How to Make Agile Reviews Effective


In some organizations, reviews are a valuable aspect of the software lifecycle. In others, they are a necessary evil tainted with political bureaucracy and big egos. Suboptimal reviews conducted late in the lifecycle are often misguided due to few objective guidelines that help guide the review process. When used throughout the development lifecycle, code and design quality metrics are valuable inputs to the review process.

Design and code reviews promise to improve software quality, ensure compliance with standards, and serve as a valuable teaching tool for developers. As with most practices, there are subtle nuances surrounding how they're performed that can dramatically affect their value. In some organizations, reviews are a valuable aspect of the software lifecycle. In others, they are a necessary evil tainted with political bureaucracy and big egos. Suboptimal reviews conducted late in the lifecycle are often misguided due to few objective guidelines that help guide the review process. When used throughout the development lifecycle, code and design quality metrics are valuable inputs to the review process.

Reviews Increase Agility
Continuous Integration. Test Driven Development. Refactoring. Pair Programming. Agile practices are abundant, and for many teams interested in increasing their agility, valuable energy and resources have been devoted to improving these practices. Because of this, many teams have abandoned reviews while emphasizing other aspects of agility. But, reviews are an important tool in the agile toolkit.

A driving principle of the Agile Manifesto is continuous attention to technical excellence. Another is embracing and harnessing change as an opportunity to increase customer advantage. For developers, change often begins and ends with modifications to the source code. A poorly designed application with smelly code is a breeding ground for risk that makes change incredibly difficult, and is the greatest technical inhibitor to increased agility. Effective reviews that emphasize design quality and code cleanliness are an important aspect of increased agility. Reviews done right help ensure continuous attention to technical excellence. Unfortunately, not all reviews are done right.

Review Worst Practices
Some development teams find reviews a healthy and valuable asset to developers and the project team. Other teams realize little value from their review process. There are numerous causes for painful and ineffective reviews. Some symptoms of ineffective reviews include:

  • Witch hunt reviews - Many reviews degrade quickly into attack and defend mode. This often occurs because the developer who wrote the code feels attacked and threatened when reviewers make direct and opinionated statements about the code. Nothing could be less productive.
  • Curly brace reviews - Some reviews emphasize formatting and comments instead of more serious problems. Is placement of curly braces and misspelled comments really that important? Curly brace reviews are feeding ground for the anal retentive, and provide no real value.
  • Blind reviews - Often times, reviewers walk into the review meeting having never laid eyes on the code they are about to review.  Most of the review time is spent trying to figure out what the code does. Spending time in the review meeting attempting to understand the code instead of reviewing it for more serious ailments is a waste of time.
  • Exclusionary reviews - Many times, the code provided for the review is only a sampling of the code written. For example, unit tests might be excluded from the review. In an unhealthy review environment, providing impartial and incomplete code listings will leave the reviewers wondering how the code actually works.
  • Tree killer review - If you can't baffle them by providing half of what they need to understand the code, then maybe overwhelming them by providing thousands of lines of code might work. Waiting until the codebase is incredibly large to host the first review is entirely ineffective. Not only is it to difficult to provide effective feedback on a large codebase, these reviews are often held late in the lifecycle and do not allow the developer to improve her code based on the feedback received. 
  • Token review - It's not uncommon for management to dictate that reviews be held. In fact, that's the reason I held my first review. Fortunately, I decided that if I was required to host them, I was going to try to make them effective. Token reviews are typically held for political reasons. Management wants to ensure that all code is reviewed for auditing purposes. Unfortunately, developers realize very little value surrounding these reviews. Any problems found are not fixed unless they are absolutely critical. Since the primary motivation is an audit trail for management, the team has little motivation to improve the code.
  • World review - I've been to some reviews that probably should have been held in an auditorium given the number of people in attendance. This can be incredibly intimidating for the developers whose code is being reviewed, and I'm not sure what value it provides to invite so many people. A few developers, up to five, should serve all the needs required of the review process. If more people want to provide input, there are better ways.

A few simple tactical adjustments can alleviate many of these traditional review worst practices. Let's explore some ways to improve the value of the review process.

Driving with Metrics - Continuous Review
I'm sure many of us have experienced the pain surrounding ineffective code reviews. Fortunately, a good share of the effort put into reviewing code can be accomplished through automation and feedback obtained through source code analysis. Design and code quality metrics help bring greater objectivity, focus, and emphasis to the review process, and alleviate the pain brought on by the review worst practices.

  • Design quality  - Design metrics turn attention away from developer's opinion on what constitutes robust design, and toward metrics that provide objective feedback on the quality of the design. JDepend is an example of a tool in the Java space that offers important feedback on design quality.
  • Code cleanliness - Unused imports, references to implementation types instead of interfaces, and empty catch blocks are all common coding mistakes that can easily be caught by static analyzers such as PMD.
  • Code quality - Exceptionally large methods with complex conditionals are a significant maintenance burden, and are incredibly difficult to test well. A simple tool like JavaNCSS that provides a glimpse into the cyclomatic complexity of each method is incredibly valuable.
  • Test coverage - Well-tested code is less likely to contain defects. Evaluating the percentage of code under test is an important quality that impacts how easily code can be refactored when necessary. Emma is an example of a tool that determines test coverage. A newer tool, called Crap4j, combines coverage metrics and cyclomatic complexity to help identify poorly written Java code.

Incorporating feedback tools that generate metrics into a developer's local integrated development environment is an effective approach toward automating an aspect of the code review process. If your team has a robust continuous integration strategy in place, these tools can be included as part of your automated and repeatable build process, and results can then be posted to a project dashboard. The dashboard helps avoid blind reviews because it can be used as part of a review meeting to offer a high level perspective on quality. Additionally, world reviews are replaced by making the dashboard available via a published url, and only inviting a subset of people to an actual review meeting. By bringing greater objectivity to the review process, team leaders can quickly thwart witch hunt and curly brace reviews by insisting that the team emphasize the aspects of code that weren't subject to automation. Examples might include class responsibility at specific layers within the application, or exception propagation up the call stack.

The 20 percent Review
While metrics promise to bring greater objectivity, focus, and emphasis to the review process, maximizing the value of reviews demands that reviews be held early in the development lifecycle. Utilizing tools as part of the build process is a good way to ensure source code is analyzed, but neglecting to take advantage of the feedback provided by the analysis is a common problem.

The idea behind the 20 percent review is simple: once 20 percent of development is complete, a review should be held. Some teams might find it beneficial to hold the 20 percent review each iteration. That's certainly effective, but I've found that if teams do a good job using metrics for a continuous review, holding the 20 percent review for each major system function is sufficient.  Often times, major system functions are broken down into smaller stories that span iterations, so ensuring that a strong foundation is built when developing stories in the earlier iterations is a driving force behind the 20 percent review.  The 20 percent review should focus on initial design and code cleanliness. The metrics discussed above offer wonderful insight into the evolution and growth of the code while the size is still relatively manageable.

Holding a review meeting early in development helps align the developer and review team, and offers the review team insight into the code and its structure while the code is relatively small. As such, the 20 percent review avoids the problem with exclusionary and tree killer reviews. Since the review team and developers are building their relationship early in the lifecycle, it's also less likely that reviews will turn into token reviews because the code is a manageable size and is easier to understand. Since the review committee is involved throughout the lifecycle, developers have time to make code improvements based on feedback provided from the reviews. Waiting until the end of the development lifecycle to perform reviews is a lost opportunity because there is no time remaining for change. Even after the initial 20 percent review, anyone can gain insight into the evolution of the code by reviewing the metrics on the project dashboard. Any obvious deficiencies in the design or structure of the code can be fixed before the small problem infests the entire code base.

The 20% review can also be used as an aid to the developer. For instance, if a developer finds that certain methods have an especially high cyclomatic complexity number, she can ask her peers for advice on how to best simplify the method through refactoring.

I've found the 20 percent review is a critical aspect of an effective review process. Earlier reviews offer the reviewers an opportunity to assess a number of quality metrics, and establish the review process for ongoing development. In cases where development has veered off course, a 20 percent review offers ample time to make the necessary corrections. In general, I've found that if the first 20 percent of the code written is of high quality, the emphasis on quality will remain throughout development.

The Rest of the Way
Once the 20 percent review is complete, remaining reviews should be scheduled as needed, or upon request by either the developer or the review team. The 80% point has worked well for me. Ideally, the reviewers should maintain awareness of the evolution and growth of the code by monitoring the project dashboard. Using metrics to help drive reviews brings greater objectivity and focus to the review process, and avoids many common problems surrounding reviews. Additionally, reviews early in the lifecycle offer opportunity for improvement while time still permits. Reviews later in the lifecycle prove more productive if earlier reviews are held because the review team is familiar with the code's evolution and growth. The continuous attention to technical excellence will result in increased design and code quality.


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