WASHINGTON D.C. – Yet another fight over our nation’s technical debt in underway in Washington. Obama administration will soon request an increase of 1.2 trillion to a limit which currently stands at 15.194 trillion man hours.

Technical Debt Ceiling History

Technical debt ceiling is the aggregate limit applied to technical debt incurred on all software ever developed. It is typically measured in man hours required to refactor the affected systems.

The ceiling on technical debt was originally introduced in 1975, in reaction to IBM’s much publicized OS/360 project. Prior to that, software projects were free to incur technical debt as they went along. However, that changed once Congress set a limit beyond which technical debt could not be accumulated without explicit approval.

For the majority of its existence, increases in the technical debt ceiling were largely routine non-events. In fact, since 1985, the House of Representatives passed a rule (which came to be known as the “Windows rule“) to automatically raise the technical debt ceiling when passing a budget.

Recent Concerns

Since the 2010 mid-term elections, there has been increased attention paid to the amount of technical debt outstanding, largely due to the highly vocal opposition led by the Software Craftsmen Party.

The Craftsmen are gravely concerned about continuing to accumulate technical debt without planning for nationwide refactoring efforts. They firmly believe that any increase in technical debt amounts to a hidden tax on all future projects, something they find wholly unacceptable.

To deal with technical debt, the Craftsmen propose drastic and immediate cuts to the scope of most active development projects. By significantly reducing new functionality being developed, they hope to virtually eliminate new technical debt from being accumulated.

On the other side of this argument is the current administration. Though they recognize that technical debt must be dealt with in the long run, they insist on dealing with it more gradually. The administration believes that not increasing the ceiling would have a chilling effect on almost all software projects currently in development, effectively bringing the economy to a halt.

Speaking in front of a Congressional committee on technical debt, Director of Office of Science and Technology Policy, John P. Holdren, explained:

failing to increase the technical debt limit would cause the software development community to default on its timelines – an unprecedented event in American history. Well, ok, its really not that unprecedented, but it would still be pretty messed up.

President Obama also weighted in on the debate in a key address:

… So defaulting on our deadlines is a reckless and irresponsible outcome to this debate. And Craftsmen leaders say that they agree we must avoid default. But the new approach unveiled today, which would temporarily extend the technical debt ceiling in exchange for scope cuts, would force us to once again face the threat of default just six months from now. In other words, it doesn’t solve the problem…

…. This is no way to run the greatest country on Earth. It’s a dangerous game that we’ve never played before, and we can’t afford to play it now. Not when the jobs and livelihoods of so many families are at stake. We can’t allow the American people to become collateral damage to Washington’s political warfare.

Final Thought

Whatever the outcome of this debate, most analysts agree that the sheer size of the nation’s outstanding technical debt demands significant action. Furthermore, with large numbers of Cobol programmers set to retire in the next few years, effectively addressing the problem will likely get much harder.

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