy Swain
  • Sarah Wiesbrock

More on Kanban from John Heintz

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Colleague John Heintz posted today on the Kanban board he and one of his customers implemented in a few days. John describes the economy of so doing in the following words:

Some of the tools that we use include sticky post-it notes and Stikky Clips. (Note: We found the Stikky Clips at a teacher supply store, not a big office supply store.)

I am impressed: John seems to hit the ground running immediately after the LK2009 conference.

Written by israelgat

May 19, 2009 at 12:18 pm

Posted in Kanban, Lean, The Agile Leader

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