Sculpting Software: The Art of Refactoring
Gilles Van Gestel - Presented by Ivan Janssens de Varebeke
The importance of refactoring in software development: it keeps software flexible and high of quality, which is essential for survival in the rapidly changing IT world.
“Sculpting Software: The Art of Refactoring”
Imagine your business’ software as a clay sculpture. Initially, you start with a rough outline, shaping it into a vague representation of your vision. As you refine your creation, you notice imperfections, areas that could be smoother, and lines that could be more elegant. To achieve your masterpiece, you must carefully refine and reshape your sculpture, chiseling away any excess, smoothing rough edges, and bringing out its inner beauty.
This process of refining and enhancing software is known as "refactoring". Just as a sculptor can't predict the final outcome from a raw block of clay, businesses never begin with a complete overview of their future. They must adapt and evolve over time to meet customer needs, respond to market changes, and embrace innovation. Their technology stack also grows significantly over the years.
Like a sculptor perfecting their art, businesses aim to create elegant, efficient, and maintainable solutions. Whether you have a team of experienced developers or are new to the world of programming, refactoring equips you with the tools and knowledge to create better, more reliable, and more maintainable software. So, grab your virtual chisel, and let's explore the art of code refactoring together!
What is refactoring? Wikipedia calls it the process of restructuring existing computer code without changing its external behavior, while Refactoring Guru describes it as a systematic process of improving code without creating new functionality that can transform a mess into clean code and simple design. Both these descriptions focus on two things, higher quality and unaltered functionality.
Why is refactoring necessary? Can’t we just write our code perfectly from scratch? In software development an important constant is change. Project requirements change, initial assumptions and specifications are no longer valid or the client comes up with budget or target changes. Refactoring plays a crucial role in allowing your codebase to be flexible and adapt to these changes. By keeping your codebase clean, organized, and well-structured, you can more easily incorporate new features, modify existing ones, or even pivot in a completely different direction while keeping the focus of your software.
Other things that could change are more technically oriented, like programming languages or codebases. Programming languages, frameworks, and libraries regularly undergo updates and improvements. Refactoring allows you to keep your software relevant and compatible with new language features and best practices. Furthermore, codebases tend to accumulate technical debt. This debt includes suboptimal solutions, redundant code, and other inefficiencies that can hinder future development. It’s not hard to see how refactoring can help you in this situation or even better, can help you prevent this situation.
Lastly, there’s the human aspect of software development. Developers evolve, teams change, … We’re constantly learning and growing, personally and as a team. What was considered best practice yesterday might not hold true today. Refactoring allows your development team to apply newfound knowledge, making it more efficient and adherent to modern coding standards. It also enhances collaboration, as developers can more easily understand, get up to speed in and work with a well-structured codebase.
For those of you who would like to participate in the practical side of our Refactoring Kata, please take a look at the exercise called The Gilded Rose. Choose your preferred programming language, give it a go, and if wanted, contact one of our team’s members to freely discuss approaches and insights.
If you don’t know where to start, begin by writing some tests. This ensures the code's correctness and prevents regressions when refactoring. Furthermore, focus on one step at a time. Simplifying conditional expressions and extracting functions can reduce code complexity and enhance readability. Renaming and restructuring can help you attain the same goal, but don’t try to do it all at once. Lastly, if you like software architecture, try to use design patterns, as they most often help in building efficient and well-structured code.
Let’s wrap it up with our opening metaphor. Refactoring is a continuous process, an investment in the long-term success of your project. It is the art of maintaining your software by keeping it adaptable and comprehensible. As you proceed on your journey of sculpting software, remember that just like a skilled artist, you must embrace also the most tedious of parts, including refactoring, to create software that stands the test of time in the ever-changing IT landscape.
Some useful links:
- Refactoring Guru: https://refactoring.guru/refactoring/techniques
- Jetbrains: https://www.jetbrains.com/help/idea/tutorial-introduction-to-refactoring.html
- VS Code: https://code.visualstudio.com/docs/editor/refactoring