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Business-Driven Architect

Brenda Michelson

Technical Debt Management: Pay the Interest or Pay down the Principal?

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Let’s face it, Enterprise Architects and CIOs don’t always see eye-to-eye.  In my experience, the most common point of contention is “get it right? versus “get it done?.  And of course, this is never an academic conversation, it’s typically a hasty phone call, email or conversation trigged by a “new finding? at a “crucial moment? for a “critical project?. 

At the risk of over generalizing, in these “emergencies?, the deciding factors are time, short-term cost, security risk and short-term technical risk (availability, reliability).  So, if bypassing the architecture gains time, but creates a security or short-term technical risk, then no bypass is granted.  But, if these risks aren’t a factor, well, “get it done?. 

The problem, of course, is that most bypasses are never revisited, and accumulate as expensive, high risk, Technical Debt.  Even worse, most organizations don’t recognize the existence of, nor manage, that technical debt. 

So, how do you raise awareness about mounting technical debt, without being labeled “technology purist??  Use the inherent “debt metaphor? to build your case in business terms.  Start with a point from Martin Fowler’s recent Technical Debt Quadrant Bliki entry:  “The decision of paying the interest versus paying down the principal…?

The interest is the recurring cost of maintaining a subpar solution that is outside the architecture.  The principal is the subpar solution itself.  Principal is paid down by investing resources to remediate the subpar solution.

Organizations with existing technical debt, need to add technical debt management practices to periodically review the costs and risks of continuing interest payments, versus the costs, risks and opportunities of paying down the principal. 

And for those organizations staring down a “new finding? at a “crucial moment? for a “critical project?, add technical debt to your decision making.  Can you afford to incur additional technical debt?  If so, for how long?

“Pay the interest, pay down the principal, manage your credit line.?  That sounds like a good conversation starter to me...

Brenda Michelson, Principal of Elemental Links, shares her view on architectural strategies, technology trends, business, and relevance.

Brenda Michelson

Brenda Michelson is the principal of Elemental Links an advisory & consulting practice focused on business-technology capabilities that increase business visibility and responsiveness. Follow Brenda on Twitter.


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