“Time is money” is a worn out cliché. However, it bears repeating in the context of technical debt because of the interplay between borrowing time, paying it back and creating value. This interplay forms the basis for the simple yet effective software governance framework.
Ward Cunningham originally coined the term Technical Debt to express the concept of a development team borrowing time through taking some technical short cuts. Ward explains this very clearly in this video.
The idea is “simple”: release a (software) product sooner to market with the explicit understanding that the technical debt will be “paid back” through refactoring at the earliest possible time after release. By so doing, the development team gets earlier feedback on the code, and the business gains a deeper understanding of customers and their needs. Moreover, the cash flow could be improved by releasing early.
As long as the debt is expressed in technical terms such as Distance from the Main Sequence (an indicator of a package’s balance between abstractness and stability), the power of this wonderful metaphor is limited. Ultra fancy that various financial instruments have become, they do not quite lend themselves to Object Oriented programming constructs. The most one can do in the context of the non-monetized debt metaphor is to discuss being slowed down in future development (i.e. lose the borrowed time and then some) due to the difficulty of coding at the face of unpaid technical debt.
Recently introduced services, such as Cutter’s Technical Debt Assessment, enable clients to quantify technical debt and express it in dollar terms. Now we can now discuss technical debt in genuine financial terms. For example: “Madam/Sir, your technical debt amounts to $2 per line of code.”
The ability to monetize technical debt enables convergence on two all-important “dimensions” of the software process:
- Value, cost and technical debt come together to provide effective governance of the software process through the Agile Triangle framework developed by Cutter Fellow Jim Highsmith. (See figure below).
- Technical and non-technical people have a meaningful common denominator ($) for dialoging.
A Simple Metrics Driven Governance Framework
Larry Putnam chose the title Five Core Metrics for his seminal work on software management. Borrowing a page from his book, one could entitle the software governance framework depicted in the above figure, Three Governance Metrics.