Do Zombies eat blood oranges?

by Michael Grabert, CTO and co-founder, Enspir Solutions

I’m hoping for some feedback on this article. Let me know if I’m not alone.

Given the time of year it’s not too surprising that I would have zombies on my brain. But not the kind of zombies you are likely to think. Over the last several months there have been a number of articles about Zombie Companies in the financial press. A zombie company is an indebted business that, although generating cash, after covering operating costs, they only have enough funds to service the interest on their loans, but not the debt itself. They are dead, but not….

But I keep running into what I believe may be zombie companies, but I am not looking at their financials. Actually, the financials often look OK. I’m looking at their technology based products.

The concept of tech debt isn’t new. Simply defined, tech debt increases as shortcuts are taken in delivering software. I’m talking about something more insidious and pervasive that I call Product Debt. What I have seen is a type of debt that infects the entire Design, Build, Operate lifecycle of a software product. It impacts product management, software development, infrastructure operations, and support.

Stephen King (not that one), HSBC’s senior economic adviser, quoted in a Business Insider article said “Zombie companies preserve inefficiencies and dampen enterprise,”.

I believe there are a lot of companies that aren’t zombies in the financial sense, but are Zombie Product Companies. They can no longer respond efficiently to their customers and the market.

I keep running into these companies and what concerns me is that the mountain of product debt is being ignored. Interestingly, the investors in these companies, so called “adult supervision”, largely ignore this problem as well. I believe it may be because Product Debt is so hard to quantify. Still, in my opinion, product debt cripples or kills more companies than we imagine.

How does Product Debt affect a company?

  • The software stack is 2+ major versions behind the latest stable version so when customer demand a new cool feature you can’t deliver it because it depends on a newer stack, so you develop some horrible UI to implement a bastardized feature to kind of check the box.
  • And when you go to hire the best developers they walk away to go work on something that improves their skills instead of flogging code from ten years ago, so you hire from the ‘B’ team if you are lucky.
  • The development team you have can’t keep up, won’t give you an estimate for the next release, and struggle to fix bugs. They have never gotten around to implementing tools and processes that could make them more productive
  • Support staff spend more time making excuses than resolving issues. They can’t get answers to the problems cause the guy who new that software quit.
  • The hardware is running an older OS to support the software and the Infrastructure team is scrambling to plug security holes that have already been plugged on newer versions and reacting to failures that should have been avoided.

These are just a few examples. I see these symptoms in most companies I interact with. I have gotten hints of these issues in job interviews. In the cases where I have consulted with companies they usually have some or all of these symptoms. A lot of these symptoms can be dismissed as growing pains, and rightly so. In my experience, there are way too many companies that can’t stand to ignore this problem and their products are in fact Zombie Products. They are un-dead, but only for so long.

Most of the people working in these companies are aware that Product Debt is growing and beyond their capability to tame. They are frustrated that the warnings of growing Product Debt are not being heeded.

In companies where a software product is peripheral to their core business, it seems unlikely that they will understand the problem, much less react to it. The app stores are full of abandoned software, zombie products, victims of Product Debt.

If you’ve read this far you probably get it. I have personally seen these issues often enough that I can go in to a company and in a pretty short time get a feel for how deep in Product Debt they are. At least to the level of “pretty good”, “needs attention”, “eeewww” or “wtf!”. But that doesn’t help really get a grip on the bigger problem.

I am contemplating developing an assessment that would help companies get a better grip on how deeply in debt they are. There are technology assessments in various audits, but having been through a number of them, they don’t get to the bottom of it. I imagine a tool that software development and product management could use as needed to gauge their own situation and help quantify for investors and leadership what level of attention the product debt deserves.

If you think this might be valuable, I would appreciate your liking this article, and let me know if you would like to participate in developing a tool to quantify Product Debt. Or if you are aware of some tools that would help let us know. Your feedback and participation will help me get an idea of how valuable this would be.