Too big to survive: There is no bailout for technical debt

The only difference between technical debt and financial debt is that costs are more often known in advance when taking on financial debt. Both types of debt are a tool when used intelligently with purpose and a plan to manage it and can take a devastating toll when used recklessly or imposed through misdirection or miscommunication.

Acceptable vs unnecessary debt

The original heading here was “Necessary vs unnecessary debt”. On further reflection, though, I realized that the only good reasons for incurring debt are time drive. If time is removed as a factor there is no reasonable need for debt. So then it becomes a question of when time is important enough of a factor to make debt acceptable.  The only context I can think of where time is universally an acceptable driver for debt is in an emergency situation.

Beyond an emergency, the evaluation for whether debt is acceptable because of time becomes a value proposition. In our personal lives, the first car and house is generally considered to be a good reason to accept debt because both have a large enough cost where they are likely to become more expensive over time, making it harder and harder to save for them in a reasonable period of time.

Similarly, building in-house custom applications rather than waiting for a Common Off The Shelf (COTS) solution that will incur technical debt in minimally reviewed code and the inevitable maintenance costs is worth it for functionality that is key to business value. Having worked for software vendors, I can honestly say that it if it isn’t already Generally Available (GA) as at least a patch one then it should still be considered unavailable as a COTS solution.

The other common time driver that should generally not be an acceptable reason to take on debt is impatience. Using a home equity loan to buy the latest television is a poor financial decision and implementing a new solution without a thorough evaluation and proper training is a gamble that will usually result in higher maintenance cost or a potential system failure.

The old adage “patience is a virtue” is not only true, it is a vast understatement of the value of patience.

Stop debt before it happens

The reason technical debt is becoming an increasing concern at many companies is because it tends to grow exponentially, just like financial debt. And for the same reasons. Of the three drivers for debt mentioned previously (emergency, long-term value, short-viewed impatience), the most frequent cause is the least necessary. Impatience. Problems arising from bad habits will grow until the habit has been replaced by actions that have a more positive effect.

Without getting too psychological here, impatience is a result of either wanting very much to move towards a reward or away from loss. For some odd reason, the drive forward doesn’t seem to repeat in the same context nearly as much as the drive to move away from. In technology, the drive to move away from is so common that the three key emotions related with impatience driven by escape have an acronym: FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt).  In the case of IT decisions all three are essentially redundant, or at least a sequence. Fear driven by uncertainty and/or doubt. When the decision is around taking on technical debt, the fear is that business owners or customers will be upset if the feature is delayed or reduced and the uncertainty and doubt are the result of either not asking these stakeholders or asking only half the question.

Asking a stakeholder “Is it a problem if feature X is not in the release?” will frequently have a different answer than “Would you prefer we include feature X in a later release or risk certain delays to all future feature releases by pushing it before we have time to include it in a maintainable manner”? My experience is that most of the time neither question is asked and it is just assumed the world will end if users don’t have access right now to a new option that only 3% will ever use. It is also my experience that when the tradeoff of reliability and stability versus immediacy is explained to stakeholders they usually opt for the delay. I know many people believe that businesses have lost sight of long term implications and I believe that in many cases it not because they are deliberately ignoring them but because the people that should tell them when and why to be cautious are afraid of saying anything that will be considered “negative”.

To summarize, the best way to reduce the accumulation of technical debt is to have open, honest communication with stake holders about when decisions involve technical debt, the consequences of that debt, and the options for avoiding taking on the debt. Then, if the decision is to still choose the right now over the right way, immediately request buy-in for a plan, timeline and budget to reduce the technical debt. Again, my experience is that when the business is presented with a request to ensure functional reliability they frequently say yes.

Getting out of unavoidable or accepted debt

Taking on some technical debt is inevitable. This is why the modifiers usually, most often, and frequently were used in the previous section rather than more-comforting-yet-inaccurate always, definitely, and every time. Even in a theoretically perfect process where business always opts for debt-free choices and emergencies never happen, there are still going to be debt-inducing choices made either from lack of information or usage of imperfect vendor releases.

In the case where the debt is incurred unknowingly, once it is discovered be sure to document it, communicate and plan for its correction. The difference with cases where the debt is taken on knowingly because it is unavoidable without a much larger cost in vendor change, monitor the item with every project and when there is a reasonable option to correct it, do it. I once had to build something that was a bit kludgey because the vendor application clearly missed an implication of how a particular feature was implemented. We created a defect in the defect tracker which was reviewed in every release. 18 months later, the vendor found the error, corrected it and we replaced the work-around with the better approach in the next release. For major enterprises it is a good idea to raise a support case with the vendor when such things are identified, which I did not do at the time because the company I was managing this application for was too small to get vendor attention and the feature was not in broad use.

Originally published at InfoWorld.

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© Scott S. Nelson

How Salesforce Supports Citizen Development

Citizen development is really a responsible response to the dilemmas created by Shadow IT. Now that technology is available to those with minimal technical knowledge business users will implement solutions without the help of the IT department. The best thing IT can do about this is mentor the business users in ways that will support what business is going to do anyway in a way that will not lead to enterprise-level headaches. Salesforce is at the forefront in helping business and IT with this new paradigm.

The number of times I revised the title of this post is a sign of the times in technology. Those not steeped in the gray arts of technology may think that since computers process 1’s and 0’s that going from thought waves to software is a linear and clearly defined path. The more the technology evolves the less true that is. I started with the title of “How Salesforce Enables Citizen Development”, but a key premise of this post is that it is not a check box in the system administrator’s console, which the term “enables” insinuates. “Citizen Development with Salesforce” was considered and rejected because it has a tone that suggests that there is no longer a need for highly trained Salesforce administrators, architects and developers. Not only do I disagree with that premise, I more emphatically caution against the invalid assumption that such a void would result in cost savings. These nuances of title may seem like a lot of over-thinking except that as both a writer and reader I am all-too-aware of the tendency to base a fully formed opinion on the title alone.

I was recently asked to sum up the benefits of citizen development and came up with the following:

  • User-owned Solutions
  • Reduced IT Bottlenecks
  • Streamlined Process
  • Lower Costs to Deliver

Salesforce supports citizen development by providing a platform with capabilities that can be accessed and utilized with a minimum of training and experience. The unbridled optimist will look at the preceding sentence and imagine a world where every business user can build applications that are easy to use and will contribute to productivity at a lower cost.

Citizen Development Bumper Sticker Policies
Citizen Development Bumper Sticker Policies

The realist would (and should) take umbrage with the word “every”. Putting aside the variance in individual capabilities, there are other key factors that make “every business user” a dangerous assumption. Two key factors are time and inclination. It takes both to perform any one of the following critical tasks for a successful application:  Determine the full range of business requirements an application should address; analyze the variety of technical solutions and appropriately select the best fit for the requirements;  review the existing functionality within the organization for potential reuse and impact; train and support other users in the resulting application; and maintain proper data governance to ensure both adequate security and cost controls.

So, perhaps a better statement of how Salesforce supports citizen development would be “Salesforce provides the tools for an enterprise to enable business users to build applications with little or no IT support when proper governance processes are established and followed”. This phrase doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker as easily as “Clicks not code”. Perhaps “IT doesn’t go away. IT gets out of the way” almost fits, though.

The “lower cost to deliver” benefit is based on the streamlined process of citizen development, i.e., no need for business to create a full specification to hand off to IT for implementation since business will own the development. In an enterprise where the IT team is continuously backed up, this will lead to faster time to delivery as well. In cases where the scenario is simple or common enough to be configured in a generic manner, a great deal of time can be saved. However, this should not be confused with the false assumption that configuration over coding is inherently faster. Sometimes it is and sometimes it is not. Declarative programming must be provided in a way that is maintainable by the vendor and generic for the customer. For a skilled developer, custom development can be completed in far less time than it takes to configure a collection of generic options to something as simple as loop through a specific set of data looking for a specific output.

If it sounds like citizen development is a bad idea that is neither the case nor the intention. Application development is like raising a child… it takes a village with each member contributing their specialty at the best time and in the appropriate context. A governance group to provide guidelines, consider exceptions and enforce adherence; Architecture and security specialists to determine the best way to ensure compliance; Developers to provide reusable components when they are not readily available from the App Exchange; Trained Salesforce system administrators to enable appropriate permissions, configure necessary integrations, and manage production deployments.

In short, all of the roles that an organization following best practices for platform use will have in place anyway. On the one hand, supporting citizen development adds some additional tasks to those who support the platform. On the other hand, properly supported citizen development frees up platform support personnel to better focus on the tasks that most need their skills while improving relations between business and IT by enabling business to more self-supporting.

Originally published at InfoWorld

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© Scott S. Nelson