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SEI Team Leads First Independent Study on Technical Debt in Software-Intensive DoD Systems

SEI Team Leads First Independent Study on Technical Debt in Software-Intensive DoD Systems

December 18, 2023—Many software-intensive programs in the Department of Defense (DoD) have started to actively manage technical debt, but their practices are often inconsistent and deprioritized, according to a new study by the Software Engineering Institute (SEI). Section 835(b) of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) mandated an independent study of technical debt in DoD software-intensive systems. A team of SEI experts conducted the research earlier this year and recently released a report on its findings and recommendations.

The NDAA follows the accepted industry perspective and defines technical debt as “an element of design or implementation that is expedient in the short term, but that would result in a technical context that can make a future change costlier or impossible.” Technical debt creates added development costs and quality risks if not planned for and managed. When planned for, however, it can be an intentional investment that speeds up development. The DoD faces the constant challenge of dealing with budget constraints and accelerating capability delivery. As software-reliant systems play an ever-growing role in the nation’s defense, the DoD must manage technical debt to improve modernization of software-driven capability at a cadence that stays ahead of emerging threats.

“The DoD is increasingly aware that how they manage software from cradle to grave determines mission success across the Department,” said Ipek Ozkaya, the technical director of the Engineering Intelligent Software Systems group at the SEI. Ozkaya co-authored the NDAA study and the 2019 book Managing Technical Debt: Reducing Friction in Software Development. “If a program is aware of accumulating rework and the consequences of keeping or resolving technical debt and has a mechanism to make timely tradeoffs, it can increase likelihood of timely delivery of much needed capabilities to the field.”

The NDAA required the secretary of defense to engage a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) to conduct the technical debt study. The SEI has been leading research on technical debt in software development for more than a decade. The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment chose the SEI, an FFRDC and a recognized leader in the practice of managing technical debt, to lead this first-of-its-kind study.

The SEI drew on its experience helping government agencies manage their technical debt. In late spring and summer of 2023, the SEI conducted deep dives on data from previous SEI engagements with DoD programs and reviewed the reports it had developed for past program stakeholders. Researchers also conducted a literature review and interviewed 16 organizations, including 11 DoD organizations, 4 industry organizations, and a federal government agency, using 10 study elements specified in Section 835(b).

The study’s broad-ranging findings give a first-ever snapshot of the state of technical debt in DoD software programs. “It was encouraging that of the 16 examples we studied, eight were actively managing technical debt, three were establishing practices for it, and five were aware of it but have not started to put management into practice,” said Ozkaya. “The DoD is a very large enterprise, so it is not surprising that we found examples of all three stages of technical debt management.”

The study recommends seven ways the DoD can foster technical debt management via best practices, policy and guidance, financial resources, training, metrics, tools, and further research. “The DoD has also recently published several guidance documents that begin to include technical debt management as an essential practice,” said Brigid O’Hearn, senior software acquisition innovation specialist at the SEI and co-author of the NDAA study. “Our recommendations included encouraging the department to continue to update policy and guidance to provide important information about how technical debt management can be instantiated in a DoD program, including lessons learned.”

Though the high-level recommendations are for the upper levels of the department, the study’s final report contains valuable information for software development organizations. “Recommendation A, for example, provides a concrete starting point for implementing recommended practices, including bringing visibility to existing technical debt, establishing goals, and establishing tooling and measurement environments,” Ozkaya said. “Programs in any of the three stages can use the recommendations to help intentionally manage their technical debt.”

The SEI delivered the final report to Congress this month. Download the report from the SEI Digital Library, and learn more about the SEI’s research in technical debt on our blog.