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Friday Philosophy – “Technical Debt” is a Poor Term. Try “Technical Burden”? June 30, 2017

Posted by mwidlake in database design, development, Friday Philosophy, Management.
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5 comments

Recently my friend Sabine Heimsath asked a few of us native English speakers what the opposite of “technical debt” was. My immediate reaction was to say:

I’d say (sarcastically) “proper development” or “decent designer” or even “what we did 25 bloody years ago when we were allowed to take pride in the software we created!”

But my next comment was less reactive and more considered. And that was to say that I did not like the phrase “Technical Debt”:

A debt is when you owe something to someone, to be paid back. You do not owe anything to someone when you build poor systems, you are actually creating a “technical burden” – something those in the future will need to live with and may eventually have to sort out. Those who created the bad app or design will probably not be the ones fixing it – as in paying the debt.

That is of course not always true. Some of us have had to end up fixing a poor solution that we implemented – usually implemented despite our protestations that it was a daft thing to do. But the usual case is that a badly thought-out solution is implemented in a rush, with little design, or with inadequate testing, because of a management pressure to be “agile” or “fast moving”. And it is done with cheap or over-stretched resource.

Also, “technical debt” to me sounds too organised and too easy to fix. If you have a financial debt, you simply pay it back with some interest. In almost all situations I have seen where there is a “technical debt”, the interest to pay – the extra effort and time – is considerably more than was saved in the first place. Sometimes it is more than the original cost of the whole project! Loan Shark territory.

When the poorly designed/implemented system falls over in a heap sometimes the hard-pressed local staff lack the skills or bandwidth to fix it and “Experts” are called in to sort it out. And part of the time taken to fix it is the expert going “why in f**k did you ever think this was a good idea?” (Maybe using better terminology, but that is what they mean!). Being more serious, sometimes the largest slice of time is when as an “Expert” you have to persuade the people who own this mess that it really does need sorting out properly, not just another quick hack – and it really will take much , much more effort than what they originally saved by deciding to implement this fast & dirty. Sorry, I mean “lean & mean”.

This situation often has a secondary impact – it makes the people who originally implemented the solution look poor. And that may or may not be fair. I’ve seen many cases where the original staff (including myself) were forced to do things they did no like by timing constraints, lack of budget or simply the ridiculous demands by someone higher up the organisation who thought simply shouting and demanding would make good things happen. They don’t, you end up creating a burden. Though I have also seen poor solutions because the original team were poor.

I think at the moment a lot of what is called “systems development” is more like a desperate drive to constantly cut corners and do things quicker. If it goes wrong, it’s just a debt, we pay it back. No, no it is not. It’s often a bloody mess and a Burden for years. I keep hoping that, like many things in I.T. this will be a phase we can cycle out of and back into doing proper planning and implementation again. Yes, anything that speeds things up without losing planing/design is great. And if you have the skills, you can do proper Agile, designing the detail as you go – IF you have the general over-arching design already in place. But I wish there was more consideration of the later cost of quick & dirty.

So what was the term Sabine wanted? Well, I can’t speak for her, I am not 100% sure what she was looking for. But from my perspective, we should not say “Technical Debt” but “Technical Burden”. And the opposite might be “technical Investment”. You spend a bit of time and effort now in considering how you can create a solution that can expand or is flexible. I know from my own personal experience that it is when you are given the chance to do those things that you provide a solution that last and lasts and lasts. Only when I have been allowed to properly consider the business need do I create something still used in 10 years. Or 15. Or maybe even 20. That might need some checking!

So, if you really want to build systems to support a successful business, and not a short-lived flash, perhaps you should be saying something like:

You are asking me to create a Technical Burden. Would you rather not help me create a Technical Investment?

If anything else, you might at least be adding a new entry to “Buzzword Bingo”.

Friday Philosophy – New Conference, Same Sad Old Faces Up Front June 2, 2017

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Friday Philosophy, Presenting.
Tags: , ,
5 comments

I’ve been on the Oracle conference presenting circuit for well over a decade now and I must confess I enjoy it. Part of this is that I see lots of friends at nearly every conference – even in countries I have never been to before. This is because many of those friends are fellow presenters, who have been presenting for well over a decade now…

There he goes again, banging on and on and on…

This is not totally true of course, there are some relatively new presenters, even a couple I can think of that have been presenting for only a year or two (Pieter, Frank…). I’m proud to say that there are some less-experienced presenters I actually helped get going at this lark and even a couple who are better at this than I am.

But the truth of it is, if you were to go to 5 conferences in one year across Europe (or maybe even 5 across the USA, let me know) you will keep seeing the same bunch of mostly older faces up there, sometimes even doing the same talk (or talks) – That is maybe not such a bad thing as the real audience, the local Oracle community members, are mostly from that region, won’t have been to the other conferences and get to see current talks that have been trialled and tested and tweaked elsewhere.

However, if you go to the same conference 5 years in a row – you will STILL see the same bunch of mostly older faces up there (all getting slowly older, greyer, wrinklier – except for those who hit Mid-Life-Crisis and suddenly develop gym-bodies and oddly darker hair…. 🙂 ). Again, maybe not a bad thing as these are the people who like presenting, get selected again based on the fact the audience liked what they said, they did not lie too much and did not get too many things wrong. And most of us try to not do the same presentation 2 years in a row, so the material moves on {I do repeat presentations after a year or two’s break, usually updated and aimed at the newbie audience, but that’s just me}.

So is this “same old faces” a problem? Most of us conference organisers agree that it is as people drop off the presenting circuit or seem to run out of material. So you need a new influx. And you need younger presenters to keep the older ones on their toes (or just help them on and off the platform). And younger or just new people to give another perspective or add their considerable experience to the mix. One of the newer presenters I can think of is actually retirement age and a great addition to the circuit.

But the problem is, how do you encourage new presenters? You lot reading this who do not present are a damned hard bunch to motivate to give it a go! Now, I know that presenting is not for everyone and that some of you would rather stick your arm in a wasps’ nest than present, but some of you can bang on for ages in a social situation and actually know your stuff. So how do we get you to present?

The same ideas come up. One is to say you only need to present for 5 or 10 minutes. Sometimes we will even organise a full session made up of such short session to let people give it a go. It does not seem to work to me, you get one or maybe two new people and then fill the other mini-sessions with experienced people – who then complain about how hard it is to do a decent talk in such short time!

Another is to specifically ask at SIGs and smaller meetings if anyone fancies trying out presenting, in the small and friendly arena that they have just experienced. You know, the one where after presenting the presenter cannot really hide in the crowd and everyone there knows if you did a good or bad job… We do get the occasional new presenter but not really. And I suspect most of them would have submitted papers eventually (and I’m ignoring the issue of new presenters getting papers selected, I’d need a whole post on that).

Another route it to co-present and this is the one I have used a small number of times. You get someone you know, who understands the material, to share a presentation with you. If they stumble or forget what they were saying, you can just nudge things along, and hopefully cope with any tricky questions that might worry the new person. It worked once (and you now see his sad, old face ALL the time), partially worked the second (though I’ve not seen her present for a while) and utterly failed the third.

The UKOUG is trying this at the next UKOUG Tech conference, but in a more formal way. They are getting some of us more experienced presenters to offer ourselves to co-present with new people. I’m not sure how well this will work if we experienced presenters are not finding the inexperienced presenters ourselves. Can you imagine someone who has never presented before wanting to step up to the podium with one of the Oracle Names, unless they also know them? If you said something wrong, would they correct you in front of everyone (no, probably not, we are generally nice people). Anyway, it’s something to try and I am happy to help. The UKOUG have started promoting this a little, but I don’t think everyone is going to find it appealing. In fact, my friend Dawn saw this and thought it sounded…:

Creepy! That made me laugh.

Nevertheless, if you are a potential new presenter or just inexperienced and you want to present on something I also know about, I’d be happy to consider co-presenting with you. Just let me know. And generally speaking, if co-presenting appeals to you but not with me {I would not blame you}, get in touch with the UKOUG.

About the only way I know of really getting new presenters is… to get people drunk and make them agree to it. Then remind them about it endlessly until they feel obliged to do it. It does work, but it ends up being a self-selecting set of new presenters, i.e. people I drink with, which rather annoyingly tends to be sad, old men. I’ve tried drinking with young, vivacious women but I usually get asked to leave the club, as I am coming over as creepy.

So, if you are someone who has considered presenting or would consider it – what would help you give it a go? Tell me, I’ll see if I can arrange it.