My Life As A Blog

Mind your metaphors

with 2 comments

Metaphors are very powerful. They help us to explain concepts that might otherwise be inexplicable. Pick an unsuitable metaphor, however, and you’ll find that you have failed to communicate. I read this post from Nick Malik and it chimed with something I had been thinking about the term technical debt.

I’ve encountered the use of the term technical debt increasingly frequently over the last few months. And I think it might be a poor choice of metaphor. Here’s why. Those using the term are trying to say that if we do x now, we’ll have to do more work in the long run. But the people who are hearing this metaphor are used to incurring debt – at a personal level, many of us take out mortgages to but houses rather than wait until we have enough capital. The business world understands and uses debt to its advantage. So, this means that the person listening may hear a choice: expensive and slow versus fast and cheap (in the short term – the long term success can be used to service the technical debt incurred.) Which option do you think they’ll pick?


Written by remark

March 6, 2008 at 7:50 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I think your point that debt is not necessarily considered a bad thing is true and turning it round into a “credit” metaphor doesn’t work at all.

    If the pupose of a metaphor is to help us communicate then we need to think about the audience we are trying to influence. “Technical debt” is readily understood by technicians, but its not the technicians who are making the short term hit v long term sustainability decisions (lets not digress into who is qualified to make these decisions).

    So what does the budget holder do when he hears “technical debt”? Firstly he doesn’t feel scared because he probably has a mortgage, credit card and personal load. Secondly he has to stop and think, because he doesn’t immediately understand the metaphor (because it has the word technical in it) and thirdly he sees a bunch of technicians sneering at him because they have a clever metaphor he doesn’t understand.

    If we want to influence decision makers we need to communicate in their language, not should louder in ours, and use well thought out metaphors that don’t become a secret language to hide behind.

    And if you think this is nonesense, or can’t be bothered with ‘politics’ then don’t forget that “all the world’s a stage……


    March 7, 2008 at 3:10 pm

  2. Having re-read my post the point I’m trying to make is that metaphors are to aid commuication and communication is all about what the audience hears and does, not what you think you are saying to them. Embarrisingly I don’t think I communicated this very well!


    March 7, 2008 at 10:23 pm

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