It might be weird to imagine, but the first things that come to mind when I think of tech debt and information debt is Star Trek and cats. Specifically, I think of tribbles and wrangling kittens. You might think this is a total stretch, but let me explain…
Tribbles are basically little fluff balls that can multiply seemingly exponentially in a short amount of time if exposed to food. They’ll get everywhere, but are easy to capture once you get them away from food. Kittens, on the other hand are wonderful little animals that are so cute and needy, they exert control over you…
If you were to combine these two creatures, you’d have a Tribble Kitty. A round, fluffy animal that reproduces immediately and exponentially, has control over your brain to make you love it, and is harder than anything to herd. If herding cats is hard, herding Tribble Kitties is almost impossible.
Applying the Tribble Kitty Metaphor
To bring this full circle, when combined, tech debt and information debt create Tribble Kitties for your company. Other than being hard to wrangle, and taking away precious productivity, tech debt and information debt can mature and eventually, you can have so many moving parts that it’s hard for a single person to keep track of them.
Oftentimes, this tech debt and information debt issue becomes evident when there’s one engineer in the company that everyone comes to for answers. This can also happen when the acronyms, names, and ideas that “everyone” knows, start to confuse people who’ve been around since the beginning.
Little things like these can eventually come back and become big problems if a piece of functionality that was originally “just thrown together” isn’t processing fast enough and no one knows how to fix it, or if a term has three definitions among three different departments.
Correcting the Tech and Information Debt Problem
So, what’s the solution? Well, the answer is to document all the things in an easily accessible way so that everyone in the company can read, understand, and update the information. This usually means a wiki or internal knowledge base.
Unfortunately the problem with wikis and knowledge bases, is that if you don’t have someone managing this information, these too can become problematic and breed unintended consequences of hoarding very specific and very broad information together. Institutional knowledge can overrun the entire thing and make it too intimidating for most people to update or visit.
For engineers, this is exactly the same thing that happens in code. You build something, patch something, or avoid a problem because it’s not interesting, then it comes back to haunt you because there are no inline comments and no documentation anywhere. If you have no idea what the consequences of your changes will be, you’re less likely to even want to touch this code.
Tech Debt and Information Debt Go Hand-In-Hand
People are less likely to contribute and work on things if there’s a lack of information or if the information that’s present is all institutional and confusing. I can suggest a couple solutions that we’ve employed:
- Find someone who is willing to document all the technical information in the organization.
- Find a way to organize that information.
- Empower employees to jump in and write down how things work so no one has to do it again.
By documenting and updating your internal knowledge cache in these ways, your people know where to find information they need and how to update it. The benefit is that employees can use this information from day one to onboard and provide value to the company faster, without requiring nearly as much handholding from others.
For more information on tribbles, go check out S02E15 of Star Trek The Original Series (TOS), “The Trouble with Tribbles” and S06E05 of Deep Space Nine (DS9), “Trials and Tribble-ations.” The first introduced Tribbles and the second, inserted characters from DS9 into 30 year old footage and re-told the story. These are my favorite two episodes of Star Trek, because they’re so funny and out of character for the rest of the episodes in both series.