Technical Debt & Quality – Binary Thinking in an Analog World

How many shades of gray?

I admit it, I’m a pragmatist.

Less than two weeks after starting this blog, I posted “There is no right way (though there are plenty of wrong ones)”, proclaiming my adherence to the belief that absolutes rarely stand the test of time. In design as well as development process, context is king.

Some, however, tend to take a more black and white approach to things. I recently saw an assertion that “Quality is not negotiable” and that “Only Technical Debt enthusiasts believe that”. By that logic, all but a tiny portion of working software professionals must be “Technical Debt enthusiasts”, because if you’re not the one paying for the work, then the decision about what’s negotiable is out of your hands. Likewise, there’s a difference between being an “enthusiast” and recognizing that trade-offs are sometimes required.

Seventeen years ago, Fast Company published “They Write the Right Stuff”, showcasing the quality efforts of the team working on the code that controlled the space shuttle. There results were impressive:

Consider these stats : the last three versions of the program — each 420,000 lines long-had just one error each. The last 11 versions of this software had a total of 17 errors. Commercial programs of equivalent complexity would have 5,000 errors.

Impressive results are certainly in order given the criticality of the software:

The group writes software this good because that’s how good it has to be. Every time it fires up the shuttle, their software is controlling a $4 billion piece of equipment, the lives of a half-dozen astronauts, and the dreams of the nation. Even the smallest error in space can have enormous consequences: the orbiting space shuttle travels at 17,500 miles per hour; a bug that causes a timing problem of just two-thirds of a second puts the space shuttle three miles off course.

It should be noted, however, that while the bug rate is infinitesimally small, it’s still greater than zero. With a defined hardware environment, highly trained users, and a process that consumed a budget of $35 million annually, perfection was still out of reach. Reality often tramples over ideals, particularly considering that technical debt can arise from changing business needs and changing technical environments as much as sloppy practice. Recognizing that circumstances may make it the better choice and managing it is more realistic than taking a dogmatic approach.

For most products, it’s common to find multiple varieties with different features and different levels of quality with the choice left to the consumer as to which best suits his/her needs. It’s rare, and rightly so, for that value judgment to be taken out of the consumer’s hands. Taking the position that “quality is not negotiable” (with the implicit assertion that you are the authority on what constitutes quality) places you in just that position of dictating to your customer what is in their best interests. Under the same circumstance, what would be your reaction?


4 thoughts on “Technical Debt & Quality – Binary Thinking in an Analog World

  1. Pingback: Dealing with Technical Debt Like We Mean it | Form Follows Function

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