The Tech Debt Kitchen


“How do we convince our business to give us time to clean up this technical debt?”

It’s one of the most frequently asked questions by Agile teams. They know they’re supposed to prioritize work based on business value, but the business doesn’t place much value on IT cleanup or enhancements. They don’t understand why it matters. 

A good analogy can be the trick to making them feel our pain and prioritize our needs.  

Think of a restaurant. Customers sit in the dining room, judging the place based on the décor, the attentiveness and attitude of the wait staff, the time it takes for their food to arrive, and finally, how good the food is. They make their decisions without knowing a thing about the kitchen. How many people are working in there? How many burners does the stove have? Is it clean? If they’re moving quickly, is there even time to wash the dishes after someone eats?

IT teams are reluctant to let folks know the kitchen’s a mess. Everyone expected you to “clean as you go”, and you did – for a while. But then one day you realized the only way to get the food on the table on time was to skip doing the dishes, and just keep cooking. Now, your countertops are cluttered, you can’t find a clean pan, and some of the plates are going out to the dining room with bits of crusty food on them. Something’s got to give.

What are you going to ask the business to do, though?

One option is to shut the restaurant down for a while. Take a sprint and clean it up, and then institute a strict “clean as you go” policy going forward, knowing that means the food isn’t going to be hitting the tables as quickly in the future. It’s a great strategy – if the restaurant can afford it.

If we can’t afford to slow down, we’re going to need more staff – just to go at the same pace. We’ll start the new folks out washing dishes, teach them where everything goes, and then eventually, once they’re up to speed and the mess is gone, we’ll all be able to clean as we go.

But what about automation? What could a new professional grade dishwasher do for us? Or maybe if we had a few extra burners on the stove, no one would notice that we’d slowed down to clean. Perhaps that’s worth the investment?

Okay, you get the analogy. Now, go out there, gross them out, and get them to get it, too.

Topics: Agile

Written by Tracey Barrett

Tracey is the Managing Director of NVISIA's Milwaukee Office and has been with NVISIA since 1997.

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