Thursday, November 13, 2008

Cross - Technical Equity

By Brad Cross - 13 November 2008

Recall that previously, we tallied code metrics by component to produce a table of technical liabilities. Then we scored the degree of substitutability of each component on a scale of 1 to 4 to assign each an asset value. To determine owner's equity, we need to compare asset and liability valuations, which means we need to transform the collection of metrics in the table of technical liabilities into an index comparable to our asset valuation.

Are you Equity Rich or Over-Leveraged?

There are two ways we can make this transformation. One is to devise a purely mathematical transformation to weigh all the technical scores into a single metric scaled from 1 to n. To do this, convert each metric to a 100% scale (where 100% is the good side of the scale), sum the scaled values and divide by 100. This will give you a number from 0 to n, with n being the number of metrics you have in your table. Then multiply by 4/n, which will transform your aggregated metric to a scale with a maxiumum of 4. For example, if you have 60% test coverage, 20% percent duplication and 150 bug warnings from static analysis, you can do the following: (1-60%) + 20% + 150/200 = 135% (where 200 is the maximum number of bug warnings in any of your components.) Since we have 3 metrics and we want the final result to be on a 4 point scale, we multiply by 4/3. This gives a score of 1.8 out of 4.

Alternatively, we can devise a 1-to-4 scale similar to our asset valuation scale. This allows us to combine quantitative metrics with the qualitative experience we have from working with a code base.

As in finance, excessive liabilities can lead to poor credit ratings, which leads to increasing interest rates on borrowing. In software, we can think of the burden of interest rate payments on technical debt as our cost of change, something that will reduce the speed of development.

Technical debt, like any form of debt, can be rated. Bond credit ratings are cool, so we will steal the idea. Consider four credit rating scores according to sustainability of debt burden, and how these apply to code:

  1. AAA - Credit risk almost zero.
  2. BBB - Medium safe investment.
  3. CCC - High likelihood of default or other business interruption.
  4. WTF - Bankruptcy or lasting inability to make payments.

A AAA rated component is in pretty good shape. Things may not be perfect, but there is nothing to worry about. There is a reasonable level of test coverage, the design is clean and the component's data is well encapsulated. There is a low risk of failure to service debt payments. Interest rates are low. The cost of change in this component is very low. Development can proceed at a fast pace.

A BBB component needs work, but is not scary. It is bad enough to warrant observation. Problems may arise that weaken the ability to service debt payments. Interest rates are a bit higher. This component is more costly to change, but not unmanageable. The pace of development is moderate.

A CCC is pretty scary code. Sloppy and convoluted design, duplication, low test coverage, poor flexibility and testability, high bug concentration, and poor encapsulation are hallmarks of CCC-rated code. The situation is expected to deterioriate, risk of interruption of debt payments is high and bankruptcy is a possibility. Interest rates are high. Changes in this component are lengthy, painful, and expensive.

A WTF component is the kind of code that makes you consider a new line of work. Bankruptcy-insolvency is the most likely scenario. Interest rates are astronomically high. An attempt to make a change in this component is sure to be a miserable, slow and expensive experience.

Expanding on the example we've been using, let's fill out the rest of the balance sheet and see what owner's equity looks like.

Component

Assets

Liabilities

Equity

Leverage

Brokers

2

3

-1

Infinity

Data

2

3

-1

Infinity

DataProviders

2

3

-1

Infinity

DataServer

2

2

0

Infinity

Execution

3

2

1

3

FIX

1

4

-3

Infinity

Instruments

3

3

0

Infinity

Mathematics

3

1

2

3/2

Optimization

3

1

2

3/2

Performance

3

1

2

3/2

Providers

1

1

0

Infinity

Simulation

3

1

2

3/2

Trading

3

3

0

Infinity

TradingLogic

4

3

1

4

This table naturally leads to a discussion of tradeoffs such as rewriting versus refactoring. Components with negative equity and low asset asset value are candidates for replacement. Components with positive equity and middling asset value are not of much interest: while owning something of little value is neither exciting nor worrying, owning something of little value that carries a heavy debt burden is actually of negative utility. Components of high asset value but low equity are a big concern; these are the components we need to invest in.

In addition to thinking about how much equity we have in each component, we can also think about how leveraged each component is, i.e. how much of a given component's asset value is backed by equity, and how much is backed by liability. This measure of leverage is called the debt to equity ratio. An asset value of 3 with a liability of 2 leaves you with an equity value of 1, and you are leveraged 3-to-1, i.e. your asset value of 3 is backed by only 1 point of equity. Any asset with negative equity has infinite leverage, which indicates a severe debt burden.

The Technical Balance Sheet Applied

This exercise makes the decisions we face easier to make. In the example above, there are a number of components with an asset value of 2 and liabilities of 2 or 3. This led me to replace all the custom persistence code with a thin layer of my own design on top of db4o (an embeddable object database.) I deleted the components Brokers and DataProviders, then developed my own components from scratch and extracted new interfaces.

The FIX component, with an asset value of 1 and liabilities of 4, obviously needed to go. However, although the component has high negative equity, I did some experimenting and found that the cost of removing this component was actually quite high due to proliferation of trivial references to the component. I have gradually replaced references to the FIX component and chipped away at dependencies upon it, and it will soon be deleted entirely.

There are a number of components with an asset value of 3 or 4 but with liabilities of 2 or 3. These are the most valuable parts of the product that contain the core business code. However, some have 20% or less test coverage, loads of duplication, sloppy design, and many worrisome potential bugs. Due to the high asset value, these components warrant investment. I thought about rewriting them, but in these cases most often the best bet is to pay down the technical debt by incrementally refactoring the code. A subtle bonus from refactoring instead of rewriting is that each mistake in the code reveals something that doesn't work well, which is valuable information for future developement. When code is rewritten, these lessons are typically lost and mistakes are repeated.

We now have a sense of debt, asset value and technical ownership that we've accumulated in our code base. Our next step is to more fully understand trade off decisions based on weighing discounted cash flows: the cost of carry versus the cost of switching. Or alternatively stated, the cost of supporting the technical debt versus the cost of eliminating it.

1 comment:

  1. Cảm ơn bạn đã chia sẻ, nếu cần gửi hàng đi phú quốc thì a/c liên hệ bên mình nhé. Hotline: 0903751981

    ReplyDelete