C. Keith Ray

C. Keith Ray writes about and develops software in multiple platforms and languages, including iOS® and Macintosh®.
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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Refactoring is Not Rewriting

(Originally posted 2003.May.26 Mon; links may have expired.)

I'm concerned that people are getting sloppy about their usage of the word "refactoring." I had a short dialog with someone asking about refactoring, bug-fixing, and testing, where the questioner revealed that he had not read Martin Fowler's book "Refactoring: Improving the Design of Code." If he had read the book, then he would have known that refactoring is improving the design without changing behavior, and could have avoided problems from combining bug-fixing with design improvements.

If you're writing or fixing code, particularly in an object oriented language, you must buy and read Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code by Martin Fowler.

That book and Design Patterns by Gamma, et. al. are essential reading no matter what methodology you might be using.

In test-driven design, refactoring is the design step: test, code, refactor, repeat.

Martin Fowler has a blog/wiki (a bliki) here: http://martinfowler.com/bliki/, which I'm adding to my blog-roll. (I'm delighted to see I'm already on Fowler's blog-roll.) I'd love to make my site into a bliki, but unfortunately, my site is static (updated only when I'm adding a new entry) - there's no cgi. My time is full with working, reading, and blogging, so I probably won't get around to writing my own bliki software (though it would be a good exercise.)

That questioner I mentioned was asking about refactoring, bug-fixing, and testing legacy code. I forgot to point him to Michael Feathers, currently working on a book titled Working Effectively with Legacy Code, and the mailing list discussing the book, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/welc/, but I'll do that after finishing this blog entry.

Here's my advice on this topic.

First, keep refactoring and rewriting (bug-fixing) separate. These two activities may be done only five minutes apart, but you're wearing a different "hat" during each activity. Refactoring is improving the design of the code, while preserving its behavior. Bug-fixing is changing the behavior.

Since unit-testing legacy code is almost always difficult, try writing some automated acceptance tests before doing other changes. The acceptance tests will hopefully not need to be changed much during refactoring and bug-fixing activities.

When confronted by legacy code, my first step would be to review the sources, fixing up formatting problems - indentation and spacing. Badly-designed code is often badly formatted. This gets me familiar with the code without changing its behavior. This helps me understand the code. Doing this might seem too boring to do with a pair programmer, but the alternative would be to do code reviews, which are even more boring. If automatically reverse-engineering class diagrams and other UML diagrams is possible, I would do that.

If I have a bug to fix, I recommend writing an acceptance test or unit test that shows the bug's effect. Then track down where the bug is - what defects in the code cause the bug. I know from experience that it is really hard to get into the habit of writing the test before doing the debugging; I do think this test-first habit is a valuable one.

When you've found the code-defect, it can help a lot to do a little refactoring to make fixing the bug easier. Run the few tests that you now have and do manual testing to make sure that the refactoring hasn't changed any behaviors or broken anything. Then fix the bug, and run the tests to confirm that the bug is fixed. Then maybe do a little more refactoring in that area of the code and re-confirm that no behavior has changed from that refactoring.

At the beginning of this bug-fix/refactoring process, you will have to move very slowly - manual testing will take a lot of time. Trying to do too much at once will only slow you down when you find you've broken something and need to back-track. Don't forget to use source-code-control - check in frequently.

Resist the urge to refactor working code until at least the worst known bugs have been fixed.

For more on refactoring, check out http://www.refactoring.com/.

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