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Thoughts on Refactoring from Martin Fowler

In my series of book reviews on classics its time to take on another evergreen: Refactoring from Martin Fowler. It was already referenced a multiple times in the earlier books and now it was time.

The concept of refacoring is well-established nowadays, and I would say that only a company culture which incentivizes and motivates a spirit of constant refactoring can be a state-of-the-art software company. In my experience, this is easier said than done, especially when immense release pressure and tight resources lead to the well-known vicious circle of crunching and task forces, which never end. When one release was successfully squeezed out “somehow” and the next one is already knocking on the doors, how could anyone expect refactoring of code which actually “works” (it made it into the last release after all!!!). I had such discussions many times, and until today I dont feel strong enough in my arguments to convince senior managers in typical situations. Arguing with sustainable code and continuous improvement when the other side virtually puts the existence of the whole organization at risk is an uphill battle. But its worth fighting.

In essence when you refactor you are improving the design of the code after it has been written. […] With refactoring you can take a bad design, chaos even, and rework it into well-designed code. Each step is simple, even simplistic. You move a field from one class to another, pull some code out of a method to make into its own method, and push some code up or down a hierarchy. Yet the cumulative effect of these small changes can radically improve the design. It is the exact reverse of the normal notion of software decay.

Martin Fowler: Refactoring, page 9

I like this simple but strong definition, which underlines the cumulative effect of small improvements. Refactoring is not the same as the “grand redesign” or “from scratch” approaches which are often taken and loved, especially when the staff (developers, managers) is changed. Refactoring can achieve the same goals with either the same or a different staff.

After some introductory words Fowler goes ahead with a concrete example. He emphasizes the repetitive nature of changing something a little bit, then running an extensive unit test suite and then committing the changes to a repository. This approach is something I immediately started to exercise. For that I had to setup some of my testing scripts to work locally (they were purely in my CI before), but the effort was totally worth it. With my unit test coverage being 98% nowadays plus mutation testing in place, I dont have to worry a lot to break existing functionality while refactoring, and as a lost resort I have all the extensive API and acceptance testing in my CI before I can merge on master.

The true test for good code is how easy it can be changed.

Martin Fowler: Refactoring, page 77 (translated back to English)

This quote may be controversial among people with low exposure to professional software development (juniors, managers who gave up on programming a while ago), but for professionals in my environment its fortunately common sense. Which doesnt mean that its applied constistently, though.

If someone tells you that their code during refactoring didnt work for a few days you can be quite sure that they didnt apply refactoring as such.

Martin Fowler: Refactoring, page 79 (translated back to English)

Such reworks or redesign of larger parts of a codebase of course can and may happen, too, but I appreciate Fowler’s take on a clear separation. Especially in arguments with upper management, clear terminology can help. If refactoring can mean everything happening to a codebase except adding new functionality, its probably to vague. Restricting its meaning to pure tiny and small changes reduces risks a lot and may help to increase acceptance.

Refactoring Helps You Program Faster

Martin Fowler, Refactoring, page 82

This was and is also my personal strong belief, and I think there is enough evidence that this is a fact. I mentioned earlier sustainability, and if a well-design and maintained code base based on clean code principles and with constant refactoring exists, its the best way to get a graph like the red one below.

Source: https://frontendwebblog.wordpress.com/2020/07/07/notes-from-refactoring/ (who presumably has taken it from Martin Fowler: Refactoring, English version)

Note also the short part in the lower left corner, where poor design for a while may have more functionality than good design. Naturally, with hacky proof of concepts hitting production, you can push out some functionality “fast”, but at the cost of low efficiency later on. On pages 90f (German version) declares this the major argument in favor of refactoring – in the end its about the business value it provides, and that one can be immense.

On pages 86f Fowler discusses if one should reserve dedicated time for refactoring. I heard before of models like “every third sprint is a refactoring sprint” and of course situations where “management decided the next sprint is for refactoring to fully focus on features after that again”. Fowler argues that reserved refactoring slots shouldnt be a thing. I tend to agree with him, by stating that refactoring should be considered in day-to-day work efforts and not be a sepereate activity in contrast to “normal development work” (which it should be a part of). However, as the value of refactorings is hard to measure and aforementioned “implicit” integration into the developer workflow easily gets it ignored or watered down, some accompanying activities and events encouraging refactoring may provide benefit.

What Do I Tell My Manager? […]

Of course, many people say they are driven by quality but are more driven by schedule. In these cases I give my more controversial advice: Don’t tell!

Martin Fowler: Refactoring, page 89

Similar to Bob Martin, Fowler argues with refactoring being an essential part of professional software development, thus its not something a manager should even have the change to interfere with in particular. I agree – mature develops should just do it and get the time needed. Asking management for approval for such a core activitiy in the actual coding, that it would be weird to explicitly ask for it. Do you ask for permission to apply certain design patterns, too? Of course, when asked, management will respond and the answer in probably 80% not what you would do. Management will probably realize at some point of refactoring gets too extensive (if that is even possible), but in the end refactoring is for everyone’s best (see the graph above).

On pages 93f Fowler has some interesting input on the interaction of (feature) branches and refactorings which I didnt see before. In essence its simple: Both are working in opposite directions. If there are multiple branches living in parallel and in one of them refactoring is happening, it may make the other branches unmergable (and vice-versa). So if a company or project wants to encourage refactoring, it should avoid active branches wherever possible.

There are more arguments for refactoring and a myriad of hints and tricks how to apply it, when to apply it and how to carry it out in an optimal way. The second part of the book contains detailled descriptions of all types of refactorings. I have skipped through them, but I know I wouldnt remember them exactly anyways. However, with the gist of things in mind I did a major refactoring of my current pet project, and it was really fun and productive. Now my codebase is even cleaner (I did already a few rounds after reading Clean Code) and I am looking forward repeat it while I continue adding functionality.

It was a very good book and a certain recommend, if you didnt read it already.

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