The Pros and Cons of Four Kinds of Code Reviews

The authors explore the pros and cons of four other common styles of code reviews—over-the-shoulder, email pass-around, pair programming, and tool-assisted reviews—and see which ones is the most promising candidate for practical peer code reviews.

The authors explore the pros and cons of four other common styles of code  review and see which one is the most promising candidate for  practical peer code reviews.

Skinning Cats
There are many ways to skin a cat. I can think of four right off the bat. There are also many ways to perform a peer review, each with pros and cons. I hope this turns out to be a bad analogy...

We've already explored why the tried-and-true Formal Inspection method of code review doesn't work in practice. Several other, simpler techniques suggest themselves as alternatives:

    • Over-the-shoulder: One developer looks over the author's shoulder as
      the latter walks through the code.
    • Email pass-around: The author (or SCM system) emails code to
    • reviewers.
    • Pair Programming: Two authors develop code together at the same
    • workstation.
    • Tool-assisted: Authors and reviewers use specialized tools designed  for peer code review.

Over-the-shoulder reviews
This is the most common and informal (and easiest!) of code reviews.

An "over-the-shoulder" review is just that — a developer standing over the author's workstation while the author walks the reviewer through a set of code changes.

Typically the author "drives" the review by sitting at the keyboard and mouse, opening various files, pointing out the changes and explaining why it was done this way. The author can present the changes using various tools and even run back and forth between changes and other files in the project. If the reviewer sees something amiss, they can engage in a little "spot pair-programming" as the author writes the fix while the reviewer hovers. Bigger changes where the reviewer doesn't need to be involved are taken off-line.

With modern desktop-sharing software a so-called "over-the-shoulder" review can be made to work over long distances, although this can complicate the process because you need to schedule these sharing meetings and communicate over the phone.

The most obvious advantage of over-the-shoulder reviews is simplicity in execution. Anyone can do it, any time, without training. It can also be deployed whenever you need it most — an especially complicated change or an alteration to a "stable" code branch.

Before I list out the pros and cons, I'd like you to consider a certain effect that only this type of review exhibits. Because the author is controlling the pace of the review, often the reviewer doesn't get a chance to do a good job. The reviewer might not be given enough time to ponder a complex portion of code. The reviewer doesn't get a chance to poke around other source files to check for side-effects or verify that API's are being used correctly.

The author might explain something that clarifies the code to the reviewer, but the next developer who reads that code won't have the advantage of that explanation unless it is encoded as a comment in the code. It's difficult for a reviewer to be objective and aware of these issues while being driven through the code with an expectant developer peering up at him.


    • Pro: Easy to implement  
    • Pro: Fast to complete
    • Pro: Might work remotely with desktop-sharing and conference calls
    • Con: Reviewer led through code at author's pace
    • Con: Usually no verification that defects are really fixed
    • Con: Easy to accidentally skip over a changed file
    • Con: Impossible to enforce the process
    • Con: No metrics or process measurement/improvement

Email pass-around reviews
This is the second-most common form of lightweight code review, and the technique preferred by most open-source projects. Here, whole files or changes are packaged up by the author and sent to reviewers via email. Reviewers examine the files, ask questions and discuss with the author and other developers, and suggest changes. The hardest part of the email pass-around is in finding and collecting the files under


About the author

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