Frequent Informal Code Reviews

The traditional code review model is to write a bunch of code and then gather the troops to review it once its done and ready. Following the review the author then spends a couple of hours/days in rework.
In contrast one of the benefits of pair programming is the just in time scrutiny of a second pair of eyes while the code is being developed. This just in time scrutiny helps pick up problems early and the cost of rework is minimal. Pair programming does however have some pitfalls and is not as prevalent as it supporters would like.
There is a middle ground that involves team members spending a few minutes each day informally reviewing any changes that were committed to the source code repository in the previous day. The informal review involves reading the changes and posting questions and comments to the author. This provides “almost in time” feedback and keeps everyone in tune with the changes and direction of the code base.

This approach has the following characteristics:

  • Collective code ownership
  • Frequent informal code reviews
  • Requires regular commits to the repository
  • Requires discipline from team members to frequently review new changes – otherwise thy just build up and we are back to where we began
  • Has effect of improving code quality¬† – people are less likely to commit rubbish with the intent of cleaning it up later since they know they will receive instant feedback

Note that some shops mandate a code review prior to each checkin. While this approach does help keep up the quality of committed code, it does introduce delays and bottlenecks in the checkin process.

Ensuring Success at Code Reviews

Volumes have been written on the subject of code reviews and various processes for conducting them. Most processes describe particular code review roles such as reader, moderator etc. and formats for conducting the code review meeting. These roles are certainly important to keep the code review meeting on track and to avoid the review degenerating into religious wars on commenting styles and magic numbers. However, I have witnessed many code reviews that had brilliant moderators and readers but failed to find any significant defects. It wasn’t because the code under review was defect free because serious defects were often found during testing. At one point a team was seriously considering scraping code reviews due to low return for a huge effort. So what went wrong?

I believe there were two general problems. The first was that the areas under review were rather specialist areas involving complex design and code. In general, most of the reviewers were not familiar with either the code or the details of the design prior to the review. The second problem was that in many cases the people reviewing the code did not have sufficient levels of experience in the area under review to be considered experts in that area. On average more than 50% of the reviewers were new developers ramping up on the technology area and in some cases even ramping up on the programming language itself. The code reviews were used as a ramp-up task for these developers and while it certainly provided an opportunity for these developers to ask questions about various parts of the code, they were not in a position to be able to critically review the code.

So what can we learn from this? My key takeaways are:

  1. Ensure all reviewers are sufficiently familiar with the design and the code prior to the review. A one hour presentation on the design is usually not enough to provide this familiarization.
  2. Ensure sufficient experts are involved in the review.
  3. Using code reviews as part of a newbie’s ramp up is a good idea, but the newbies shouldn’t be relied upon to provide the critical feedback for the review. As a guideline, newbies should not compromise more than 25% of the reviewers.
  4. If any of the above are not satisfied then postpone the review until they can be satisfied.