Focus on Configuration Management Debt First

It has been a few years since Managing Software Debt was published and I think about how it could have been better on a regular basis. I think the content was useful to put in a book and aligns with current movements such as DevOps, Microservices, Continuous Delivery, Lean and Agile. On the other hand, there may have been a tendency by me to focus on Technical Debt at the beginning of the book that was not warranted in terms of importance for managing software debt. It has been my experience that managing technical debt, the activities that a team or team members choose not to do well now and will impede future development if left undone, is less important than the other four types of software debt. In fact, here are the priorities that I typically used with companies to help them manage software debt more effectively:

  1. Configuration Management Debt: Integration and release management become more risky, complex, and error-prone.
  2. Platform Experience Debt: The availability of people to work on software changes is becoming limited or cost-prohibitive.
  3. Design Debt: The cost of adding features is increasing toward the point where it is more than the cost of writing from scratch.
  4. Quality Debt: There is a diminishing ability to verify the functional and technical quality of software.

Along the way, I might work with teams on processes and techniques that can help with reducing technical debt but that was to get them ready to take advantage of the efficiencies that result from the other four. I wonder if the popularity of the topic “technical debt” and my background as a developer lead me to focus chapters 2 through 4 on managing technical debt. No matter what the reasoning, I think it is good to discuss the reasons for demoting it in priority with regards to managing software debt on your team and in your organizations.

Why Configuration Management Debt First?

The value of software is only potential value until it is put into a user’s hands. There can be many roadblocks to software getting into user’s hands in an organization’s processes:

  • Proliferation of long-lived branches
  • Over burdened release engineering and operations teams
  • Poor integration processes across architecture components and scaled team delivery
  • High coupling with centrally managed architecture element/component
  • Too many variations/versions of the software supported in production
  • Code changes feel too risky and takes too long to validate before releasing into production
  • Poor documentation practices
  • Too many hand-offs between teams in order to release software to users

Just as the tag line of the chapter 6 “Configuration Management Debt” says:

If releases are like giving birth, then you must be doing something wrong.
— Robert Benefield

In organizations that have effective configuration management practices it is common to see deployment pipelines that have a smaller number of hand-offs between teams, architectures that tend to be more malleable, and efficient validation processes. What is interesting about the list that I just wrote in the previous sentence is that they align with managing three other types of software debt more effectively:

  • Smaller number of hand-offs: Platform Experience Debt
  • Malleable architectures: Design Debt
  • Efficient validation processes: Quality Debt

What I have found is that by focusing on Configuration Management Debt it is simpler to identify aspects of the integration and release management process that need to be tackled in order to get working software in the hands of users sooner while reducing the bottlenecks in the organizational processes and practices therefore leading to further optimizations in the future.

Alignment with Today’s Industry Conversations

It is interesting to note that this focus aligns well with the tenets of the DevOps movement luminaries. Going towards Feature Teams organizational configurations that have people with all of the capabilities to design, implement, validate, integrate, configure, deploy and maintain reduces hand-offs and increases quality because the team that builds the software maintains it, as well. Its amazing how quality goes up when a team member on rotation has to respond to production issues in the middle of the night.

Not only does this align with the DevOps but malleable architectures tends to align with the Microservices movement. Given Feature Teams we can take advantage of Conway’s Law, rather than be a victim of it, to align team delivery with providing a specific capability in the architecture. Since these capabilities are more specific the implementation tends to be smaller and therefore easier to change later. Now there are still operational issues to overcome in order to make this an efficient approach. Platforms such as Cloud Foundry that provide application runtimes and access to services with low operational overhead will make Microservices based architectures even more approachable and efficient to attain.

The Agile movement has already encouraged significant changes in how we validate software. Continuous Delivery has continued to push the validation efficiencies forward. As more teams become aware and more effective with test frameworks, tools, platforms and SaaS offerings we will continue to see more efficient validation processes in our delivery pipelines.

There is a great book by Jez Humble, Lean Enterprise: How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scale, that I recommend if you want to explore the topics above further. Let me know in the comments section if you have any additional or different thoughts around focusing on configuration management debt first. I’m always interested in learning from others tackling difficult problems and the approaches that they see working.