Tracking Technical Debt with TechDebtAttributes

Technical debt can build up over time, slows down development speed, and could increase the risk of defects.

If you work in situation where it’s not always possible to create clean code or you’ve inherited a legacy application you may wish to start cataloguing where and how painful tech debt is.

Introducing TechDebtAttributes

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I just released an initial NuGet version of an open source project called TechDebtAttributes.

It allows attributes to be used to mark classes, methods, etc as containing technical debt.

When the [TechDebt] attribute is applied you need to specify 2 mandatory values: pain and effort to fix.

Pain is a relative measure of how painful the tech debt is; for example how much it slows you down when changing code, how unhappy you are with it, how many defects are caused by it, etc.

Effort to fix is also a relative measure of the ease, amount of effort/time it will take to fix and remove the debt.

Optionally a description of the debt can also be specified.

Once attributes have been applied, a (string) report can be generated:

***Start of Tech Debt Report - finding all [TechDebt] attribute usages

Benefit to fix: 4999.5  AnotherExampleUsageAssembly.Mango Pain:9999 Effort to fix:2
Benefit to fix: 1666.7  Void .ctor() Pain:5000 Effort to fix:3
Benefit to fix: 5 Quick fix to stop stupid stuff happening sometimes Void SomeMethod() Pain:5 Effort to fix:1
Benefit to fix: 2  ExampleUsage.SillyEnum Tomato Pain:47 Effort to fix:23
Benefit to fix: 0.5 What kind of cheese is this? ExampleUsage.Cheese Pain:3 Effort to fix:6
Benefit to fix: 0.4 What exactly is inner cheese ExampleUsage.Cheese+InnerCheese Pain:3 Effort to fix:8
Benefit to fix: 0.3 This really is silly ExampleUsage.SillyEnum Pain:2 Effort to fix:6
Benefit to fix: 0.2 This is dumb, we should remove it ExampleUsage.ISomeDumbInterface Pain:10 Effort to fix:44
Benefit to fix: 0.1 This should be moved to it's own interface Void Y() Pain:10 Effort to fix:100
Benefit to fix: 0 There's a lot of work to fix this whole class for not much gain ExampleUsage.SomeThing Pain:1 Effort to fix:200

***End of Tech Debt Report.

You can also use a method to specify the maximum total pain you’re willing to accept, if the total pain from all [TechDebt] attributes exceeds this an exception will be thrown and your test will fail.

See the Readme on GitHub for more info.

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The Ethereal Second Deliverable of Software Projects

So the project or release or iteration is done. We’ve “finished”. The customer and users are (hopefully) reasonably satisfied, and we say that we’ve delivered the software.

There’s a second hidden deliverable that we don’t usually think about and that’s the malleability of the thing we’ve just delivered. How easy it will be to modify the software in the future.

We can think of it as the “potential cost of future change”.

Even though we cannot measure productivity and estimating this future cost is likely to be either impossible, pointless, or both; it still may be a useful concept.

Once we start to treat the potential cost of future change as a deliverable in its own right, we can have important conversations with the team/customer/user. We can trade off the potential cost for future change against getting the next thing released as soon as possible.

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