Metaphors are powerful things. They are core to how we make sense of the world.

Good metaphors are a great way to get ideas to transmit. Bad metaphors get in the way of understanding.

In the last few months I’ve been thinking about the metaphor of “technical debt” and wondering increasingly if it is much use.

The term, which is pretty well known in the world of IT, is usually used to describe decisions made in the past, usually by other people. “I’ve got a lot of technical debt to deal with” is a way to explain why everything takes too long and costs too much. It’s an excuse I’ve used myself.

There’s no such thing as a perfect world. The technologically perfect is unachievable. We have to make decisions that balance many needs. Some are more expedient than others. We are always making choices that will result in costs in the future, some predictable, others not so. That’s the essence of the concept of technical debt.

But what if we created a concept that was future- rather than past-looking?

I’ve been bouncing around the idea of the technical credit card.

If when we were making decisions how could we think about them in terms of the debt we were taking on from the outset?

How could we set a period in which there was no interest to pay, but that the cost of the decision became increasingly expensive over time if it wasn’t paid back? (technical debt costs tend to not be linked to the original decision, but on future costs associated with other changes).

How could we use pricing to shape behaviours to prevent expediency embedding itself for the long term?

The idea of technology decision-making being something that results in costs in the future is a useful one. But a slight reframing of the metaphor of debt might make it more useful in planning for the future.

2 thoughts on “Technical Credit Card

  1. I see what you’re trying to do but isn’t the credit card just a specific form of debt? In the same way you could say that it’s a “technical mortgage” – you can’t buy y because you’re still dealing with the consequences of buying x a few years ago. I’m not sure that being specific about what form of debt it is really helps, it’s still technical debt.

    1. It is, but specifically a type of debt for the short term and for convenience, rather than for the long term and to see a return (a mortgage). Which is what I think people are trying to express when they talk about the technical debt concept

      “Debt” alone is too broad and too conceptual to have much meaning.

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