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.
So, what is refactoring in software development?
Martin Fowler, the father of the code smell notion, defines refactoring as “the process of changing a software system to improve its internal structure without altering its external behavior”. Refactoring is an iterative process that works by transforming functions and rethinking algorithms. Transforming code through refactoring makes the code faster to change and easy to execute and download. Refactoring is not software re-engineering but enhancing the code-design. It is similar to performance optimization that also enables behavior-preserving transformations. It also improves the quality of application design and implementation While this might not show any obvious business value at a high level, it plays a crucial role in software evolution and maintainability throughout its lifetime.
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 The product’s code base becomes clunky and outdated and you are left with sub-optimal code (to say the least).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.
Refactor along the way – few things to consider
- Refactoring is a great way to address technical debt after the project has been designed and started. Sometimes refactoring can be as simple as simply renaming or organizing classes, variables, and tests. After all, most good code is also self-documenting.
- Minor refactors should be implemented as a best practice. It might seem that the sprints are falling behind schedule, but this ensures that developers are always aware of the code and its clever machinations.
- Developers and project managers can consider early branching of the codebase to set aside time to test out the refactor and still contribute to the current specification
- Integrations of updates and upgrades are a continuous process today. While not all refactoring needs to be done before version 1.0 is shipped, having a refactoring- focus ensures that a product is built on a strong foundation.
- A focus on preparatory refactoring ensures lowering the technical debt that usually accumulates in the earlier phases of feature development.
The rewards of refactoring in product development
By building refactoring into the software development process, you benefit in the following ways:
- It improves the objective attributes of code that are directly proportional to maintainability.
- It helps in better code understanding.
- It helps developers understand and evaluate design decisions particularly in the context of collective code ownership.
- It helps in identifying reusable design elements and core modules.
- It helps in creating better-quality and more reliable software and improves the consistency of the software system.
- It removes unused and redundant code and comments and offers function and class cohesion and eliminates issues such as stack corruption issues etc.
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.