Chipping Away At Technical Debt

We’re surrounded by technical debt every day. We have a mountain of it sitting in distribution closets and a yard full of it out behind the data center. We make compromises for budget reasons, for technology reasons, and for political reasons. We tell ourselves every time that this is the last time we’re giving in and the next time it’s going to be different. Yet we find ourselves staring at the landscape of technical debt time and time again. But how can we start chipping away at it?

Time Is On Your Side

You may think you don’t have any time to work on the technical debt problem. This is especially true if you don’t have the time due to fixing problems caused by your technical debt. The hours get longer and the effort goes up exponentially to get simple things done. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Every minute you spend trying to figure out where a link goes or a how a server is connected to the rest of the pod is a minute that should have been spent documenting it somewhere. In a text document, in a picture, or even on the back of a napkin stuck to the faceplate of said server!

I once watch an engineer get paid an obscene amount of money to diagram a network. Because it had never been done. He didn’t modify anything. He didn’t change a setting. All he did was figure out what went where and what the interface addresses were. He put it in Visio and showed it to the network administrators. They were so thrilled they had it printed in poster size and framed! He didn’t do anything above and beyond showing them what they already had.

It’s easy to say that you’re going to document something. It’s hard to remember to do it. It’s even harder when you forget to do it and have to spend an hour remembering why you did it in the first place. So it’s better to take a minute to write in an interface description. Or perhaps a comment about why you did a thing the way you did it. Every one of those minutes chips away a little more technical debt.

Ask yourself this question next time: If I spent less time solving documentation problems, what could I do to reduce debt overall?

Mad As Hell And Not Going To Design It Anymore

The other sources of technical debt are money and politics. And those usually come into play in the design phase. People jockeying for position or trying to save money for something else. I don’t mind honest budget saving measures. What I mind is trying to cut budgets for things like standing desks and quarterly bonuses. The perception of IT is that it is still a budget sink with no real purpose to support the business. And then the email server goes down. That’s why IT’s real value comes out.

When you design a network, you need to take into account many factors. What you shouldn’t take into account is someone dictating how things are going to be just because they like the way that something looks or sounds. When I worked at a VAR there were always discussions like this. Who should we use for the switching hardware? Which company has a great rebate this quarter? I have a buddy that works at Vendor X so we should throw him a bone this time.

As the networking professional, you need to stand up for your decisions. If you put the hard work and effort into making something happen you shouldn’t sit down and let it get destroyed by someone else’s bad idea. That’s how technical debt starts. And if you let it start this way you’ll never be able to get rid of it. Both because it will be outside of your control and because you’ll always identify someone else as the source of the problem.

So, how do you get mad and fix it before it starts? Know your project cold. Know every bolt and screw. Justify every decision. Point out the mistakes when they happen in front of people that don’t like to be embarrassed. In short, be a jerk. The kind of self-important, overly cerebral jerk that is smug because he knows he’s right. And when people know you’re right they’ll either take your word for things or only challenge you when they know they’re right.

That’s not to say that you should be smug and dismissive all the time. You’re going to be wrong. We all are. Well, everyone except my wife. But for the rest of us, you need to know that when you’re wrong you need to accept it and discuss the situation. No one is 100% infallible, but someone that can’t recognize when they are wrong can create a whole mountain range of technical debt before they’re stopped.

Tom’s Take

Technical Debt is just a convenient term for something we all face. We don’t like it, but it’s part of the job. Technical Debt compounds faster than any finance construct. And it’s stickier than student loans. But, we can chip away at it slowly with some care. Take a little time to stop the little problems before they happen. Take a minute to save an hour. And when you get into that next big meeting about a project and you see a huge tidal wave of technical debt headed your way, stand up and let it be known. Don’t be afraid to speak out. Just make sure you’re right and you won’t drown.