Thoughts on Code Refactoring, Agile Development and Technical Debt

If you’ve never heard about code refactoring or you're not very convinced of its value, now is the time to patch things up. Code refactoring practices often happen to be omitted which can become very problematic at advanced stages of product development or in the case of a product in constant development.

What does code refactoring exactly mean?

Code refactoring is a process of restructuring and rewriting parts of code in order to improve nonfunctional elements and attributes of software without changing its functionality. In short, we rewrite code to make it more readable, simple and optimized.

Some of the symptoms that suggest need for code refactoring are parameter lists and methods that are too long (also called bloaters), duplicated and/or dispensable code or even variable names that aren’t intuitive. All these symptoms and more are generally referred to as “code smell”. Now, why do we write “incorrect” or messy code in the first place?

Agile Development and Technical Debt

From agile development perspective, we begin our work with just a basic concept, a minimum viable product. In time, we design and implement new functionalities which change project as a whole. We define new features that were not taken into consideration in the first design. It is a natural part of agile development. All in all, requirements will sooner or later change with high possibility that they won’t fit into the architecture designed at the beginning.

This partially leads to a phenomenon known as technical debt. It is a metaphor coined by Ward Cunningham that describes sacrificing software quality and speeding its development by choosing faster and easier methods that at the same time aren’t the best methods. Analogically to financial debt, technical debt should be repaid as soon as it is possible. Otherwise, developer will have to pay it back with interest. It usually means more hours spent on refactoring and bug fixing. Of course, there are critical moments, when you just have to make your software work by whatever method possible. Common causes leading to technical debt are, among others, business pressure and critical bugs.

Code Refactoring Criticism

There are people that approach code refactoring with reluctance. There are those that regard code refactoring as obsolete. They approach code refactoring as a waste of resources and the effect of insufficient upfront design. I beg to differ.

As much as it may seem boring, tiring and unneeded, I don't think that perfecting code should be considered a waste of resources. Especially in big, long-term projects. I also don't think that you can design every little element upfront. No amount of time spent on upfront design will catch all the problems that come up during actual development.

To refactor or not to refactor?

Not every piece of code has to be refactored. There are multiple cases of small projects or simple modules that are good as they are when they were finished and tested. Yet, software that is in constant development should be refactored from time to time. It's always better to refactor as soon as you discover that current design is no longer valid, but business pressure often leads us to postpone it.

In the end, the developer has to decide if her or his work needs code refactoring. Either way, thoroughly prepared and executed code refactoring can only bring good things to developers, partners, and end users.

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