Talk About Quality

Tom Harris

Two Against the Code

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One of the big human challenges to code review is ego. For all the talk about “egoless programming”, ego still means “self” and when a person writes code, or owns it for maintenance, s/he identifies with the code. That kind of “ego” or “self” thinking is what lets the code author work through problems by saying, “let’s see, when I receive this signal, I enter this loop and I calculate that value.” So how can code author and code reviewer(s) go into a code review, whether it be a meeting or online, and yet avoid criticism and defensiveness?

Here’s an image that can help: when code review participants enter the review, imagine everyone sitting on the same side of the table, with only the code on the other side. The code author is no longer the author or owner — just another reviewer. The two or more people in the room, or in the online review, form a team together to find as many things as possible in the code to improve. Now nobody needs to defend the code, because everyone is a reviewer. Still, though, if criticism is in the air, the real code author will feel it.

The desired result of a code review is a list of important things to improve. Comments which the code author can take back to the code and say, “I understand what I need to do to make this code better.” Take a concept from the topic of assertive communication: The “I” message. Best explained by an example:

Let’s say I’m a busy, pressured group leader who has to lead meetings, and someone is always late for the group meetings — much later than everyone else . I decide to speak to that person. What can I say to him that will cause him to feel what I feel, and based on that, to join me in solving the problem? Not to feel criticized, and to become defensive. An “I” message would be:

“I’m under a lot of pressure when leading our weekly status meetings, and when I see you come in 20 minutes late to the meeting, it makes me more tense, and makes it hard for me to keep the meeting on track.”

The idea is that, while I have mentioned the person’s lateness, I have described only what I see, and described a problem that I have. All the focus is on me and my problem, which the group member may realize is his problem too, since he may benefit from a calmer group leader and a more effective meeting. Hopefully, he is drawn into solving my, or our, problem.

Similarly with code review. Instead of a critical comment like, “this code is very confusing,” say, “when I read through this function — both the comments and the code — I get to the end and I still have no idea what it’s really supposed to do. If I had a change request on this code, I would not be able to confidently make the change.” Given that the code author probably does not have the same problem, this comment draws the author into saying, “I understand what the function is supposed to do, but apparently you don’t from reading the code. I’ll try to improve the comments or clarify the code so that you understand what I understand.”

Try this method in your code reviews to get everyone working together against the code, to improve the code.

Written by Tom Harris

May 17, 2010 at 10:59 am

Posted in Code Review

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