Social Debt

This will be a brain dump of sorts.

I’ve done a few deep dives this year, technically and socially. What I want to write about right now is about one of the things I’ve discovered at the intersection of these two areas.

On the tech side, I spent most of this year digging into the deepest depths of Haskell, and languages like it. Type systems, algebras, category theory, compiler extensions, pattern matching, and more. It’s been a hell of a time, and I’ve felt more capable of creating software and understanding it this year than ever before. I mean it - software in general. Whatever the language, whatever the domain, I feel like I now have some incredibly potent tools to reason with. It’s amazing!

On the social side, I discovered feminism, gender, and intersectional analysis. I’ll write more on that at a later time, but suffice it to say, it was an awakening and enlightenment for me as an individual and as a human in much the way that Haskell was for my development as a person who works with software.

With all that said, I’ve realized that the social factors in a software project are as important if not more so than the technical factors. This includes things like:

On collective knowledge, - as this one is particularly relevant to my experiences - it is important to choose technology in the present based on what your current team can do. This doesn’t mean to mandate a particular set of tools. It also doesn’t mean that the now has to become the forever. Collective knowledge is the mesh of what everyone who is working on the project knows. This can be grown over time via shared experiences, via teaching, via review.

Projects that don’t tend to their social factors accumulate social debt. Technical debt speaks to technical architecture: test coverage, type coverage, bottlenecks, design issues. Social debt is an analogue to that: single points of failure with team member knowledge, increasingly hostile interactions, implicitly-formed power structures, loss of visibility on issue and task management.

Back to knowledge management - I think about this a lot, as a Haskeller. Haskell, as a language, has been a barrier to participation in a few projects I’ve worked on. It made it so that if the Haskellers present on the project stepped away, and couldn’t dedicate teaching/leading time, the project would grind to a halt. This is not an argument against specialization, I think. I think it means that collective knowledge is something that needs to be tracked and managed well to succeed. That’s a hard problem!

So I guess that’s it. I wanted to write about social debt in technical projects. I don’t have much in the way of answers. I’ll just keep thinking on it.