On Stewardship

Texas Parks and Wildlife has a program called Lone Star Land Steward Awards. It is designed to recognize landowners who institute a program of restoration and care taking for the land that they own. Stewardship in this sense is defined as “a deeply held conviction that motivates landowners to care for and to sustain the land entrusted to their care…for their own personal benefit, for the benefit to future generations and for the benefits to society” (emphasis mine).

Historically, owning land has been a very present moment sort of activity. During the land rushes of the 1800s, people were granted sections of land in return for settling and working the land to produce food via agriculture. The focus was survival and immediate returns. Because land was so cheap and seemingly so plentiful, often settlers would withdraw all the resources from a piece of property and then move on after several years leaving behind a wasteland. This practice culminated in the Dust Bowl in the early 1900s where a vast landscape had been utilized for its immediate resources and then left stripped of necessary components to sustain it. In his book Goodbye to a River John Graves talks about this mentality in the Brazos river valley, the impacts it had and the cultural significance of it on the river.

This attitude towards land is derived from a need for survival. Eventually though, attitudes can change from the immediacy of today towards a more balanced approach. In fact, this is required if the land is to continue to provide for its inhabitants, human, plant and animal. An eye towards the future must take into consideration the actions of today or else catastrophe might occur leaving no choice but to move on and start over. But it takes an entirely different skill set as well as a different point of view to successfully make this happen. Steps must be taken to remove fewer resources in the present. A management strategy must be put in place to dictate how much activity goes into production for a given year versus doing work to ensure the future production is successful. Invasive species must be managed. Riparian areas must be protected.

This skill set is one that can be developed but won’t typically appear organically. Someone good at producing value for the present has a different vision for what land is for. It’s important to realize that these two skill sets have no inherent good or bad to them. Carried to extremes, both are bad. But it’s important to realize that both the values and the skills to move from a viewpoint of present resource extraction to a more holistic approach must be taught and incentivized for. Hence the program mentioned before. By awarding landowners prestigious awards for land stewardship, viewpoints about land ownership can change.

Stewardship isn’t just for land owners though. Stewardship is a concept that extends to ownership or management in general. You can be a steward of your home or your car or your business or if you happen to be a software engineer, of your codebase. Chelsea Troy has written extensively on Technical Debt and talks about the idea of stewardship for code which provided the spark for this essay. In a codebase, you see the same evolution as you do with landownership. We even use the same analogies (greenfield and brownfield), the same concepts and the same viewpoints. It takes different skill sets to do feature development versus stewardship management. Debt is the pulling of resources forward from the future into the present and eventually, all debts come due. You must have a plan for reducing that debt and then follow through on it.

So often in software (and lately in politics), the impulse is to start over, to declare technical bankruptcy. The vocabulary is designed to favor that approach (greenfield sounds so much better than brownfield). Because there is no coherent education around debt reduction and because feature development is typically the skill set selected for in most businesses, stewardship in code ownership is almost universally viewed as a negative. High priced consultants never come in and give you a plan that reduces your debt through careful maintenance and reduction of technical debt. No resumes ever cross your desk highlighting how an engineer took a set of misguided microservices and combined them into a single service because the operational overhead was destroying the organization. Because our industry is essentially in the 1800s of land ownership, all we know how to do is burn it all down and start over.

This is no more a bad thing now than it was in the 1800s, at least at a surface level. But there are lessons to be had in the environmental responses like the Dust Bowl for those of us staring at codebases with mountains of the red dust of technical debt. If we do not begin to cultivate the skills and views necessary to steward code through its evolution, we cannot hope to grow as an industry.

Stewardship in code is made harder because unlike with land, it appears that starting over is not a zero sum game, that there is no chance we might run out of the resources of bits and bytes reorganized into something different. However a brief glance deeper shows that we do not operate in an open system, that in fact the business is a closed system with limited resources that it must utilize carefully and with consideration not only towards today’s profits but towards the survival of the future. Technologists must recognize this constraint and employ techniques to make future changes not only possible but easier. This is made difficult by the fact that engineers can and do regularly move to other sections of land so to speak by finding a new job. Good technical management at the business level is critical for mitigating this effect. This in turn is difficult to do because most technical managers were once engineers themselves and remember what it was like to work in a codebase struggling with debt.

Until we find ways in our industry to incentivize stewardship, this behavior will continue. Perhaps fancy awards for code stewardship are in order. Perhaps businesses can find ways to combine the the very real need to grow and move forward with the very real need to pause, to reflect, to improve and to rest. Constant growth is the same as cancer and there must be times when the movement forward is put on hold in order to improve what exists. In order to do all this, technical leadership must step up to understand the stewardship mindset, the skills required and the benefits for doing it. We have to find ways to reward those who are stewards of our industry in the same way we reward and deify those who have caused great change through growth or creation. Until that can happen, there is little hope of our industry moving beyond Dust Bowl farming. This is bad for everyone because the technical people can always easily move to another “farm” but the businesses upon which the constant growth was built cannot.

It’s important to realize the societal part of the stewardship definition and not just the two first parts about productivity for the now and for the next generation. Stewardship has societal benefits that, while difficult to define and measure, may far outweigh the costs. Many people now understand it is far better to protect land from overuse to prevent catastrophe but almost no one understands that about technology. Perhaps as our industry matures (and it is still barely in its early childhood), we will develop ways to more accurately understand the costs of constant growth. We must begin to think of and to socialize the benefits of technological stewardship so that we don’t continue to create miniature Dust Bowls in our wakes.