Part II – Joy is the word…
OK, so Grease is really the word, but it didn’t fit my theme, gimme a break… Anyway, back on topic, since Joy of code review – part one of this series was published last year we’ve seen our new code review product in action in a variety of customer and prospect situations, and much like the eponymous hair product in the musical mentioned above, what we thought of as an interesting twist on an existing paradigm has turned into a bit of a barn burner. I refer, in this case, to the notion of what constitutes a code review if you remove the formalism of the invite from the process.
Consider what I’ll call, for the sake of being what marketers insist on terming “edgy” (for no really good reason as far as I can make out), old fashioned code reviews. You know the type, we talk about how we really should do more of them all the time. Check in your code, mail out a bunch of invites, mail some more when those get declined, gather around a table, project your code and wait for the insults to come rolling in.
On the down side of these things are all the obvious problems… People don’t like getting reviewed, and unless you have a particularly unpleasant architect, the reviewer is no happier about being in the room than the person on the sharp end. Factor in the time, the annoyance of the arrangements, the opportunity cost of yanking the architect away from whatever they were previously doing, and you’ve got a really expensive, not very productive, but very important from a pointy-haired-manager-perspective process.
It’s really the classical no-win situation. Your manager requires it to be done. You hate it, and you know everybody else in the room hates it too. It’s like a giant dose of spinach to a five year old – doesn’t matter how good it is for you, you’d rather scream and sit in the naughty chair all day than let that stuff past your lips.
So when we were thinking about changing the approach to code review, it seemed obvious to us that whilst code review itself is valuable, the means by which it gets accomplished is fundamentally broken. Factor in peoples’ unthinking delight when confronted with anything social and what the heck, we figured, let’s turn the whole thing on its head. Instead of going top-down into a software organization and helping the manager enforce something unpleasant in an all new and collaborative-y, enterprise-y way, how about reaching out and encouraging bottom-up engagement through a model that people are comfortable with anyway, namely formless (a.k.a. social) communities.
Who’s the most obvious person to review the code of a good developer, after all? It might be their architect, but the chances of a good developer making a blunder of the architectural type (or any kind of dumb error) is probably reasonably low. Not saying it doesn’t happen, but we pay people at that level a good amount of money on the understanding that they produce decent code, so why then treat them like kids? Instead, if the code produced by that guy is made available for anybody to review, quite literally, then rather than getting the architect grumpy because he’d rather be thinking about the next huge money maker than what this guy happened to have done mostly right but nit-pickingly-wrong in this one situation, you get other team members taking part who have (in most cases) more useful input to impart anyway.
Instead of feedback of the “so… rather than using that particular transitive constructor, I’ve found that explicitly instantiating a new object and then initializing only what I need saves me, on average, 3 cycles a day” type, you might get the “hey, I was hacking on that a while back… might want to filter that data, cuz Bob’s front end passes in all kinds of crap… just saying” type instead – your choice, but personally I’d rather hear an hour’s worth of the latter than a moment’s worth of the former…
So who is at the review turns out to be much more important than whether it’s held, given some arbitrary set of “holding” conditions. But of course this comes with its own set of challenges, notably how do you know when you’re done if there’s no formal “meeting” to review your code (and to insult you, have we mentioned that part?).
In fact, it’s much like how the transition from waterfall to Agile was accompanied by many a gnashing of management gums and misplaced wails of “but how will I know if it’s going to be done on time?” But hey, that didn’t work out so bad, did it? People got used to time boxing, to changing requirement sets, to not waiting until it was arbitrarily “finished” and instead shipping it so as to gather feedback faster.
In my next post I’ll look at this new world order from the top down and examine the benefits to encouraging (rather than imposing) a social code review paradigm, and how it can make those metrics we know you care about look better than ever before.