I was recently coaching a senior executive at Microsoft and he was explaining that one of his challenges was a struggle over “technical debt.” Not having heard this term before I asked him to explain it to me. This is what he said: Technical debt is what happens when you solve a problem or address an issue with a “one off” solution rather than a systematic one. For example, if you need to add a feature to part of an operating system, you must choose whether to focus on just adding it where it is needed or adding the capability to make similar changes throughout the operating system in the future. The first path will likely be quicker, but it will incur “technical debt” that shows up in two ways. First, you are likely creating a time and resource debt that will need to be paid in the future in the form of the work and effort required to make the system coherent. Second, you are laying the groundwork for “interest payments” in the future in the form of more difficult changes to the system because it is not built to support the changes.
Interestingly (to me), there is no “right” or “wrong” answer here. Simply tradeoffs. It is not difficult to image scenarios where it makes all the sense in the world to incur technical debt…and here’s the key…if it is done consciously and with intention. My suspicion, however, based in no small part on my own life, is that often technical debt is incurred unconsciously. Time pressures and the need for short-term results favor the creation of technical debt, often without a lot of thought to the longer-term costs being incurred.
So, what might we do with this insight? My belief is that awareness is the key. Ask yourself, “Where in my life am I incurring technical debt and am I ok with it?” This concept applies far beyond computer code. For example, the other night my son asked me for help with his science homework. I unconsciously chose to focus our time on the assignment that was due the next day rather than spending the extra time to help him build the tools he needs to be able to do it more independently in the future. Technical debt. The key here is I incurred it unconsciously. The same decision might feel very different if I had said to myself, “Tonight I only have time to help him get this assignment done, but I know that in the future I will need to spend more time either helping him with future assignments (paying interest) or helping him build the skills he needs (paying the principal).”
Yesterday, I was sharing this with a coaching peer of mine and he said, “I think I do that sometimes with business relationships.” He went on to explain how he sometimes doesn’t invest in building the relationship before focusing on what needs to get done. In so doing, he believes, he makes it harder to get stuff done (interest payments) and he sometimes has to spend a lot of time resolving issues in the relationship (more interest) that arise because he didn’t invest in it up front (the debt).
Where in your life are you incurring technical debt? Are you ok with it? If not, what do you want to do about it?