Unlocking Success: The Why and How of Refactoring in Product Development

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Why and how of refactoring in product development

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Last updated on May 13th, 2024

Whispers have now become loud chatter – ‘refactoring’ is the topic of conversation in many software development organizations today. Some consider refactoring to be the silver bullet to keep a tight hold over your code. Some value this as a simple way to keep the software product lean, adaptable, and elegant. We link refactoring to paying off that credit card debt. While it might be tempting to pay off the minimum amount due, you know that the longer you hold off on paying the entire sum, the harder it will be. And while paying off that entire balance can sting a bit, it is easier and a lot better in the long run.

What is Refactoring in Product Development?

Refactoring in software development refers to the process of restructuring existing code without changing its external behavior. It involves making improvements to the codebase to enhance its readability, maintainability, and efficiency. This could include simplifying complex code, removing duplication, improving naming conventions, and optimizing algorithms or data structures. Refactoring aims to make the code easier to understand, modify, and extend, without altering its functionality. It is an essential practice for keeping software systems healthy and adaptable over time.

Use Agile/DevOps? Must refactor

Do you use the agile or DevOps methodology? Then refactoring must be a priority for you. That’s because these teams maintain and extend their code considerably from iteration to iteration. If you don’t refactor your code, you’ll face code rot…an unhealthy set of dependencies between packages and classes, poor allocation of class responsibilities, spaghetti code; all creating mounting technical debt. And accruing technical debt is risky!

Let’s consider a team that doesn’t refactor. They move from iteration to iteration. They focus on new feature development and the occasional priority bug-fix. But this team does not make minor but important tweaks to the software product on-the-go. The result? The product’s code base becomes clunky and outdated and you are left with sub-optimal code (to say the least).

When this team wants to implement a major update, they find the code base shaky and unadaptable to their new plan! Now it’s a little too late for refactoring and all those little pesky changes that seemed minor have ballooned into a huge development problem that may be too big to salvage. Then someone from the team decides that now “it’s too late to refactor. Let’s plan for a complete redesign.” (Loud groans everywhere!)

Technical Debt – The New Normal

We agree that technical debt is a looming reality as project teams are often forced to make some hard compromises about time and resources. In an age when software has to be shipped yesterday, timelines are shrinking, and resources are being stretched. Technical debt is inevitable. But it is equally essential to ensure that this debt does not escalate exponentially. It, therefore, becomes essential to have the tough conversations about technical debt at all stages of a software project. Technical debt also arises when we are trapped in the “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” mindset. But, often, it is this hyper-focus on current specifications that creates all the technical debt that eventually becomes too hard to pay off.

Key Considerations for Refactoring Along the Way

Refactoring along the way is an essential practice to address technical debt and maintain code quality throughout a project’s lifecycle. Here are some key points to consider:

  • Simplicity in Refactoring: Refactoring doesn’t always require major overhauls; simple tasks like renaming variables or reorganizing classes can significantly improve code readability and maintainability. Good code should inherently be self-documenting.
  • Implement Minor Refactors: Despite the pressure to keep up with sprint schedules, integrating minor refactors as a regular practice ensures that developers remain familiar with the codebase, fostering better understanding and collaboration.
  • Early Branching for Testing: Project managers and developers can benefit from early branching in the codebase to allocate dedicated time for testing out refactors while still contributing to the ongoing project specifications.
  • Continuous Integration of Updates: Today’s development process involves continuous integration of updates and upgrades. While not all refactoring needs to be completed before version 1.0 is shipped, prioritizing refactoring ensures a solid foundation for the product’s future iterations.
  • Preparatory Refactoring to Lower Technical Debt: Focusing on preparatory refactoring helps mitigate the accumulation of technical debt that often occurs during the initial phases of feature development, leading to a more sustainable and efficient development process in the long run.

Benefits of Integrating Refactoring in Product Development

Refactoring is a crucial aspect of product development, offering numerous rewards that enhance the overall quality of software. Here are the main benefits of integrating refactoring into the development process:

Improved Maintainability: Refactoring enhances the objective attributes of code, making it easier to maintain in the long term.

Enhanced Code Understanding: It aids developers in comprehending the codebase better, leading to more effective problem-solving and feature implementation.

Facilitates Design Evaluation: Refactoring encourages developers to assess and improve design decisions, especially in environments with collective code ownership, fostering collaboration and innovation.

Identifies Reusable Components: Through refactoring, developers can identify and extract reusable design elements and core modules, promoting efficiency and consistency across projects.

Higher Software Quality: Refactoring contributes to creating higher-quality and more reliable software by eliminating redundancies, improving consistency, and reducing the likelihood of errors.

Removal of Unused Code: It eliminates unused and redundant code and comments, enhancing function and class cohesion while mitigating issues like stack corruption, thereby ensuring a cleaner and more robust codebase.

We suggest you consider refactoring strongly. It is like that multivitamin you take – one which doesn’t show an obvious and immediate benefit but plays a key role in your long-term health. By baking refactoring into your software development process, you invest in the long-term health of your software product and its viability. By dealing with the small and minor issues proactively you ensure that none of those build into an insurmountable mountain of technical debt that is hard to pay off. We strongly believe that refactoring in product development is not a ‘nice-to-have’ step anymore. It is like an ongoing investment that you must make to ensure the long-term health of your software product and a measure that you take to ensure your technical debt is minimal.

FAQ

Why is refactoring important in product development?

Refactoring is essential for maintaining a healthy codebase. It helps eliminate technical debt, enhances code quality, facilitates future development, and reduces the risk of bugs and errors.

When should refactoring be done in product development?

Refactoring should be done continuously throughout the development process. However, it’s particularly crucial before adding new features, fixing bugs, or addressing performance issues.

Is refactoring risky in product development?

Refactoring carries some level of risk, especially if not done carefully. However, with proper testing and incremental changes, the risks can be mitigated. Version control systems also provide a safety net.

Can refactoring be automated in product development?

Yes, some refactoring tasks can be automated using tools and scripts. However, certain refactorings require human judgment and manual intervention, especially those involving design decisions.

How do you measure the success of refactoring efforts in product development?

Success can be measured by improvements in code quality metrics (such as code complexity and duplication), reduced bug counts, increased developer productivity, and enhanced customer satisfaction due to improved product stability and performance.

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