Refinement Code Review

28 January 2021

When people think of code reviews, they usually think in terms of an explicit step in a development team's workflow. These days the Pre-Integration Review, carried out on a Pull Request is the most common mechanism for a code review, to the point that many people witlessly consider that not using pull requests removes all opportunities for doing code review. Such a narrow view of code reviews doesn't just ignore a host of explicit mechanisms for review, it more importantly neglects probably the most powerful code review technique - that of perpetual refinement done by the entire team.

One of the most pervasive perspectives in software is the notion that it's something we build and complete - hence the endless metaphor of building construction and architecture. Yet the key property of software is that it is soft, and can be as easily modified after it's released as it was when initially composed in the programmer's editor. That's why Erik Dörnenburg wisely argues that architecture is a poor metaphor and would be better replaced by town planning. Valuable software is usually in a constant state of change, as we add features from a better understanding of the value it can bring. But the opportunity is not just to add new features, but also to refine that software - incorporating the lessons the team steadily learns about how best that software can enable these changes.

With the right environment, I can look a bit of code written six months ago, see some problems with how it's written, and quickly fix them. This may be because this code was flawed when it was written, or that changes in the code base since led to the code no longer being quite right. Whichever the cause, the important thing is to fix problems as soon as they start getting in our way. As soon as I have an understanding about the code that wasn't immediately apparent from reading it, I have the responsibility to (as Ward Cunningham so wonderfully said) take that understanding out of my head and put it into the code. That way the next reader won't have to work so hard.

This process of refinement is exactly the same as what happens in a code review, but it's triggered each time the code is looked at rather than when the code is added to the codebase. This was, for me, a crucial insight. After all, many problems that code reviews seek to remedy are problems that only become problems when the code is read in the future. There's a strong argument for not worrying about them until then. After all, just like adding a large apartment complex changes traffic patterns, we may have altered the context of the code six months later, altering the kind of fix that code needs. It also involves more people, in this scheme every developer that reads the code is a reviewer, and one that's able to review based on their actual use of the code rather than on some general, but often hazily-justified guidelines.

A way to think about the validity of a practice is by thinking about what happens if it's a monopoly. What if the only code review mechanism we have is the iteration from later programmers? One consequence is that the review attention gets concentrated on the areas of code that are read more often - which is mostly the areas that ought to get the attention. One concern is that code that's never read will never get reviewed - but mostly that's fine. A team with good testing practices can be confident that the code works, performance tests can identify performance issues. Given that, if the code never needs to be looked at again, we don't need to spend effort on making it comprehensible. I'd expect such cases to be vanishingly rare, but it's an informative thought experiment.

But most ≠ all. One obvious exception here is security issues. Code can work just fine for years until an attacker finds an exploit, at that point we'll lament its lack of review. This is an example of high-impact but rare safety concerns which deserve special scrutiny. However that doesn't mean we shouldn't make conscious use of refinement as a code review mechanism. Instead it means we should be aware of rare-high-impact concerns and adjust our workflow to watch for that kind of specific problem to the degree that it's needed in our circumstances. Threat analysis should alert us to the modules that need additional attention and the kinds of risks they face. Targeted code reviews might be scheduled for security concerns, these can run more effectively because they are focused on a specific kind of problem.

In order to do this perpetual code refinement we require other practices. If I'm going to change code I need to have confidence that it won't break existing functionality, so I need something like Self Testing Code. I need to know that it won't cause big merge conflicts for others, so I need Continuous Integration. We all need to be good at refactoring so we can change code effectively. Since this relies on many developers being expected to modify any part of the code base, we are best off with collective (or at least weak) code ownership. But given a team that has these skills, they can rely on using their regular refinement as a substantial part of their code review strategy.

If nothing else, I think it's important that we put more thought into the role of refinement as code review. One of the dangers of focusing solely on Pre-Integration Reviews is that it can lead teams to neglect how change works in a code base. If I have a pristine mainline, and ensure that every commit merged into that mainline is pristine - can I be sure that the codebase is still pristine after six months? I'd argue that I can't, because the changes mean a good decision about some code six months ago is no longer a good decision now. Refining the code allows us to evaluate old code against this changing usage, allowing us to sustain its health.


Ben Noble, Chris Ford, Evan Bottcher, Ian Cartwright, Jeremy Huiskamp, Ken Mugrage, Mario Giampietri, Martha Rohte, Omar Bashir, Peter Gillard-Moss, and Simon Brunning commented on drafts of this post on our internal mailing list.