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Let’s get this done quickly and we’ll refactor it afterwards, when there’s more time - Someone who’s about to code irresponsibly and disguise it as “technical debt”

Fewer things get under my skin more than butchering language. I’m a bit of dork in that aspect so I like calling things for their proper names. One term that has a bad rep among stakeholders, product managers, technical and non technical leaders is “refactoring”.

  • “Oh, I need some time to refactor x functionality to prepare for y feature”
  • “I’ll be refactoring __ (fill the blank) feature in the meantime, it won’t take me long”

The phrases said above by themselves are not dangerous. The real danger lies in the practice (or lack thereof) they so often imply.

Let’s start by stating the concept from the man itself (Martin Fowler)

Refactoring is a disciplined technique for restructuring an existing body of code, altering its internal structure without changing its external behavior. - Martin Fowler

He wrote an entire book devoted to this discipline (which I highly recommend), specially to coding colleagues who might be misusing the term without even notice it.

Let me explain where I’m going with this: slap some peaces of functionality together, make it barely work in the happy path and announce it’s completed under the promise of “refactoring it later” is just jargon for lazy coding (in my opinion). We can’t touch said code later, without documentation, test coverage or even the same mindset we had when we wrote it in the first place, and guarantee we won’t be introducing bugs. At least not without performing manual testing, which is almost never the case.

What’s the point in coding, which ideally should automate more manual labor as it grows, if at the end of the day we’re constrained by an ever increasing number of boring manual tasks associated with it?

We’ve been using the wrong metaphors all along

In the world of programming, we often hear a lot of terms associated with architecture and buildings. But let’s stop for a second a think what would happened if a civil engineer would tell to his crew:

“Well folks, we need to get this done for this weekend because of the deadline. Cut corners where you need to, we’ll figure it out later”

No too many building would still be standing, right? I like to think more about software like a garden and we are its caretaker. A garden needs constant maintenance and it evolves with time. A full grown tree doesn’t require nearly the same level of nurturing as it did when it was just a small seed growing its roots on the ground. This is the lens through we should be looking at a system and that’s only possible with disciplined refactoring.

What exactly does disciplined refactoring imply? Glad you ask: it means adding tests to cover our asses backs before making any changes to the current code. This is the best way to guarantee we’re not introducing any bugs due to the last changes.

It’s not a perfect strategy. Our assumptions could be wrong which in turn would mean will end up validating wrong behavior (or maybe validating an scenario it will never happen). The thing with testing is that it forces us to think before actually coding.

On the flip side, the alternative -moving stuff around hoping nothing breaks- is just finger crossing 🤞🏽.

“You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs”

“I inherited a legacy codebase Mauri, what you’re proposing doesn’t apply in those cases” I hear you saying. There’s another excellent book dedicated to address said scenario. I’m not pulling this out my butt people, way more experienced and truly prolific programmers than me have gone through these roads and they all pretty much converge in the same key points

  • Identify pain points
  • Break dependencies
  • Cover the desired piece of code that’s about to change with tests
  • Make your changes
  • Refactor all you want afterwards.

When the remedy is worst than the disease

Sometimes, just sometimes, the piece of legacy code we’re trying to alter is in such a bad state that they most sensible thing to do is starting from scratch. True to be told, these are rare scenarios. What’s more realistic is that the engineer who’s assigned this endeavor simply doesn’t want take the time of following the recipe stated above (either by lack of knowledge, interest or both) and prefers the clean slate approach.

But for argument sake, let’s just pretend that we are dealing with one of these rare scenarios. Ok then, we’re simply not talking about refactoring here. This is a rewrite and that’s definitively something to escalate due to the cheer amount of work it’ll require. Otherwise it’ll all end up increasing the bad rep refactoring currently enjoy.

Conclusion

Let’s call things for what they are and many hard conversations will flow naturally.

  • Did you make a mistake estimating a feature and need to cut corners to make it? Don’t call it technical debt unless you’re at the very minimum leaving breadcrumbs behind you in the form of documentation and some form of test coverage.
  • Are you having a bad time understanding some piece of legacy code and think it’ll be faster starting from scratch? Think again: that piece of code you’re so eager to get rid of is already productive and validated in more shapes and forms than any unmaterialized ideas you have in your head.
  • Feeling the “need” of refactor the whole project to make it “more scalable”? BAD IDEA. Refactor only what needs to change, the rest of it leave it alone. Part of this job is learning to keep our ego in check and accepting good enough productive beats “perfect” unfinished code every single time.
  • There’s a “hard” deadline and you’re getting pressure to deliver something you know it’ll be unpredictable? This is a hard line to walk but part of being professional is having these difficult conversations with managers and/or stakeholder. No manager stakeholder in their right mind will compromise system stability over a new feature, if so then there’s a bigger problem within the team you belong to.

We’re trust to deliver because we’re the experts after all. This means we’re getting paid not only to write code but also to provide our two cents on any topic where we’re part of. The sooner we all realized and understand this great responsibility, the sooner an equally great power will be unlocked alongside it, allowing us to make better decisions not only for us but for everyone involved.