I am much given to ruminating on refactoring at the moment, as one of my current projects is a major overhaul of a fairly large (>31,000 lines) application which has exactly the kind of dotted history any experienced developer has learned to fear - written by many different people, including short-term contractors, at a time in the company's life when first-mover advantage was significantly more important than coding best-practice, and without any consistent steer on the subjects of structure, coding conventions, unit tests, and so on.
In other words, here be dragons.
In fairness, the application works and has been a critical part of a company that has gone from nothing to market-leading multinational in 7 years, so it has certainly pulled its weight. It is in desperate need of a spring-clean though, and my team volunteered to spend 3 months evicting the cobwebs and polishing the brasswork.
Yes, volunteered - it's a fascinating challenge, though perhaps not something you'd want to make a career of.
Now, the first mistake to avoid here is the compulsion to throw it away and rewrite from scratch. So often when confronted with a vast seething moiling spiritless mass of code a developer throws his hands into the air and declares it a lost cause. How seductive is the thought that 31,000 lines of code could be thrown away and replaced with ~15,000 lines of clean, well-designed, beautiful code?
Sadly, that's often a path to disaster. It's almost a rule of the game. jwz left Netscape because he knew their decision to rewrite from scratch was doomed. Joel Spolsky wrote a rant about the same decision - in fact, the Netscape rewrite is commonly cited as a major factor in Netscape losing the first browser war.
The problem is that warty old code isn't always just warty - it's battle- scarred. It has years of tweaks and bug-fixes in there to deal with all sorts of edge conditions and obscure environments. Throw that out and replace it with pristine new code, and you'll often find that a load of very old issues suddenly come back to haunt you.
So, a total rewrite is out. This means working with the old code, and finding ways to wrestle it into shape. Naturally, Working Effectively With Legacy Code now has an even more firmly established place on my 'critical books' bookshelf than it did before.
Inspiration came from a less well-known book, however. Buried in Chapter 10 of Code Reading is a single paragraph suggesting that it can be useful when working with unfamiliar code to paste it into a word processor and zoom out, getting a 'bird's eye' view.
One other interesting way to look at a whole lot of source code quickly under Windows is to load it into Microsoft Word and then set the zoom factor to 10%. Each page of code will appear at about the size of a postage stamp, and you can get a surprising amount of information about the code's structure from the shape of the lines.
The idea is that this lets you immediately identify potential trouble spots - if you see pages where the code is all bunched up on the right, it indicates massive nesting and over-long functions. If you see heavy congestion, it indicates dense code. It's also easy to spot giant switch statements and other crimes against humanity.
Of course, you don't actually need MS Word to do this - the Print Preview in Open Office is more than sufficient, and no doubt most office suites can do the same.
This 50,000ft view could be a useful tool in tracking progress. I mean sure, we can have our build system spit out cyclomatic complexity and code size metrics, but wouldn't it be neat if we could do a weekly bird's-eye printout of the source code and pin it up on the wall, giving a nice simple visual representation of the simplification of the code?
Except, of course, that with average page lengths of 45 lines we'd need almost 700 pages each time, and a hell of a lot of wall space.
A better solution would be to print a class per page. At the start of the project, the application had about 150 classes, and the refactoring effort is focussed on about 80 of those. Initially, gigantic classes would be an incomprehensible smudge of grey, but as the refactoring process starts tidying the code and factoring out into other classes, the weekly printout would start to literally come into focus, hopefully ending up with many pages actually containing readable code (which happens roughly when the class is small enough to fit on no more than 3 pages at normal size).
The first time we pinned up the printouts, I suddenly recalled a Douglas Adams foreword reprinted in The Salmon of Doubt. Adams was a great fan of P.G. Wodehouse, and explained Wodehouse's interesting drafting technique:
It is the next stage of writing—the relentless revising, refining, and polishing—that turned his works into the marvels of language we know and love. When he was writing a book, he used to pin the pages in undulating waves around the wall of his workroom. Pages he felt were working well would be pinned up high, and those that still needed work would be lower down the wall. His aim was to get the entire manuscript up to the picture rail before he handed it in. (Adams, 2002)
Hmm, isn't redrafting a literary cousin of refactoring? In many ways, I think it is - so why not apply this technique to refactoring?
And we've made it so. We tied a piece of string horizontally across the wall - that's our 'picture rail'. Every week we reprint the classes we have been working on, and replace the old printouts. Then we move them up towards the string, in accordance with how happy we are with the view.
Obviously, this doesn't replace all the other tools we have for evaluating code quality - e.g. the aforementioned metrics, unit tests, manual QA, and so on. It does, however, make for a brilliant way of tracking our subjective satisfaction with the class. Software quality tools can never completely replace the gut instinct of a developer - you might have massive test coverage, but that won't help with subjective measures such as code smells. With Wodehouse-style refactoring, we can now easily keep track of which code we are happy with, and which code we remain deeply suspicious of.
As an added benefit, all those pages nicely cover up the hideous wall colour. Bonus!