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Posted on • Originally published at devleader.ca

When Should Code Be Refactored? What You Need To Know

Refactoring is the process of restructuring existing code to improve its quality, maintainability, and readability. Refactoring is a critical aspect of software engineering and is essential for the evolution of code. Software engineering is an ever-evolving field, and code needs to keep up with the pace of change. So when should code be refactored?

This is a common question that software engineers face daily. Is it when the code is too hard to maintain? Is it when the testing process takes longer than development? Is it when productivity is drastically declining? The answer to all these questions is yes. Code should be refactored when it is no longer feasible to keep “band-aiding” the codebase.

Without consistent refactoring, code can quickly become outdated, hard to understand, and too hard to maintain. This can eventually lead to the build-up of technical debt and make development more difficult and time-consuming. Refactoring is essential for continuous software development, and it is critical to maintain the long-term health of the codebase.

But is there more to be considered when answering when should code be refactored?

Why Code Needs Refactoring

To understand why code needs to be refactored, it’s important to first know what technical debt is. Technical debt is a concept in software engineering that represents the future cost of making changes to software that is not up to par. Over time, technical debt accumulates and can become a significant burden on future development efforts.

Poor code impacts development speed and product quality. It slows down development processes and makes it difficult for developers to make efficient changes to the product. This is where refactoring comes in. Refactoring is a process where code is improved and maintained without changing its external behavior.

There are several instances where code should be refactored:

  • Outdated dependencies and libraries can become a security risk if they are no longer supported.

  • Poorly written code that does not follow best practices can also cause issues when it comes to making updates to the code later.

  • Inflexible architecture that prevents necessary changes can also significantly increase technical debt and the need for refactoring.

Instances When Code Should be Considered for Refactoring

Outdated dependencies and libraries are a common reason for refactoring. Due to security issues and changes in the technology landscape, libraries or dependencies may no longer be supported, and this can cause issues for software that relies on them. Refactoring can update the code to use more modern and well-maintained dependencies or libraries.

Poorly written code that does not follow best practices can lead to a lot of technical debt. When code is disorganized, it can be difficult to understand and debug, which leads to mistakes and inefficiencies. Refactoring can improve the code’s structure, making it easier to understand and update.

Inflexible architecture that prevents necessary changes can accumulate technical debt as well. When the architecture of the codebase is not flexible, making changes to it can be time-consuming and risky. Refactoring can improve the architecture, making it easier to make necessary updates and improvements to the codebase.

Refactoring Code – Considered vs Prioritized

A theme you’ll see in this article is regarding unnecessary refactoring, and it’s something that I think is important to draw attention to. If you’ve read some of my articles on balancing tech debt, then you’ll know where I’m coming from on this.

Not all code that can be refactored and is a good candidate for refactoring should be prioritized to be refactored. This is often difficult for newer and more eager software developers to expect. Afterall, if we’ve found code that looks like it can be cleaned up, why the heck wouldn’t we?!

And the answer is of course a million competing priorities. Keeping in mind that customers, paying or not, don’t give a crap about your code is important. Customers care about having value delivered to them. If you’re working with your product owner on priorities, you’ll want to be trying to answer how addressing tech debt can help deliver value more effectively to customers.

That means rewriting the 20 year old code that hasn’t changed in 10 years just because you didn’t like the syntax being used… might not be that valuable.

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Risks of Refactoring

When considering whether to refactor code or not, it’s important for software engineers to be aware of the risks involved. While refactoring can greatly improve code quality and maintainability, it can also potentially introduce new bugs and require far more time than anticipated.

One of the major risks of refactoring is the possibility of introducing new bugs into the codebase. Even with great care and attention paid to the process, developers are working with complex systems that can interact in unexpected ways. This means that even small changes can have unintended consequences, breaking functionality elsewhere in the code.

Estimating the time required for refactoring can also be challenging. Refactoring involves reviewing, designing, and implementing new code, which can be time-consuming and difficult to predict. Additionally, developers are likely to encounter setbacks and unexpected complications during the process, leading to further delays.

Another potential risk of refactoring is the possibility of unnecessary refactoring. It can be tempting to refactor code for the sake of it, especially if developers are under the impression that it will greatly improve the codebase. However, unnecessary refactoring can waste time and resources that would be better used elsewhere.

Ways to Reduce Risks of Refactoring

To mitigate the risks that come with refactoring, software engineers can take several steps to ensure the process is as smooth and beneficial as possible.

Testing Support for Refactoring Code

Thorough testing before and after refactoring will help ensure that any new bugs are identified and addressed before they become larger issues. This includes functional testing to make sure all features are working correctly, as well as non-functional testing to verify system performance and reliability.

If you’ve read my articles on unit testing or watched any of my videos on the topic, true unit tests are often brittle for code being refactored. What’s great is that unit tests can help prove that other systems/components are untouched. However, the system being changed likely will need unit tests rewritten — in which case, rely heavily on functional tests being present.

Reviewing Code for Refactoring

Regular code reviews can also help identify areas of code that need to be refactored before they become problematic. This allows developers to target their efforts more effectively and avoid unnecessary refactoring. Remember, we’ll want to ensure we have a good business reason for addressing the refactoring to reduce tech debt.

Keep in mind that the reviews shouldn’t stop there! Make sure that as you’re refactoring you’re getting additional eyes on your approach. It would be wasteful to get deep into refactoring something only to have your team disagree on the direction you started on!

Deliver Incrementally!

Finally, software engineers can reduce the risks of refactoring by using an incremental approach instead of trying to tackle an entire system at once. This is the same spirit behind trying to deliver things in vertical slices — Minimize the amount of time and work required to deliver incremental value! The difference is of course that tech debt and refactoring is delivering value to the code base (and the other software developers), where as delivering thin vertical slices are or customer value.

With incremental refactoring, code is reviewed and refactored in small, manageable chunks, reducing the risk of unexpected consequences and making it easier to estimate the time required for the process. There’s not much worse as a reviewer to try and read through a hundred changed files.

No thanks.

Are you interested in boosting your refactoring skills? Check out my course on Dometrain:

Refactoring for C# Devs: From Zero to Hero

The Benefits of Refactoring

When code is refactored, it goes through a series of systematic changes that can positively impact code quality and maintainability. By improving the readability and consistency of code, refactoring helps teams to avoid mistakes, fix bugs, and develop better software.

Additionally, refactoring can lead to increased development speed in the long term. By reducing the complexity of code and breaking it down into more manageable pieces, developers can work more efficiently. Refactoring can also improve team communication and foster innovation, as developers are more likely to think creatively when dealing with well-designed, clearly-written code.

Many companies have benefited from incorporating refactoring into their software development cycle. For example:

  • IBM was able to improve the software design of their DB2 product by refactoring code and restructuring the underlying architecture.

  • Atlassian’s JIRA software benefited from regular refactoring, which helped improve code quality, reduce technical debt, and increase development speed.

  • … Every successful company has had to refactor code at some point as the software evolves!

By taking a proactive approach to refactoring, software development teams can reap the benefits of cleaner, more efficient code, leading to better products, improved team communication, and increased productivity.

And Now You Know When Should Code Be Refactored!

Refactoring is a crucial aspect of software development that ensures code stays relevant and maintainable. As software applications grow and evolve, it is essential to revisit and refactor code to keep pace with changing requirements and new technologies.

While there are potential risks to refactoring, such as introducing new bugs into the codebase, the benefits are substantial. Refactoring improves code quality, increases maintainability, and can ultimately accelerate development speed in the long term. Regular code reviews and thorough testing can identify areas that require refactoring before they become major issues. These also help ensure the refactoring is done properly!

As software engineers, taking a proactive approach to code evolution is critical. Instead of waiting until the codebase becomes unmanageable, it’s essential to prioritize refactoring as a critical aspect of ongoing software development. With careful consideration and a balanced approach to risk and reward, refactoring can be an essential tool to maximize software development effectiveness and increase code quality.

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Frequently Asked Questions – When Should Code Be Refactored

Why does code need refactoring?

Code accumulates technical debt over time, which can impact development speed and product quality. Poorly written code that does not follow best practices and inflexible architecture that prevents necessary changes are all instances when code should be refactored.

When should code be refactored?

Code should be refactored when it has outdated dependencies and libraries, poorly written code that does not follow best practices, and inflexible architecture that prevents necessary changes.

What are the risks of refactoring?

Refactoring can introduce new bugs and there can be difficulties in estimating the time required for refactoring. There is also a possibility of unnecessary refactoring, which can impact delivery deadlines and introduce further unwanted risk.

How can the risks of refactoring be reduced?

Thorough testing before and after refactoring, regular code reviews to identify code that needs refactoring, and incremental refactoring instead of big-bang approaches can help reduce the risks of refactoring.

What are the benefits of refactoring?

Refactoring improves code quality and maintainability, and can increase development speed in the long term. Examples of big tech companies that have benefited from refactoring include Amazon, Microsoft, and Netflix… And realistically, every single successful company you can think of has had to refactor code at some point.

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