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A recent twitter discussion reminded me of an interesting XTC discussion last year. The discussion topic was refactoring code to make it worse. We discussed why this happens, and what we can do about it.

I found the most interesting discussion arose from the question “when might this be a good thing?”—when is it beneficial to make code worse?

Refactorings are small, safe, behaviour-preserving transformations to code. Refactoring is a technique to improve the design of existing code without changing the behaviour. The refactoring transformations are merely a tool. The result may be either better or worse. 

Make it worse for you; make it better for someone else

Refactoring ruthlessly can keep code habitable, inline with our best understanding of the domain, even aesthetically pleasing. 

They can also make the code worse. Whether the result is better or worse is in the eye of the beholder. What’s better to one person may be worse to another. What’s better for one team may be worse for another team. 

For example, some teams may be more comfortable with abstraction than others. Some teams prefer code that more explicitly states how it is working at a glance. Some people may be comfortable with OO design patterns and find functional programming idioms unfamiliar, and vice versa.

You may refactor the code to a state you’re less happy with but the team as a whole prefers. 

Refactoring the code through different forms also allows for conversations to align on a preferred style in a team. After a while you can often start to predict what others on the team are going to think of a given refactoring even without asking them. 

Making refactoring a habit, e.g. as part of the TDD cycle accelerates this, as do mechanisms for fast feedback between each person in the team—such as pairing with rotation or collective group code review.

Learning through Exploration

Changing the structure of code without changing its behaviour can help to understand what the code’s doing, why it’s written in that way, how it fits into the rest of the system. 

In his book “Working effectively with legacy code” Michael feathers calls this “Scratch Refactoring”. Refactor the code without worrying about whether your changes are safe, or even better.

Then throw those refactorings away. 

Exploratory refactoring can be done even when there’s no tests, even when you don’t have enough understanding of the system to know if your change is better or worse, even when you don’t know the acceptance criteria for the system.

Moulding the code into different forms that have the same behaviour can increase your understanding of what that core behaviour is.

A sign it’s safe to take risks

If every refactoring you perform makes the code better, it seems likely that we could be more courageous in our refactoring attempts. 

If we only tackle the changes where we know what better looks like and leave scary code alone the system won’t stay simple.

If we’re attempting to improve code we don’t fully understand and don’t intuitively know the right design for we’ll get it wrong some of the time. 

It’s easy to try so hard to avoid the risk of bad things happening that we also get in the way of good things happening.

Many teams use gating code review before code may make its way to production. Establishing a gate to stop bad code making it into production, that also slows down good code getting to production.

Refactorings are often small steps towards a deeper insight into the domain of the code we’re working on. Sometimes those steps will be in a useful direction, sometimes wrong. All of them will build up understanding in the team. Not all of them will be unquestionably better at each integration point, and could easily be filtered out by a risk-averse code review gate. Avoiding the risk that a refactoring might be taking us in the wrong path may rob us of the chance of a breakthrough in the next refactoring, or the one after. 

A team that’s not afraid to make improvements to the system will also get it wrong some of the time. That has to be ok. We learn as much or more from the failures.

Making it safe to make code worse

Extreme programming practices really help create an environment where it’s safe experiment with code in this manner.

Pair programming means you’ve got a second person to catch some of the riskiest things that could happen and give immediate feedback in the moment. It gives two perspectives on the shape the code should be in. Tom Johnson calls this optician-style “Do you prefer this… or this”. Refactorings are small changes so it’s feasible to switch back and forth between each structure to compare and consider together.

Group code review. (Reviewing code together as a team, after it’s already in production) can build a shared understanding of what the team considers good code. Help you foresee the preferences of the rest of your team. Between you build a better understanding of the code than you could even in a pair. Spot the refactoring paths we’ve embarked on that have made code worse rather than better. Highlight changes to make the next time we’re in the area.

Continuous integration means we’re only making small steps before getting feedback from integrating the code. The size of our mistakes is limited.

Test Driven Development gives us a safety net that tells us when our refactoring may have not just changed the structure of the code but also inadvertently the behaviour. i.e. it wasn’t a refactoring. Test suites going red during a refactoring is a “surprise” we can learn from. We predict the suite will stay green. If it goes red then there’s something we didn’t fully understand about the code. Surprises are where learning happens.

Test Driven Development also makes refactoring habitual. Every micro-iteration of behaviour we perform to the system includes refactoring. Tidying the implementation, trying out another approach, simplifying the test, improving its diagnostic power (maybe not strictly a refactoring). If you never move onto writing the next test without doing at least some refactoring you’ll build up the habit and skill at refactoring fast. If you do lots of refactorings some of them will make things worse, and that’s ok. 

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