The Question of Technical Debt

Not too long ago, I came across an interesting blog post by the former CTO of Etsy, Kellan Elliott-McCrea, which made me rethink my understanding and approach to the concept of technical debt. In it, he opined that technical debt doesn’t really exist and it’s an overused term. While specifically referencing code in his discussion, he makes some valid points that can be applied to information security and IT infrastructure.

In the post, he credits Peter Norvig with the quote, “All code is liability.” This echoes Nicholas Carr’s belief in the increased risk that arises from infrastructure technology due to the decreased advantage as it becomes more pervasive and non-proprietary.

When a resource becomes essential to competition but inconsequential to strategy, the risks it creates become more important than the advantages it provides. Think of electricity. Today, no company builds its business strategy around its electricity usage, but even a brief lapse in supply can be devastating…..

Over the years, I’ve collected a fair amount of “war stories” about less than optimal application deployments and infrastructure configurations. Too often, I’ve seen things that make me want to curl up in a fetal position beneath my desk. Web developers failing to close connections or set timeouts to back-end databases, causing horrible latency. STP misconfigurations resulting in network core meltdowns. Data centers built under bathrooms or network hub sites using window unit air conditioners. Critical production equipment that’s end-of-life or not even under support. But is this really technical debt or just the way of doing business in our modern world?

Life is messy and always a “development” project. Maybe the main reason DevOps has gathered such momentum in the IT world is because it reflects the constantly evolving, always shifting, nature of existence. In the real world, there is no greenfield. Every enterprise struggles to find the time and resources for ongoing maintenance, upgrades and improvements. As Elliott-McCrea so beautifully expresses, maybe our need to label this state of affairs as atypical is a cop-out. By turning this daily challenge into something momentous, we make it worse. We accuse the previous leadership and engineering staff  of incompetence. We come to believe that the problem will be fully eradicated through the addition of the latest miracle product. Or we invite some high-priced process junkies in to provide recommendations which often result in inertia.

We end up pathologizing something which is normal, often casting an earlier team as bumbling. A characterization that easily returns to haunt us.

When we take it a step further and turn these conflations into a judgement on the intellect, professionalism, and hygiene of whomever came before us we inure ourselves to the lessons those people learned. Quickly we find ourselves in a situation where we’re undertaking major engineering projects without having correctly diagnosed what caused the issues we’re trying to solve (making recapitulating those issues likely) and having discarded the iteratively won knowledge that had allowed our organization to survive to date.

Maybe it’s time to drop the “blame game” by information security teams when evaluating our infrastructures and applications. Stop crying about technical debt, because there are legitimate explanations for the technology decisions made in our organizations and it’s generally not because someone was inept. We need to realize that IT environments aren’t static and will always be changing and growing. We must transform with them.

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