In the Long Run, We're All Dead: An Economist's Guide to Tech Debt

By Dana Scheider

Elevator Pitch

Tech debt is a familiar concept in most organisations and has been the subject of extensive discussion regarding individual & organisational factors. However, what’s missing is a macro-economic analysis of why tech debt exists and how to combat it. This talk provides that analysis.


Technical debt is a much-bemoaned aspect of nearly every engineer’s life. How and to what extent to eliminate it has been the subject of much discussion. Is tech debt the result of individual engineers cutting corners? Are the engineers who write this code just incompetent? Are there organisational factors that contribute? If so, what are they? All of these are worthy of discussion, however, there is another factor conspicuously missing from this discussion: macroeconomics, the dismal science. Macroeconomic factors dictate organisational behaviour and have a cascading effect on teams and individuals within organisations. In this talk, I discuss technical debt in the context of the work of institutional economist Hyman Minsky, contextualising tech debt as a form of operating debt organisations take on. Minsky’s theory on this topic provides a compelling analysis of organisations’ borrowing behaviour, and by extension, how tech debt works.


This talk is high-level and technology agnostic. I’m a senior full-stack software engineer focussed primarily on Ruby on Rails and React. In my previous life, I completed a degree in business administration and finance, graduating cum laude in 2010. The 2007 mortgage crisis was the focus of my senior research, and it was that research that led me to the work of Hyman Minsky and other institutional economists. Minsky’s work explains the business cycle - the cycle of booms and busts the economy regularly goes through - by arguing that market participants are structurally forced to adopt the behaviour of the least risk-averse participants in that market. I’ve subsequently realised how broadly applicable Minsky’s work is to many areas, including software engineering. This talk doesn’t have extensive technical requirements as there will be no live coding or similar activities.