Scrum Hates Technical Debt!

This is my phrase: Scrum hates Technical Debt!  Ken Schwaber talks about Flaccid Scrum.  (Not my favorite metaphor.)  Jeff Sutherland talks about ScrumButt and the Nokia Test.  (I like this.)  Uncle Bob Martin talks about “the land that Scrum forgot.”

The problem is bigger than my phrase implies.  What is the problem?  People are doing Scrum in an unprofessional way, and then are unhappy about it.

And often want to blame Scrum.  To me, this is not right in any way.  The most important thing: we want people to have better lives, and it ain’t happening enough just yet.  Not for me.

For today, let’s confine the problem to only the Technical Debt issue.

Now, we need a definition of technical debt, because not all of us know what it is.  Here is mine.  “All the things that we did or did not do, that are “in” our current product, that make it hard for us to change it quickly.”

Examples: Lack of automated testing, reduced knowledge of the existing code (via many paths), duplication in the code, code complexity, lack of code readability, lack of refactoring (at many levels), all the stuff we said we should upgrade ‘real soon now’, etc, etc, etc.  (I have assumed a software product, but the same concepts apply to any product.)

My call to action on this (unprofessionalism and technical debt) is….

We engineers have to stop ‘going along’ when the business guys imply ‘you have to skip that stuff and just get more features out the door.’  We have to explain to them (and, to be fair to them, they don’t know the facts) how we are only hurting ourselves (the firm) and the customers by ‘going too fast.’  We have to explain it many times.

We business folks have to listen to the team, and learn how to understand technical debt.  And allow them to build quality in from the beginning.  As that book said a while ago, in essence, quality is free.

This is a difficult subject.  It is hard to understand, and some technical people give us too much BS.  But none of those excuses or problems give us a get out of jail free card on this important area of managing new product innovation.  We gotta do it.  Professionally.

Now, ok, I have to back peddle just a bit.

I agree that occasionally, close to rarely, there are situations where we should not ‘do it right’ and for the immediate release, we should just ‘get it out the door’.  And THEN immediately go back and fix the technical debt.  As Ward Cunningham says, there are times where it helps to go into Technical Debt.  But you must repay it quickly.

And I agree that some legacy technical debt does not need to be fixed.  (For example, if we are never going to change that area of that system, probably no need to fix the Techical Debt in that area.)

Two fairly obvious things to say:
1. The bad news does not get better with age.  In other words, allowing technical debt to grow is not only unprofessional, and lying, but it is just plain stupid.  About 98% of the time (ie, so often that it is not worth asking ‘isn’t this one an exception case?’).

2. Scrum did not make you go ‘too fast’ to fix the technical debt.  Ok, ok, yes they are called sprints.  It sounds like we are in a rush. But pretending like the 100 yard dash is really the 90 yard dash is just unprofessional.  If the story is not done, done with a strong definition of done, then you’re just lying about your velocity.

Three more fairly obvious things to say.
1. This is a hard problem: allowing technical debt to grow.  You will have to fight hard to make things better.

2. It is worth the fight.  You can make your life, the lives of your teammates, the lives of your customers, better.  It a fight, a struggle, but actually fun to do as a team.  You will feel better for it.

3. Tools.  Yes, there are lots of tools, techniques, specific approaches, and patterns to follow to stop increasing technical debt and to reduce the technical debt.  But it starts with the human beings, the folks you work with, having the will to say: “We’re fixing the problem with technical debt!  We have to!”




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2 thoughts on “Scrum Hates Technical Debt!

  1. Vin D'Amico

    I fully agree that too much technical debt is bad. At the same time, adding lots of extra effort to avoid any technical debt is equally bad.

    As you point out, an area of code that is stable and unlikely to be revisited, probably doesn't need to have technical debt paid off. Another area of code that is heavily used and added to, should have it's debt kept to a minimum, if any.

    In either case, technical debt should be documented and added to the backlog. There's no point in hoping it will just go away.

  2. Joe Little

    Hi Vin,

    Good points.

    In real life, I almost never see a team that does too much about technical debt. IMO. Only 90% of the time is it obviously not enough yet.

    But I agree it is possible, and probably there are a few such teams out there.

    Now, I completely agree that whatever one does, it must be done with some efficiency and some effectiveness. Not just pushing money or time at the problem thoughtlessly.

    Thx, Joe

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