Agile 2018

Agile 2018
Speaking at Agile 2018

Monday, January 15, 2018

Smoke detectors explain technical debt

Should have checked the smoke detectors.
Since the holidays, I have made a point to spend time with people outside the technology field.  This experience has been beneficial because I spend my time explaining what a scrum master does and how we do it.  This review of the basics is allowing me to reflect on work and how to make it better.  It is a fresh perspective which has allowed me to look at old concepts in a different light.  This week I want to revisit technical debt.

I own my own home.  Since I am a homeowner, I have smoke detectors.  These little battery powered devices warn me when there is a fire or when I am burning a roast on the stove.  So smoke detectors offer protection to a homeowner so they can escape the house quickly and call the fire department.  Smoke detectors are so useful you receive a discount on your home insurance if you have one, and, in some municipalities, you are required to have at least one in your home.

Smoke detectors have one significant drawback; they are battery operated.  When the batteries run out, and a fire breaks out you are helpless.  The smoke detector companies fix this by forcing the alarms to “chirp” which is a friendly reminder to change the batteries.  This week, I awoke to my smoke detector “chirping” at 2 AM in the morning.  Like many men my age, I attempted to roll over in bed and ignore the situation.  Ninety minutes of insomnia later, I wandered the house searching for batteries to replace the faulty one in the “chirping” detector.

The next morning over an extra cup of coffee, it occurred to me that I treated my smoke detector like many organizations treat technical debt.  I do not change batteries until I have to and usually it is at an inconvenient time.  Fortunately, being a former boy scout, I was prepared with batteries in an easy to find location.  I swapped out the batteries and went back to bed. 

If you are a homeowner, you have four strategies to deal with smoke detectors.

  1. Change all the batteries at once typically during daylight savings time.
  2. Change individual batteries when they run out of charge and begin chirping.
  3. Ignore chirping smoke detectors until you get fed up and change the battery.
  4. Remove and disconnect all the smoke detectors and hope you never have to deal with a fire.

As a homeowner, I use strategy two and three.  I know others who use the other two approaches.  Swap out smoke detectors and batteries, and you have the four classic strategies companies use to address technical debt.

The most efficient way to deal with technical debt is to follow the first strategy by changing batteries and updating systems on a regular basis.  By doing this, you reduce expected outages.  Agile and scrum encourage this approach.

Many CIO’s and managers I know consider this madness because there is a not enough time, money or people to keep updating systems.  It means they rely on strategies two and three.  It may be suitable for a chirping smoke detector on a cold night but is lunacy for a multi-billion dollar enterprise.  It creates situations where firms could lose millions of dollars while they wait to bring systems back.   

So the next time someone looks are you funny when you talk about technical debt just explain it to them like changing the batteries in a smoke detector.

Until next time.