The third category of technical debt

Tim Bull posted a fantastic comment on my last post about Technical Debt and I thought it would be good to share it again broadly here. 

“There’s a third category of technical debt which is subtly different.  Decisions that are made knowing that there is a better solution, but that the business stage or problem doesn’t validate that level of effort yet.

I think this is increasingly common in Lean Startups, where you do the minimum to validate the idea, but you are often left you with Technical Debt (we know this won’t work when we get to 100,000 users, but it’s fine for 1,000).  You know there is a better solution, but you trade speed and validation for future benefit.

You’re spot on when you say that it’s the ability to pay it down that matters – like with all debt really.  Technical debt isn’t inherently bad, but if you take on more than you’re ability to repay it in the future you’re in trouble!”

Yesterday, Alex talked about a government that was continuing to use a traffic model created in the 70’s to plan their roads and new infrastructure build. Besides the point that it’s not really very lean to be still using a template from 40 years ago to define today’s new roads (!) but I also feel comfortable saying that’s a direction that should have been pivoted a long time ago. However, the government had sunk a significant cost into creating said new roads.

Has anyone heard of any organizations out there, not working with code, that have been working in a more agile way to pay back their debt/sunk costs?

6 thoughts on “The third category of technical debt”

    1. Lol – yup, copied it straight across. I’m actually I’m a car with @rosshill and @bryonycole headed to Lorne so it had to be a mobile post today🙂
      Thanks again for the enlightened comment.

  1. “Has anyone heard of any organizations out there, not working with code, that have been working in a more agile way to pay back their debt/sunk costs?”

    You can see this in aircraft engineering.

    Read this article on the evolution of the Spitfire to see how changes are made from  Supermarine prototype type 224 to Mark XIV ~ http://www.military-history.org/articles/world-war-2/history-of-the-spitfire.htm

    The basic spec started as a “all metal, 4 gun fighter, with a top speed of 250mph’ and finished, 11 years later with “… Mark XIV with the 2050hp Griffon 65, driving a five-blade Rotol propeller. The Mark XIV had a maximum speed of 443mph at 30,000ft, and could reach a height of 12,000ft in just 2 minutes 51 seconds. …”

    Technical debt is highlighted by comparing the original engine, armaments & prop design to the Mark XIV.

    1. Fantastic, thanks for the link. It’s great reading!

      Thanks also for the great comparison to the aerospace industry. It seems to make a lot of sense, even though many of the planes that we fly around today are quite old they seem to be well maintained. At least, they don’t crash a whole lot. 

      The whole industry is built around paying down their technical debt so as to keep the planes, the companies that own them, running. 

  2. The number of flavors of technical debt expands by the number of types of work.  The metaphor has power because it makes us think of all of the short cuts that can (and are) taken which need to be repaired at some point..  

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