Technical Debt: Less Like Tetris, More Like Ignoring Rotting Foundations

January 21, 2020

Googlers were chattering about technical debt years ago. I can’t recall the specific service which triggered a discussion about investing, patching, ignoring, or shuttering a service due to “costs.” The online ad giant was not the first mover in MBA/bean counter thinking about the resources consumed maintaining, enhancing, and changing the oil in its massive online systems.

DarkCyber noted “Technical Debt Is like a Tetris Game.” The write up is interesting, and the comparison in some ways is apt. However, video games are set up so that “winning” is often elusive. Dealing with technical debt in an organization is a bit different. The erosion often takes time and may be caused by wrapping the core software in more code. How often are substantive changes made to Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft services. Amazon recommends books the DarkCyber team has already read. Why not look up recommendations in the user’s list of Kindle purchases? An expense for technical debt or managerial indifference? Facebook routinely purges false accounts, but DarkCyber’s mascot has a Facebook page and posts infrequently and then via a software script. The page is still alive and kicking. Why not match user activity to an account and dump the dogs? Pun intended. Technical rot, not technical debt and who wants to lose a “user”? Google delivers irrelevant search results for many queries. Why not fix up the clever PageRank thing? Technical debt or the lack of programmers who want to plunge their hands into the terracotta tiles of the Stanford Mycenaean’s? And Microsoft? Why not make numbering work in Word or document the known dependencies in the Pharonic Fast Search & Transfer code.

These are not game scenarios. These examples are conscious choices to avoid fiddling with software developed decades ago. The premise appears to be that “good enough” is indeed the path to riches. DarkCyber believes that a failure to invest in foundations means that the structure will sag over time. If the structure collapses, the problems are not the death of colorful digital creatures. The implosion will affect humans. Not a game.

There is not money, time, and skilled personnel to remediate what’s chugging along. Decades, not weeks or months. Decades.

Stephen E Arnold, January 21, 2020

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