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A Special Technical Debt Offer from the Cutter Consortium

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The good folks at Cutter are making the October Issue of the Cutter IT Journal (CITJ) available to anyone who is interested in getting deeper into the intricacies of technical debt. Here is the table of contents for this issue:

  • Opening Statement by Israel Gat
  • Modernizing the DeLorean System: Comparing Actual and Predicted Results of a Technical Debt Reduction Project by John Heintz
  • The Economics of Technical Debt by Stephen Chin, Erik Huddleston, Walter Bodwell, and Israel Gat
  • Technical Debt: Challenging the Metaphor by David Rooney
  • Manage Project Portfolios More Effectively by Including Software Debt in the Decision Process by Brent Barton and Chris Sterling
  • The Risks of Acceptance Test Debt by Ken Pugh
  • Transformation Patterns for Curing the Human Causes of Technical Debt by Jonathon Michael Golden
  • Infrastructure Debt: Revisiting the Foundation by Andrew Clay Shafer

Being the guest editor for this issue, I can attest better than anyone else how much I learned from the various authors, from Karen Pasley (the October issue editor) and Chris Generali (CITJ Editor-in-Chief).

Click here for details of this special offer including downloading instruction.

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.


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.


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

Technical Debt on Your Balance Sheet

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Colleague Jonathon Golden introduced me to a new plug in to Sonar. The plug in calculates the cost to fix the technical debt accrued in a product. For example, you might find an accrued technical debt amounting to $1M in a 500KLOC application. Obviously, you will need to spend $2 per each line of code to “pay back” your debt.

The expression of technical debt in monetary terms is intriguing. Unlike financial debt, there is no credit limit on technical debt. Hence, unless a team is proficient at refactoring on an ongoing basis, technical debt tends to grow over time as the underlying software decays. Beyond a certain level of debt, no good option is available. The code decayed to the point in which fixing anything in a hazardous proposition – every fix is likely to break something else. Under such circumstances, most/all of the development team gets sucked into maintaining the software instead of developing new features and functions.

Monetizing technical debt can have two far reaching implications, as follows:

  • A credit limit on technical debt can be established.  For example, when the technical debt reaches a certain level (say 25 cents per line of code), new functionality is put on hold. The team applies itself to aggressive refactoring to reduce the debt to an acceptable level.
  • For companies who capitalize software, technical debt could become a line item on the balance sheet. It will simply be listed as a liability.

From a customer perspective, the monetized technical debt on the balance sheet of a software vendor is a proxy for the technical risk involved in licensing software from this vendor. Such monetization could be easily extended to report technical debt per product family. With such reporting in place, the technical risk associated with licensing a specific product can be assessed.

Software vendors might frown at the requirement to monetize technical debt. I would contend that such a reporting requirement is absolutely consistent with the spirit of the Agile Manifesto:

Customer collaboration over contract negotiations

In other words, if you are reluctant to list your monetized technical debt you can’t really claim you practice Agile.

Written by israelgat

September 29, 2009 at 8:18 pm

Don’t Take Your Boss to Lunch

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During my Agile 2006 presentation I made the following recommendation to the audience:

Don’t take your boss to lunch; take him/her to the daily stand-up meeting.

The point I was trying to get across is straightforward: there is no substitute to “touching” Agile and being touched by Agile. Instead of preaching the benefits of Agile, get your executive engaged in the Agile process.

Last week, colleagues Ken Collier, Jonathon Golden and I were on a Cutter Consortium consulting engagement. The CEO of the company we were consulting to immersed himseld  in the workshop. I would say he spent about 50% of his time in the three day workshop in which we worked with his team on Agile and refactoring.

This CEO certainly got it [Agile]. And, he took his CTO and us to lunch.

It might have been a breach of my own counsel don’t take your boss to lunch…

Written by israelgat

September 27, 2009 at 6:18 pm