Coding for review

ship, ship, ship!

This past Friday, I shipped about a month's worth of extensive refactoring to the content editing infrastructure of the site. As with many refactoring projects, the best possible outcome would have been that no one would notice I'd done anything. The worst would have been visible breakage of the site for content authors or users. That launch was a success (whew!), and although it took a lot of effort and planning on my part to make that happen, I want to credit two powerful methodologies that ensured I wasn't working alone: unit tests and peer code reviews. I want to focus on code reviews here, because while the benefits of unit tests (especially in refactoring projects) are well-documented, I've found that subjecting code to peer review has subtly and unexpectedly changed the way I actually write my code.

come all ye reviewers

About a year ago, Khan Academy instituted a policy to peer review all non-trivial code commits. For coders who don't follow this regime, there are several benefits we were looking for:

  1. Fewer bugs. Bugs won't reach production if they are caught in a review first.
  2. Improved code quality. A strong check on coders' tendencies to take shortcuts, sacrifice code readability or understandability, or put in temporary half-measures that don't solve the underlying problem. In many cases criticism in a review caused me to rethink a problem and come up with a more elegant solution.
  3. On-boarding of new developers. Getting your head around a new codebase can be challenging. By reviewing new devs' commits we catch redundancy, unwanted side effects, and potential conflicts, as well as enforcing our style guide and setting a standard for high quality code from the very beginning.
  4. Diffusion of knowledge. Anything that facilitates communication between members of the team pays dividends over the long run. If nothing else, there will be a day when a critical developer will be on vacation/trapped in an elevator/at home with the swine flu and a reviewer will come to the rescue.

It's worth acknowledging the obvious cost to reviewing every commit: time. Time that used to be spent writing, testing and committing new code is now taken up with conversation and iteration on already-written code. So is the net result a drop in productivity for the entire development team? Not necessarily. Let's look at the list above again:

  1. Fewer bugs. A bug not caught during review will still have to be found and fixed later on. Tracking down a bug in production takes significantly more time, and fixing it is more difficult.
  2. Improved code quality. Quality code is easier to read, easier to implement new features on top of, and incurs less technical debt (TODO-laden code that will have to be revisited in the future). Of course, code reviews don't force this, they enforce whatever the team decides. If the team needs something done yesterday, then by all means do the quick thing and come back and fix it later.
  3. On-boarding of new developers. Efficient mentoring of new developers bends the productivity curve in a positive way. Even experienced devs are less productive while they are learning a new codebase.
  4. Diffusion of knowledge. Good documentation won't replace having multiple devs who understand any piece of code. Projects won't stall because the one developer who knows a system is busy doing something else and the code isn't clear. Our mantra is "anybody can fix anything", and it's critical that anyone be able to jump into any piece of code and understand it.

I won't go much further with this argument; in my mind it's a settled matter that compulsory code reviews are a Good Thing and they have helped us in many ways as an organization. What I hope to share here is a surprising and totally non-obvious fact: code reviews have changed the way I design and write code for the better.

evolution of a code monkey

All the lessons I've drawn from this ongoing experiment have taken some time to understand and internalize. When we first instituted mandatory code reviews, I didn't notice any immediate changes. For trivial bug fixes, reviews are transparent: I make the fix, commit to stable, and send off the review after the fact. The fix might ship before the review is done, but bug fixes are high priority and that's OK.

Similarly for minor features: I make the change in a private branch, test and document, then send a review. Then there is a period of  answering reviewer questions and iteration. In the meantime I might move on to other work, and when the review is accepted I merge to stable and deploy.

With larger projects and changesets, I began to notice breakdowns happening when I got to the review stage. Reviews were too large for reviewers to comprehend, or too convoluted to follow. By the time a reviewer responded to a review, I would have several more reviews open for subsequent commits, and it wasn't clear which review fixes should be assigned to. Reviewers were reviewing already-replaced or rewritten code. It became a real mess.

While it was clear what the problem was - too many and too large reviews - the solution wasn't obvious. I could cut the size of the commits, and stop to wait for reviewers before proceeding, but that would mean dramatically slowing my progress - a busy reviewer can take hours or days to thoroughly read an important review. Instead, I adopted (with lots of guidance from coworkers +Ben Komalo, Craig Silverstein, and Ben Kamens) some habits that enable me to get useful feedback on code reviews and use that feedback effectively. Here is what I learned:

  • Make one conceptual change per commit. (As opposed to one functional change per commit.) When I started working on a change, I would often be thinking about a requirement: "The user can set a bookmark." I would add a UserBookmark object, write the get/set API calls, and some UI. Later I would come back and write some unit tests. This is all one functional change, but many conceptual changes, and they deserve their own commits: A new UserBookmark object, with full documentation and unit tests. Then the API calls, with their own documentation and unit tests. Each change is much easier to understand, can be critiqued on its own merits, and will tend to be confined to a particular part of the code.
  • Cut the thread. Many times, especially while refactoring, a change will have cascading effects: While testing I find multiple side effects from my change, fix them, and then those fixes cause more side effects, and so on. Sometimes fixing a side effect triggers another refactor, or fixing a totally unrelated bug, and when the code finally gets committed it is both unreasonably large and completely unfathomable. Even I can't remember exactly what prompted a particular change in a day-long marathon of bugfixing. I could try to split the fixes among several commits after the fact, but that's error-prone and difficult. A better solution is to "cut the thread" at some reasonable point, and start sprinkling TODO's liberally where fixes need to be made. It's clear to the reviewer that this code is not yet functional and just what the side effects of the change are without actually fixing those side effects in that commit. Best of all, it's clear from looking at the commit history what motivated each fix.
  • Write throw-away experimental code. When starting a project, I find it helpful to quickly iterate on a prototype implementation for a thorny code problem before settling on a final solution. These sketches are not useful to have reviewed; rather it is better to write up the proposed solution in a Google Doc or email and iterate on that with reviewers before sitting down to implement it for real. The second implementation takes into account reviewer feedback and is written more carefully, with documentation and unit tests that would be a waste of time during a prototyping phase. The prototype is eventually thrown away and doesn't become part of the commit history.
  • Work on multiple tasks in parallel. There is some inevitable downtime while waiting for reviewers to look at newly submitted code. Having a list of bugs or small tasks unrelated to my main project gives me something productive to do in that downtime. It's a great way to make sure that small, lower-priority tasks don't get crowded out by larger projects. I can assign the reviews for these smaller tasks to different reviewers, balancing the review load among the team.
  • Don't get too far ahead of the reviewer. I do my best never to push changes that build on unreviewed changes. When I can't switch to a different task, I keep new changes local and don't push them until they previous reviews are done. That way I can implement changes from reviews cleanly on top of the pushed commits and rebase my local changes on top. (I use Mercurial bookmarks or Git branches for this.) Sometimes after discussion with the reviewer changes will be made that force the later work to be rewritten, and that is fine. It's better than having to roll back later commits to fix something from a review!
  • Document everything, even if it's in progress. If I'm going to have to explain some complex bit of logic or a long list of method arguments to a reviewer, I may as well just do it in the code itself. Even if the code has ## TEMPORARY ## or // TODO(HACK) UGLY HACK all over it, it still gets documented. It never ceases to surprise me how long those things live in the codebase, and the short-term solutions are the ones that need the most explanation: Why do we need this? What should replace this? When can it safely be replaced?

I firmly believe that all of these techniques make my commit history easier for me and others to understand and make me more efficient as a programmer, and I probably wouldn't have adopted them if not for the practice of peer code reviews. I have also learned a lot about Python/JS/IE/life from my peers and maybe taught someone something they didn't know.

Even if you work alone or don't do code reviews in your team, perhaps you may benefit from these tips in your own work. If you do participate in code reviews, do you organize or think about your code differently to take full advantage of the review process? I'd love to hear from you.

Photo credits: Jason Rosoff, embedded Khan Academy documentarist and lead designer.

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