Code spiral

June 11th, 2015

Code reviews are good. You should do them. In this post I’d like to expand on one paragraph from that post:

Don’t do gigantic code drops. If it’s a big feature, map out smaller steps towards the final goal. Mark unfinished places with TODOs so that the reviewer knows this is not the final thing. Build trust in each other to understand that sometimes the road to the final feature takes multiple steps. But always keep an eye on those first couple of steps to make sure that the road is taking the right overall direction.

Gigantic code drops happen every once in a while, especially with new people on the team when they start working on their first feature request. People kind of drop off for a few days, and then they come back with this CL with 1000+ lines of code that span over a couple dozen new and existing files. And that’s very unproductive for everybody.

Some feature work is naturally big, and will eventually indeed span that many lines of code and that many files. But you shouldn’t be trying to do it all in one take. When you’re doing too many things at once, you focus on none, and everything suffers equally. You power through everything from beginning til end, from bringing the data to displaying it on the screen to handling rotation to caching things locally to pixel-perfecting the layout to animations and transitions. And then you add your reviewers. Let’s pretend I’m one of those reviewers.

So I get an email saying that there is a new CL for me to review. I click through and I see that it’s a 1000+ line drop. That’s your first barrier right there. It’s just too much stuff for me to look at right now. Maybe later in the day when I have nothing to do? Because I’d need something like half an hour to take a serious look at it. And it’s not like I just have that half an hour kicking around in my day. I can certainly find 5-10 minutes for a 100+ line review, or even 10-15 minutes for a 200+ line review. But a 1000+ line review? That would need to wait.

And then I finally realize that it’s been sitting in my queue for a while now. And I take a look. And it’s just too much. There’s just too much going on at the same time, from network to caching to persistence to pixels to animations to transitions. I wasn’t there in your head as you were writing it. So now I have to unravel the “roadmap” of this code drop, step by step. How many layers does it have? What is the first step in that roadmap? What is the foundation of that roadmap and your overall direction? How do I identify and compartmentalize each individual layer so that I can intelligently comment on it?

And what happens if I see something that should be reworked completely in one of those foundation steps? How is that going to ripple through the rest of your CL? What are the chances that in order to address the comments in just that one layer you now need to effectively rewrite the whole thing from scratch?

And what happens if me and this other reviewer are having a discussion on this one layer, and there’s a parallel discussion happening on another layer? If you have everything in one big code drop, it’s hard to keep track of what is being discussed, what decisions are being made, and how these decisions need to be translated to revising the code.

It’s perfectly fine to break it into steps. You might not be sure what are those few couple of steps to take at the very beginning – without feeling compelled to travel the whole road. That’s when it’s time for a short discussion. If you know who you’re going to be adding as your reviewers, grab them for a few minutes at their desk or over IM. Talk over the feature and what it involves in your opinion. Describe the steps you’re planning to take to get there, with special emphasis on those few first steps. See if those are the right steps to take. You might “waste” a few extra minutes talking it through, but it’s nothing compared to the hours of your teammates’ time being spent on reviewing that gigantic blob, and to the days of your own time being spent on rewriting that gigantic blob. Possibly more than once.

Break it apart. Define your data structures and server endpoints first. If the server side is not ready yet, create some fake data locally, but try to keep it as closely to the eventual communication protocol as possible so that it’ll be easy to swap that out for real data. Then get something on the screen. It doesn’t have to be beautiful. It needs to be functional so that people can get a rough feel how the data flows on the real screens in their hands. Up until now it’s been pretty sequential. Now you can parallelize the work, either as multiple CLs from you, or multiple people pitching in.

Do a separate CL for local data caching. Do another one for data and view persistence and restore as you rotate the screen, interact with the content around your new bits or go out of your app and back in. Do a separate CL for pixel-perfecting the visuals, attaching screenshots and sending local builds to people to take a look how the static mocks done on gigantic desktop screens actually look and feel on smaller mobile screens. Lay down the ground work for adding animations and transitions, and do those in separate CL(s).

I’d say that an ideal CL is not more than 200 lines of code. Some just have to be more and that’s fine. But if you can keep it under 200 lines or so, you’re making it that much easier for everybody to engage in a productive discussion and to move the process forward. And you’re spiraling ever closer to the final state instead of just going in circles. Funny thing about some spirals though. You might be getting closer but you’ll never quite get there. But that’s a whole other topic.

When you break it down into multiple steps where every step needs to be reviewed separately, it might feel that it’ll take much more time compared to just powering through everything and doing one gigantic code drop. Trust me, it doesn’t. And at some point it just becomes a second nature. You start to break everything into small, manageable steps, and focus on each one of them. And before you know it, the feature is done and ready to ship. And that’s when the really scary bugs start happening.