Amazon’s Concept of Ownership and Technical Debt

I’m reading Think Like Amazon: 50 1/2 Ideas to Become a Digital LeaderIn talking about Amazon’s pursuit of a second headquarters, John Rossman wrote the following regarding ownership:

Amazon’s second leadership principle is “Ownership,” by which leaders at Amazon strive to never sacrifice long-term value for short-term results.

Where I think this is appropriate is the issue of technical debt. Technical debt is when we choose a less efficient approach for expediency or where we have a situation where some aspect of our system needs an update. This can occur, for instance, as a particular software product we depend on is about to move into Extended Support or move out of support altogether.

Too often I’ve heard there is too much focus on features and new functionality. However, when this selection is done at the expense of paying down technical debt, we are sacrificing long-term value for short-term results. Technical debt carries with it the same concept as monetary debt. There’s an interest rate for technical debt. It may be in how long it takes folks to do some task. It could be in the additional cost to support a product. It could be that the organization is less responsive to change because the technical debt becomes a roadblock for moving forward. As a result, teams start using workarounds just to move forward, which incurs more technical debt. At some point, we have to address that technical debt to reduce what we’re paying in interest.

As an architect, I’m always going to push for this concept of ownership. We can look at the success of organizations like Amazon, Toyota, etc. which take ownership seriously. That track record is my justification for focusing on long-term value.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Scott Hannen
    Jun 13, 2019 @ 10:04:04

    I’d be interested in hearing specifically how or whether Amazon applies this concept to technical debt. I agree that we should. I just can’t tell whether they do or not from the article. My guess is that they manage it pretty well, but I can’t connect the dots from their high-level statement regarding “ownership” and their management of technical debt.

    In fact, their definition sounds like bizarre, meaningless corporate-speak, something even the most successful companies do. Ownership is good. And we shouldn’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. But is that the definition of ownership? Rossman put two good things in one sentence, but the way he connected them together doesn’t even make sense.

    Reply

    • K. Brian Kelley
      Jun 13, 2019 @ 10:14:44

      I’m not sure how Amazon applies it with regards to technical debt. However, this is how I push for it to be applied. To be clear, here’s what Amazon does say with regards to its leadership principles:

      Ownership
      Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job.”

      This is quoted directly from: https://www.amazon.jobs/en/principles

      Reply

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