Opinion

Professional Life…Awash in Debt

Whether we realize it or not, most of our professional lives are awash in debt.  It doesn’t matter if you are in operations, sales, technology, or management.  If you get up every day and put brain power toward an enterprise you are playing a game that is downright “Enronesque.”

Technical debt as a concept came about in the ‘90s from Ward Cunningham (of Agile Manifesto fame).  But it applies to far more than technology development.  The technical debt proposition is this:  We can get something out the door fast and cheap,  but it will be crappy.  This term crappy?  There is a lot to unpack there.

With “out the door crappy” we are accomplishing a task but with significant (and unknown) deficiencies. These deficiencies cause a lot of grey hair over time.  Here come an endless series of mundane tasks, fixing broken things that in turn break more things. A rally of resources just to keep the lights on.  The brutal truth is…no one can escape this pain.

My wife and I were watching Apple TV the other night.  Amazon Prime has a little app there that allows you to watch their movies.  To say that this app is terrible would be an understatement.  I mean it’s really, really awful. The devs were even too embarrassed to put the Amazon logo on it.

Yes, even Amazon with all its technical prowess undertakes technical debt.  The fact that they need to get a presence in the Apple TV ecosystem yesterday means that they had to do a fast, cheap & crappy port of an existing app into the Apple ecosystem.  The sin, therefore, is not undertaking technical debt.  It’s leaving it out there to fester.

Think this is just about technology?  Think again.

  • Operations Teams made to make things work for which they have no budget, technology or people.
  • Sales Teams forced to sell things the company has absolutely no capability of delivering.
  • Marketing teams are often compelled to push out material in the interest of deadlines and clicks that mis-position products and brands.
  • Legal teams are made to skim and skip lest they be accused of “killing the deal.”
  • Journalists pushing to quickly to print….The list goes on….

But here is the catch 22.  If you do not undertake technical debt YOU ARE DEAD.   Let me say this again:  DEAD.  This is where the technical debt proposition truly becomes Enronesque.  We have to embrace technical debt, not just to stay competitive, but to stay alive.  I really respect…yes respect Amazon for putting out such a terrible app.  The TV eyeball business is just as vicious as any other.  If you don’t get those eyeballs…you are dead.    No matter what business you are in, it’s safe to say we are in a hyper-disruptive world.  I always think of this famous Blockbuster Video quote:

“Neither RedBox nor Netflix are even on the radar screen in terms of competition,”-Jim Keyes, CEO

These guys never saw it coming.  Disruption is a real thing.  New technologies, smart innovators,  processes and communication paths are a daily event.  Ignore it: Dead.  What if…just what if, Blockbuster had put out a fast and crappy on demand video service.  Where would they be now?

Companies that wall up the fortress and refuse to push something out the door until it’s perfect and flawless are fooling themselves.  Here’s why: The best planned, best engineered, most perfect projects are still chock full of technical debt.  It’s easiest to see in technology.  So many projects get 80% complete and suddenly the team sees an entirely better way to do something. You just can’t get away from technical debt.

Even if the savages aren’t beating on the door, technical debt has an amazing way of grinding operations to a halt.  Most just put more and more people on it.  More and more mundane janitorial tasks just to keep the lights on.  It’s a miserable existence.  How many companies have sealed their own fate because they simply can’t …no matter how much money..no matter how many people…can’t get something new out the door.


Your Balance Sheet

Where did Enron go wrong?  They fooled themselves (and others) into believing the balance sheet could carry their debt load.  If we accept that technical debt is a reality, and disruption n is going to force us to carry more of it, then what does our balance sheet look like?

What is your company’s approach for measuring technical debt, and does it account for the “pay down?”
This is where we all go wrong again and again. Whether it’s a fast and cheap solution or slow and expensive, the debt still accumulates without any plan of paydown.  Over my career, I have found larger companies are very wary of fast and cheap solutions.  It’s not because of deficiencies.  It’s because deficient solutions quickly become permanent.  Fiefdoms form.  People vest their careers in holding together the broken.  It all becomes permanently impenetrable.

Likewise, small and nimble companies go for a lot of fast and cheap.  It often kills them in the end. They never make a plan to retire their debt and simply go for another round of VC funding.  By the time they get around to it …it’s too late.  They have a cost and maintenance structure that will never be profitable.

To Start…Just Think About It

Simply thinking about technical debt goes a long way to starting the process of getting in front of it.  It’s human nature to cognitively deny the burden of technical debt.  So much easier to go with the flow just pouring more and more people onto the broken debt to keep the lights on.  But until the debt is paid, moving forward is nearly impossible.

A great time to get into these discussions with colleagues is when disruptive threats come knocking.  Blockchain, AI, and Crypto: these are all potentially very disruptive.  But with them come extraordinary level of technical debt.  Seriously, how long would it take your company to get a grip on the nuances of Artificial Intelligence just to get something cheap and fast out the door? Consider this your invitation to a conversation about both taking on and paying down technical debt.