The Long View: Technical debt


Technical debt

 / 04:30 AM January 04, 2023

The sixth month of the Marcos Restoration was supposed to be the point when the administration could really hit the ground running, what with the First Lady busy cleaning (purging, really) the Palace of problematic appointees, an obedient legislative supermajority in both chambers of Congress delivering the first budget the President can consider truly his own, and with little discernible friction between the President and the Vice President. Even the price of populism was factored in with the please now, pay later decision to instruct PhilHealth to suspend the increase of premium rates and its income ceiling for 2023. That crowd-pleasing but future-mortgaging decision should have ensured a new year with plenty of smiles for the President, but then Naia happened. The details of this debacle are still too fresh to require restating here.

Just a few days prior to the shutting down of Philippine airspace, Southwest Airlines in the US experienced a shutdown of its operations in the midst of what one employee described as a “routine winter storm.” Despite everyone being on deck, “our antiquated software system failed coupled with a decades-old system of having to manage 20,000 frontline employees by phone calls. No automation has been developed to run this sophisticated machine.” The result was vividly described by the employee: “The two decades of neglect by SWA leadership caused the airline to lose track of its crews … We were there … but there was no way to assign us … And we watched as our customers got stranded without their luggage missing their Christmas holiday.”

Zeynep Tufekci (professor and columnist on complex systems) in the same thread pointed out that months before the Southwest Airlines meltdown, employees had hired a truck, put a sign on it pointing out the airline’s “outdated technology,” and drove it around the company’s headquarters. The summertime had been marked with a public relations disaster when its systems had conked out, canceling dozens of flights during the peak travel season. But what executives had done, according to Tufekci, was to spend billions on stock buybacks: with the effect of boosting the price of stocks, and thus, increasing executive compensation.

The fury over this holiday nightmare led to a term being widely discussed and shared: technical debt. Tufekci helped define what it is. “This method,” she tweeted, “of ‘use duct tape and wire to make old software hobble along’ incurs something called ‘technical debt’—the bill will come due, eventually … Company executives keep betting it will be under the next management … It usually pays off for them … The public pays the price.”

Very clearly, the public paid a big price in terms of canceled or postponed flights, and the time, energy, and even costs of staying longer than expected, arriving later than planned, and every inconvenience in between—including, infamously, the woes of one overseas worker in Hong Kong who feared the loss of her job due to missing her deadline for arrival. There is, too, reputational damage, and thus, the cost in terms of outraged tourists who will turn into ambassadors of negativity about the country’s systems. There is another kind of cost that could end up passed on to the public, because of it being an obligation of the state: One congressman told reporters that if the authorities declare the flight disruptions were caused by safety issues, then the law would require airlines to refund angry customers for their canceled flights. In turn, the airlines could legitimately turn to the government to demand compensation for a situation that was beyond the airlines’ control.

There’s been some criticism of the authorities changing their stories, from blaming software or system glitches, to the main and backup power supply conking out, and thus causing malfunctions. Official statements, however, suggest a series of equipment failures combined with on-the-spot judgment calls to try to improvise solutions that fried some equipment. The Senate has promised to investigate the matter, but the question of technical debt arises because of a specific allegation. After all, back in 2013, the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) had replaced its then 19-year-old air traffic system, and a new air traffic management center had been inaugurated in 2019. Congress supposedly enacted a P13-billion appropriation that year to put in place a redundancy system that officials claim they’ve been privately advising the President to authorize. The new secretary of transportation is said to be one of these officials, which would make sense because of his intimate familiarity with the needs of airlines (and the industry as a whole): at the very least, it suggests he could be in a very good place to determine which steps are needed, and which steps are not, moving forward.

But this is less about the current secretary of transportation and more about his predecessor, who will now have to explain why he shouldn’t be called to task for incurring a technical debt.

Bilyonaryo outscooped everyone, it seems, by daring to publicize what was only being said in private chat groups: Art Tugade was pinpointed as having made a judgment call not to spend all of what had been allocated for acquiring a new system for the CAAP’s air traffic management software. Instead, what ought to have been spent on a backup system or redundancies was earmarked for the acquisition of electronic billboards and laying down fresh concrete for parking spaces. So it seems probable the Senate will once again welcome former secretary Tugade as a guest.

Any administrator tasked with making decisions on capital expenses can look at Tugade and sigh (with some relief) “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” For the dilemma of anyone running a building is, do we spend on systems and maintenance that no one sees, or on things that may be considered cosmetic but on which the management is judged? Tugade, sensitive to public opinion, apparently decided to pass on technical issues to his successor for the temporary (but who would disagree, politically necessary) public-relations points window-dressing provides. Which brings us to two points for consideration: There is the question of whether a technical debt was incurred; but also, of how it is complicated systems in the midst of failing, can be allowed to be tinkered with, making things worse.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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