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Tom Harris

Archive for the ‘Code Review’ Category

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

Code Review for People

with 2 comments

Sometimes I get the feeling that when people consider and talk about code review, they’re talking about different things but they don’t know it. I see code review everywhere during coding.

Try this: put aside the image of code review as a meeting, or even code review as an independent activity. Limit your description of code review to: someone else is reading your code, you’re discussing it together, and there’s effective writing as a result. If you see those three things happening, you’re seeing code review.


The great hope was that code review would be solely a preventive activity: do code review before execution, and there won’t be anything to debug. That’s not going to happen. Too much code is delivered under pressure, without code review. But all is not lost. Just review the code when debugging. Look again at the three steps — how does code review, as defined above, change debugging? First, don’t debug alone. Whatever you may think of pair programming for or against, pair debugging is a must. Especially if you wrote the code, having someone else look for the problem, or better, restate the problem, is essential. Second — discussion. Debugging that rushes to a fix often produces the wrong fix. And finally, effective writing. Sure there’s the writing which is fixing the code. But what about adding comments? And perhaps more important and effective, especially if it’s a quick fix: submit a new defect or change request to your tracking system for what really needs changing to reduce the chance of this failure recurring.

Static Analysis

Tools! If I have tools that can find problems, I won’t have to review code. Yes, you will. And you should want to. Static Analysis tools are great for finding simple errors, and potential defects. For narrowing the field of focus. But then, to find out what’s really wrong … code review. Additional benefit of the tool — since it has no feelings, it can be two of you against the reviewer: read the code with a partner, discuss why the tool thinks there’s a problem and whether you agree, and again, effective writing. Not just the fix, but why that fix, and also perhaps an adjustment to the tool so it will do better next time. High-end static analysis systems let you document that right inside the tool.


Testing, and its partner, code coverage, are often seen as the opposite of code review. Whatever I couldn’t catch by code review (and static analysis) is left for exercising the code under controlled conditions, causing failures, and fixing them. Actually code review is the most important part of developer testing. Not only reviewing the code under test in order to design good white-box tests. But also reviewing the code based on the test results and coverage results. Why does the software intermittently fail this test? Why is it so difficult to cover all the branches in this function? Again, read together, discuss, write. Here the effective writing is likely to be refactoring the code. If someone wants code review “documentation” — give them a diff and a one-sentence explanation of what you did and why.

Code Review is All-Purpose

There are many more activities in the developer’s daily life. Detailed design, branching and merging, delivery — all can benefit from in-line code review with this three-step model of reading, discussion, and effective results-writing. And by acknowledging this model, we see that code review, or almost code review, is happening all the time. Just have to complete the steps to get code review that real people will do.

Written by Tom Harris

February 11, 2010 at 11:06 am

Posted in Code Review

What’s the difference?

with 2 comments

What kind of tool is required for code review? What are we trying to accomplish? How much of the code must be reviewed at a time, and why? These are some of the questions that we get caught up in, that prevent us from deploying effective code review in a development organization. One way to cut through the arguments and move forward is to realize that there are different types of code review, with different goals. Here are some parameters of two major, but different types:

Code Review type 1

Key question: Does this change accomplish what it was supposed to, while doing no damage?
Desired code author response to comments: Revise changes
Under review: changed files with diff
Tool: diff comparer
Required feature as a code review tool: right-click submit comment
Nice-to-have features (but could be in a separate app): right-click definitions

Code Review type 2

Key Question: Is this code designed well, so that it is easy to fix and extend?
Desired code author response to comments: Refactoring / renaming
Under review: any subset of entire codebase, starting from a given area of the code
Tool: source code browser
Required feature as a code review tool: right-click submit comment
Nice-to-have features (but could be in a separate app): code editing

Written by Tom Harris

November 17, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Posted in Code Review

Code review is code use

with 5 comments

Wordle: Code Quality 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.

Written by Tom Harris

July 28, 2009 at 1:06 am

Posted in Code Review

The Only Valid Measure of Code Quality

with one comment

It’s Thom Holwerda — keeping things simple for us:

Simple Code Quality Metric

Simple Code Quality Metric

Here’s his site — with a search for “code quality” (warning: if you can’t ignore “Evony” web game ad graphics, stay away).

Written by Tom Harris

July 16, 2009 at 4:13 am

Posted in Code Review, Writing

Really simple code review tool

with 3 comments

I know what I want: highlight-and-comment capability in a text editor. And since plain text really shouldn’t be marked up, I’d want it to save the comments in a separate text file, with line numbers of what was commented on, and the comments’ text. I’m not the first one looking for this capability: “climbanymountain” asked about it on Joel on Software back in 2006: “win32 text editor for code review?

I started thinking about writing a plugin for some popular text editor, such as Notepad++ or Notepad2 (the latter is my favorite for simple editing). But before the “build or buy” decision, I thought I’d ask around the office.

A lot of ideas, but here was the simplest. Light and off-the-shelf. Use a diff tool. 

The following procedure works fine, and “supports” any version control system. In my example, I’m using open-source WinMerge as my diff tool, IBM Rational ClearCase as my version control system, and Microsoft Windows Explorer as my tree browser. Say the source file to review is called “MyFile.c”, and the reviewer’s name is Firstname Lastname.

The parts in square brackets are optional: omit them if you don’t want to clutter up your version control system with code review records, but just want to use them to prepare for sitting with code author.

  1. Browse to the source code file I want to review; [check it out and] open it.
  2. Immediately Save As MyFile_flastname_review.c in the same directory. Close the source code file.
  3. Select the source code file and the review file (they are next to each other in alphabetical order), right-click and open WinMerge on them.
  4. Go to the pane of the review file and type review comments anywhere I want. Save regularly with CTRL-S. (Optionally, for better syntax highlighting, can precede comments with comment character such as “//”. But don’t have to.)
  5. Generate a diff (patch) file, call it the same name as the review file, but add .diff on the end. (In WinMerge, that’s on the menu with Tools > Generate a patch.)
  6. [Check in all 3 files (adding 2 new ones to source control) — check-in activity per defect tracking system, and comment with one-line summary of the review.]

From this point, code review comments are easily viewable side-by-side with the code by viewing in WinMerge or similar viewer.

Also, the diff file clearly identifies the line number commented on, and the comment text. I figure I could write an AWK script to turn that into CSV, for tabular display and tracking in Microsoft Excel, if I wanted to.

Written by Tom Harris

June 17, 2009 at 11:38 am

Posted in Code Review

Essentials of Code Review

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Why Code Review?

We write code for two audiences. One audience is the hardware: the compiler, and the platform where the executable runs so that the user can operate it. The other audience, no less important, is the “next developer”: someone else (or even yourself a few months later) who has to modify the code to fix it or add new features.

The hardware’s reaction to the code is clear from testing. But the only way to find out if the code is easily maintainable is to have someone else—a knowledgeable developer—read the code. And the earlier, and more often, the better, since errors can be caught sooner and cheaper as well.

Additional benefits of code review: improving the code author’s coding (footnote 1) through the experience of guided correction, and finding and preventing systematic errors.

Code Reviewer and Code Author are Partners

The code reviewer must know the programming language well, be familiar with the technology (footnote 2) that the code implements, and be patient and effective in giving constructive criticism. The code author is the current maintainer of the code. Both must see themselves as working together to improve the code.

Review Comments, Reactions, Tracking to Closure

The code reviewer reads the code and makes comments. The code author responds by changing the code to improve it according to the comments s/he accepts. All comments must be recorded, electronically, both for tracking to closure, and for later review for systematic errors. If the author makes some changes during the review meeting, a “diff” of those changes may substitute for a list of those accepted comments.

First, Leave the Reviewer Alone to Read the Code

The reviewer first reads the code, alone, in a code browser that maps, and supports easy navigation of, the code’s structure. This method best simulates the “next developer’s” experience: the code author does not come packaged with the code—it must stand on its own.

Afterwards the reviewer meets with the author. If there are multiple reviewers, they may meet together with the author in a group review, but each reviewer must have first reviewed the code alone. A meeting should be in-person, but may be (less desirably) telephone or electronic, as long as it is interactive.

What Code Author and Code Reviewer Provide to each other

The author makes a labeled version of the codebase available to the reviewer. The requirements for the new, improved, or fixed code, and any required design, should also be known to the reviewer.

The reviewer reads the code for clarity = readability + 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. The reviewer may use detailed checklists of common errors, and use the coding standard as reference, but review for clarity will lead to all the others.

When to Review Code: At Minimum, Before Check-in to a Shared Work Area

Code may be reviewed at any time. Here are some different times, and the benefits of review at those times:

  • As code is written: Find errors earliest, prevent repetition by improving the author’s performance
  • Before static analysis: Avoid analysis time on code that doesn’t belong
  • After static analysis: Avoid review time finding errors that a tool could find
  • Before check-in: Maintain quality of the codebase
  • After check-in: Allows time for thorough review
  • Before delivery: Catch errors before testing group
  • Before debugging: Narrow down debugging steps; possibly find error without debugging
  • After field deployment: Understand problem areas reported from the field; make improvement recommendations

The team, group, or department lead may decide when to review code according to his or her desired benefit. However, if time constraints limit code review to just one of these stages, the required stage is before check-in to a shared work area, to maintain the quality of the codebase that others will learn from and use.

Which Code to Review?

All new or changed code should be reviewed as above, at least before check-in to shared codebase. More complex or historically problematic code—more thoroughly. Take care also to review the new or changed code’s “nearest neighbors” to make sure the code still works with existing code it interfaces with.


  1. If there are multiple reviewers, the reviewers can also learn from each other’s review comments. But there are tradeoff costs of multiple-reviewer reviews: variation in quality of review, need for a strong moderator, and more time. Better for reviewers to learn from code review in the code author role, or in code walkthroughs specifically planned for cross-training.
  2. There may be exceptions in special-purpose code reviews such as performance or security reviews, where the reviewer must then be knowledgeable in those areas, but not necessarily in the technology.

Written by Tom Harris

March 10, 2009 at 4:05 am

Posted in Code Review