Managing Technical Debt: Code4Lib 2018 report

I’m just back from this year’s Code4Lib conference, held in Washington D.C. As I’ve written here before, it’s an event that is, without fail, productive, provocative and exhausting. Over the years, the things that have stayed with me from the conference have changed (arguably the focus of the conference has changed as well) from technological tools for solving problems to values and frameworks for thinking through problems.

There were a lot of really great presentations this year (see below for my highlights), but I think my favorite was Whitni Watkins’ and Kenneth Rose’s presentation titled Dealing with Technical Debt a Point-of-View: DevOps and Managerial, which provided some really useful advice for taking on, managing, and paying down technical debt. As we move forward with Project Electron, we inevitably continue to accrue a lot of technical debt, so having a strategy to identify, document and mitigate its harmful effects (particularly on people) is pretty important.

I came away from this presentation with some pretty clear ideas of what we need to be doing now in order to end up with manageable technical debt.

  • Align and manage expectations: this is pretty basic stuff, but the presentation stressed the ongoing nature of this work and also the importance of doing it both internally as well as with external partners.
  • Have a clear division of labor: fuzzy boundaries around who does what cause frustration as well as knowledge gaps and dropped balls. Again, kind of obvious, but in collaborative environments these boundaries are a little harder to define and maintain.
  • Document, document, document: identify technical debt, then define what and where it is, and what must be done to fix it. Make a risk management plan. Document not only what you do, but also what you decide not to do and why. Be kind to your future self.

A couple additional standout presentations from a truly excellent slate this year:

  • Chris Bourg’s opening keynote For the love of baby unicorns, which articulated a number of practical ways in which we (specifically straight white men like me) can actively make our work environments more inclusive, welcoming and safe for marginalized people.
  • Andreas Orphanides’ talk Systems thinking: a practical field guide, a sequel of sorts to his keynote from last year, which pointed out the many ways in which mostly-invisible systems can be “read” in our physical surroundings through wear patterns, breakdowns, fixes and hacks.
  • Data Analytics and Patron Privacy in Libraries: A Balancing Act, a presentation by the indomitable Becky Yoose that seamlessly combined values (specifically patron privacy) with their practical application in technology and policy.
  • Beyond Open Data, from Shawn Averkamp, Ashley Blewer and (in absentia) Matt Miller, which offered both a bold vision of what open data can and should be, as well as some extremely practical steps to help get us there. I suspect this is a presentation I’ll return to for advice in the coming years.
  • There were a number of excellent web archiving talks, but my favorite was Amy Wickner’s Web Archiving and You / Web Archiving and Us, which focused on DIY web archiving, somewhat of a rare topic in an era in which so much web archiving is happening via the Internet Archive, either via its Wayback Machine crawls or its ArchiveIt service.

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