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Codebase Decisions, Part 1: Refactoring vs. Working with Existing Patterns

Codebase decisions aren’t just about writing code. They’re about making choices that shape the reliability, maintainability, and overall quality of software.

Since requirements, technologies, and user expectations change often, it’s important to take time to think through the strategies that allow us to balance “immediate needs” and “long-term success”. With this in mind, let’s look at the pros and cons of working with existing code patterns versus refactoring – and why each one might be the right way to go, because there’s not always a right or wrong answer. 

Approach #1: Work with Existing Code Patterns

When we talk about maintaining the status quo, we’re talking about the approach wherein we choose to work within existing code patterns and structures without making big changes. Basically, we’re saying “let’s stay the course,” choosing familiarity and stability. 

This approach often comes into play when time is of the essence and immediate solutions are needed. Maintaining the status quo allows us to make quick fixes, meet deadlines, and move on to the next issue. 

But there is a potential pitfall associated with working with existing code patterns: technical debt. Technical debt accumulates when we opt for quick solutions that may not be optimal in the long run. Over time, it can lead to a codebase that becomes harder to maintain, understand, and expand.

Imagine you’re working on a project where you’ve encountered a bug. The deadline is approaching and you have to make a choice: patch the issue quickly and deliver on time, or take a deeper look, possibly delaying the release (but addressing the root cause). The decision isn’t always easy.

Approach #2: Refactor for Improvement

When we refactor for improvement, we take a proactive stance and invest time and effort into enhancing the codebase for the long-term good. Refactoring involves carefully restructuring and rewriting code to improve its quality, readability, and overall design. It’s like taking a step back to take two steps forward.

Refactoring provides a number of benefits. It leads to cleaner, more maintainable code that is easier to work with, especially as a project grows. It also reduces technical debt, which hopefully means fewer issues down the road and quicker turnaround for future changes. 

But, refactoring does have its challenges. It requires planning, testing, and an investment of time that may seem counterproductive in the moment.

Consider a scenario where you’re tasked with adding a new feature to a complex codebase. You could opt to work around the existing structures, or you could take the opportunity to refactor parts of the code to make the feature integration smoother and future maintenance more efficient. Each choice has its implications, and understanding them is key to making an informed decision.

Pros and Cons: Existing Patterns

There are a variety of pros and cons that come with working with existing code patterns. Among the pros are:

Time Efficiency: Probably the most intriguing advantage. Choosing to work within existing code patterns allows for quick fixes and immediate solutions. This can be big when facing tight deadlines or fast-changing project requirements. (At the beginning of my career, I felt I needed to be fast, so I would always choose this approach.)

Minimal Disruption: By not making huge changes, there’s less chance you introduce new bugs or unexpected behaviors. This can be helpful when the current functionality is critical, and any disruption could have a snow-ball effect. (This is probably what I fear most as a young developer.)

Pragmatic Approach: The status quo approach is usually pragmatic, focusing on solving the immediate problem without overcomplicating matters. It’s like choosing the path of least resistance, especially in scenarios where the changes required are relatively minor. 

Cons associated with using existing code patterns include:

Technical Debt Accumulation: One of the most significant downsides. It refers to the shortcuts, workarounds, and suboptimal solutions that accumulate over time. These can lead to a codebase that becomes progressively harder to maintain, debug, and extend. 

Deteriorating Code Quality: As technical debt accumulates, the overall code quality may deteriorate, too. Code that’s hastily patched together or lacks proper documentation can become frustrating. Over time, it can make it harder to respond to future changes and decrease the efficiency of your development process. 

Missed Opportunities for Improvement: By following existing patterns, you might miss opportunities to optimize your codebase and bring it in line with modern best practices. This can limit your project’s potential for growth and innovation, preventing you from taking full advantage of new techniques and technologies. 

Cognitive Load: Poorly maintained code can make it more difficult for developers to understand what’s happening; it requires them to decipher convoluted logic and navigate through tangled structures, which can lead to errors and delays. 

Pros and Cons: Refactoring

Similarly, there are pros and cons associated with refactoring code. Pros include: 

Enhanced Code Quality: Probably the most intriguing advantage of refactoring. By addressing inefficiencies, cleaning up redundant code, and adhering to best practices, you create a codebase that is easier to read, understand, and maintain. This leads to improved collaboration and greater developer productivity. (I find it can also be “easier to read” by following the existing patterns, though. At least easier to follow within a specific codebase.)

Better Understanding: Refactoring often results in a clearer codebase with well-defined structures and improved documentation. This, in turn, fosters better understanding among team members, making it easier to onboard new developers and reducing the time spent deciphering complex logic. 

Reduced Technical Debt: The act of refactoring actively reduces technical debt. By identifying and resolving areas of code that need improvement, you prevent the accumulation of shortcuts and work-around solutions that can lead to future challenges. This long-term perspective contributes to a more stable and sustainable codebase. (This kind of goes along with enhancing the code quality, but with more of a focus on the future.)

Increased Adaptability: A well-refactored codebase is more adaptable to changes. New features can be seamlessly integrated, and future enhancements can be implemented with fewer disruptions. (This is pretty important, because, as we know, tech changes daily.)

Bug Prevention: Refactoring can often uncover and eliminate hidden bugs that might not have been immediately apparent. By improving code clarity and structure, you decrease the likelihood of introducing new bugs during development.

Cons related to refactoring code include:

Time and Effort: One of the primary challenges of refactoring is the investment of time and effort it demands. Properly refactoring code requires careful planning, testing, and implementation. This upfront time commitment can sometimes be perceived as a roadblock, particularly in fast-paced development environments.

Temporary Disruption: Refactoring involves making changes to existing code and, while these changes are intended to improve the codebase, they can disrupt ongoing development work. This disruption could lead to delays or conflicts with project timelines.

Risk of New Issues: Introducing changes to code, even for the purpose of improvement, carries the risk of introducing new issues. A seemingly harmless refactor could inadvertently lead to unforeseen bugs or compatibility problems. (So, this can be a pro or a con. Better code can lead to better development, which helps prevent new bugs, but introducing anything new can also lead to unexpected challenges.)

Skill and Knowledge Requirements: Effective refactoring requires a deep understanding of the codebase, programming principles, and best practices. Team members need to invest time in acquiring the necessary skills to execute successful refactorings. 

Complexity Management: While refactoring aims to simplify code, it can sometimes introduce new layers of complexity, especially in larger projects. This complexity needs to be carefully managed to ensure the benefits outweigh the risks. 

Decision Influencers

There are a number of factors that can influence the decision to maintain the status quo or, alternatively, refactor:

Project Scope: The scope of a project plays a huge role in the decision-making process. For smaller features or bug fixes, maintaining the status quo might be sufficient to meet immediate requirements. On the other hand, larger projects or critical components may benefit from the long-term improvements that refactoring can bring.

Team Expertise: If your team is well-versed in certain code patterns and structures, maintaining the status quo can be a pragmatic choice. However, if the team has the skills and knowledge to refactor effectively, they can create a more sustainable codebase that supports future growth.

Time Constraints: When facing tight deadlines, maintaining the status quo can help ensure immediate needs are addressed. Refactoring, while valuable, demands a more significant, upfront investment of time. Balancing the urgency of delivery with the importance of code quality is a delicate dance that depends on the specific situation.

Business Priorities: The priorities of the business or project stakeholders also come into play. If the primary goal is to deliver specific features quickly to gain a competitive edge, maintaining the status quo might be preferred. Conversely, if the long-term success and stability of the application are paramount, investing in refactoring aligns better with these goals. 

Technical Debt: The level of technical debt in your codebase should be a key consideration. If the codebase has accumulated substantial technical debt, refactoring might be necessary to prevent future issues and improve maintainability. Addressing technical debt is a step toward ensuring a more streamlined and efficient development process.

Impact on Users: Consider how your decision will impact end-users. If a bug affects critical functionality, maintaining the status quo may be crucial for user satisfaction. However, if users are facing minor inconveniences, it might be worth investing in refactoring to enhance the overall user experience in the long run.

Long-Term Vision: Keeping the long-term vision in mind is essential. While maintaining the status quo offers quick fixes, it might hinder the potential for growth and innovation. Refactoring, though demanding, positions your project for long-term adaptability and improved codebase quality.

Risk Management: Evaluate the risks associated with each approach. Maintaining the status quo might introduce the risk of accumulating technical debt and slower development in the future. On the other hand, refactoring carries the risk of temporary disruptions and potential new issues. Understanding and managing these risks is vital.

In part two of this two-part blog series, we’ll look at codebase best practices. Look for it next week.

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