Code review is code use
|Jesse Gibbs at Atlassian sent me to the following post from Scott Bilas at the game software company Loose Cannon Studios. In Peer Code Reviews: Good Commenting Practices, Bilas says code reviewers should seek architectural issues, and adherence to good software development practices and coding standards. And that they should look for mentoring opportunities. At the same time, he lets them off from other responsibilities, saying “Reviewers aren’t expected to catch everything,” and, “Reviewers aren’t expected to catch deep or systemic design problems.”|
It’s a pretty good tutorial on the current best practice of code review. So why does it feel like something big is missing?
Upon reflection, it turns out that, unlike, say, editing and commenting on a book, code review is not really a reviewer-author relationship at all. An editor may make a lot of changes, but those changes end with publication. Code, on the other hand, will be fixed, extended, and refactored by future developers. Each future, or “next” developer will need exactly two things from the code in order to do his or her job: readability and understandability. Code is readable if it has the right balance of abstraction vs. detail at each level of the code. Code is understandable if the reviewer can, without help from the author, see what the code does, and why. If code is clear, that is, readable and understandable, modifications will be easy and error-free.
So the question “what are the responsibilities of a code reviewer” turns out to be a trick question. Like this one, from driving class:
Question: In the following traffic diagram (imagine any diagram you want), who has the right-of-way?
Answer: Nobody has the right-of-way. Right-of-way can never be possessed, only given.
The code reviewer does not have any review responsibility. The code author has all the responsibility to write clear code, and provide it to the code reviewer. We should stop calling that person a “code reviewer”; instead, say “code user”.
Code review becomes a simple and easily explained two-step process. First the “code user” reads the code and notes down what s/he doesn’t understand how to use, and second, s/he meets with the code author to present what was not clear. In that manner, the “code user” successfully stands in for the “next developer”, and gives the code author an early chance to make things better. As a bonus, all the things a traditional code reviewer was supposed to check, or at least the important things, will be checked. Mentoring will happen. All this when we realize that code review is code use.