Code Refactoring in Agile: 7 Things You Need to Know

Refactoring is important, but can be especially necessary for Agile teams. Here are seven things you need to know before you perform your next refactor.

Agile teams seem to be everywhere today, as groups race to deliver better products in a faster time to market. But what exactly is the Agile method? Back in the ’90s, before the development of the Agile framework, software development was treated very similarly to construction projects: Plan for everything up front. Build by writing lines and lines of code. Bring everything together at the end, and then celebrate with a ceremony on shipping day. This methodological approach is still used in some software development teams and is known as the waterfall approach. But as projects became more complex with tighter deadlines, the waterfall approach became less successful for many development teams. A handful of people started to search for another methodology for answers. 

Many others would follow suit, and this is when several people in the software development space started to experiment with alternative methodologies. In 2001, these early Agile adopters developed the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. This type of Agile promise valued individuals and interactions, working software, collaboration, and response to change over a concrete plan.

The Agile framework manages projects by breaking them up into small (usually around two weeks) “sprints” and involves a high level of team cohesion between team members and stakeholders. Once the work starts, teams are able to constantly move through planning, executing and evaluating, usually using the Scrum technique, which involves a short, daily meeting of the development team to discuss and adapt their process as necessary. Other styles such as Kanban or OpenAgile are also sometimes used.

Today, most people in software development are expected to have an Agile mindset. The Agile framework allows teams to move much more quickly, adjust goals and processes as needed on the fly, and deliver their end product to the user, while still having time to make adjustments for the next phase or “sprint.” Overall, Agile is a practice that can help teams move much faster and deliver higher quality projects, despite the increasing complexity of software. 

Why Is Code Refactoring in Agile Important?

There are several definitions of code refactoring today, but perhaps, most simply put, it is the process used by a development team to clean up existing source code without changing the code’s functionality. There are many potential benefits to adopting a practice of refactoring, including removing and reducing technical debt, reducing code smell, improving code readability, a better QA experience, and overall improved structure and functionality, all of which combine to save your organization time and money. 

It’s extremely important to keep code clean. Over time, code rot occurs as software grows. The code complexity increases. It becomes difficult to maintain, and, eventually, harder to change. Refactoring is the cure for this disease. Refactoring allows your team the opportunity to be constantly responding to the code’s evolution. Agile teams move quickly and are working to solve challenging problems that involve complex code. Refactoring in Agile allows you the opportunity to maintain a greater level of code hygiene, while your team can still deliver a high-quality product at a fast pace. 

What is the Relationship Between Refactoring and Agile?

Refactoring is absolutely necessary for successful Agile projects. Agile is able to move quickly because it does not place a lot of value on extensive planning or rigidity. Instead, it praises and encourages experimentation and lightweight solutions to problems. In this way, Agile needs refactoring. 

Refactoring in Agile helps to create code that is much easier to change. In Agile, your project is going to constantly be under active development, and, as new functionality is added, the code is very likely to become less and less clean. Refactoring helps to increase cohesion and offers up a greater understanding of its domain. 

Also, refactoring in Agile projects helps to make your code much easier to comprehend. Despite the emphasis on writing code, developers often spend more time reading code than writing it. Therefore it’s important the code be as easy to understand as possible, so that developers can make future updates more efficiently.

Agile is also highly dependent on collaboration between teams, as well as individual team members. When you refactor a section of code, you will start to gain a greater understanding of it. With this understanding, you can share the knowledge with your other team members, bringing a greater camaraderie to the team as a whole. 

Agile also supports refactoring through its development cycle. During the development cycle, there are seven stages, one of which is maintenance. With this built in stage, your software development or engineering team can take the time necessary to properly review and refactor your code. By adopting this refactoring behavior, you’ll keep a more orderly house, allowing you and your team to move faster and still deliver the intended projects. 

Four Key Principles for Refactoring in Agile

When refactoring in Agile, it’s important to keep four key principles in mind in order to have the greatest success. 

Keep problems small

The safest and cheapest way to do refactoring is in small amounts. When refactoring lines of code that take only seconds or minutes, it becomes a natural part of your team’s workflow and can become an almost continuous refactoring process. It’s true that not all refactoring can be done with such an incremental approach. In this way, you may have to become more creative. When incremental refactoring is not possible or when there is a high level of cyclomatic complexity, try to break bigger classes down into smaller ones and reduce dependencies between classes. With smaller individual commits, your system can be partially refactored. Overall, you want to avoid a large refactoring of your entire system. 

Align with business decisions

In any business, there is likely to be some form of organizational politics that come into play. Your Agile team may not be able to refactor whenever it wants to, but, instead, try to use any business requests or decisions as a time to refactor. When new features are asked for, refactoring can be done on that part of the code base. 

Of course, there are exceptions also. As a team, you must be sure that you are not creating legacy code or allowing for duplicate code. Whenever you expect code duplication, try to allow for time for your code refactoring process. Stakeholders and business leaders may object, but the team must show them how this code refactoring technique can save time and money in the long run. 

Greater team cohesion

Agile is dependent on teamwork, and teamwork demands high levels of communication and collaboration. Refactoring is no different. All team members must be clear on the purpose of the refactor and the methods that will be used, including the tools and techniques. Popular examples of practices include unit testing frameworks, automation, continuous integration, as well as the team agreements regarding the objectives of refactoring, often expressed as refactoring of patterns

Finally, greater team cohesion can lead to collective code ownership and greater overall trust. This trust and understanding helps to contribute to more experimentation, which can often lead to improved solutions. This all contributes to the ability to do more refactoring in Agile without fear of mistakes and with a greater speed, all adding to a greater level of team cohesion.

Transparency regarding costs

Perhaps the simplest, but also perhaps the most important principle of refactoring in Agile is this: Be completely honest with everyone about the cost of refactoring. No one likes to be surprised by hidden costs, and your stakeholders and other influential people are no different. By being upfront about these costs, you show that your team and your organization are professional and you give your stakeholders the information they need to make important business decisions.

It may be difficult for business leaders to sometimes understand the importance of refactoring, but by keeping the refactoring small, in line with business decisions, and working as a team, your Product Owner and other stakeholders are more likely to see the necessity of refactoring.  

Methods for Refactoring in Agile

When it comes to refactoring in Agile, there are many methods of code refactoring, but two stand out.

Incremental refactoring

As mentioned, incremental refactoring is the process of breaking refactoring down into smaller pieces. This is not only safer and cheaper than large scale refactoring, but incremental refactoring allows many other advantages. Working on a small block of code is much easier than larger chunks of code. When you work on refactoring as a continuous process, you have more straightforward merges. It also allows you to switch between tasks more easily, making you more productive overall. Incremental refactoring also keeps the code healthier, allowing room for improved developments as they are called upon. Finally, should you leave, become sick, or get transferred to another project, with incremental refactoring, it is much easier for your work to be picked up by a different person. 

Test-driven development

Another popular technique for refactoring in Agile is test-driven development. Test-driven development is a methodology that takes a “test-first” approach. It involves writing just enough original code to test it and refactor. These tests are then used to drive the design of your software. One common style is red, green, refactor. During the red phase, you write a test. During the green phase, you implement code to pass the test. And during the refactor phase, you refactor the initial code in order to make it run more efficiently. 

The advantage of test-driven development, like incremental refactoring, is that it allows you to take smaller steps when writing code. It is much easier to find mistakes in small amounts of code.

Other popular styles of refactoring include the extract method, explicit method, inline method, foreign method, and remove setting method. The responsibilities per method vary slightly, and you may find yourself using many separate methods during your refactoring process, but all have the goal of changing un-refactored code into easier to read, more manageable code. 

When Should Refactoring Be Done in Agile?

Always consider refactoring before adding any new updates or functionality to existing code. This type of preparatory refactoring helps to improve code quality by adding a transition period between your original schema and a new database schema.  This keeps the code cleaner in your program and can make your entire development process that much smoother. As mentioned before, it’s also helpful to time your refactoring to be done in alignment with business requests. As business requests often include new updates, refactoring can become one of the normal phases of feature development.

From iteration to iteration, teams move quickly, often striving for a faster time to market. So, another good time for refactoring in Agile is directly after you have delivered the finished product. Agile teams usually have more availability at this time and can focus on refactoring, without the pressure of time dependencies. 

What Refactoring in Agile is Not

Remember that refactoring is meant to eliminate code duplication, fill in any short-cuts, and make logic clearer for your program. Refactoring is not fixing bugs, optimization, or adding in defensive code. Also, refactoring is not a goal in itself. While it can become standard practice for your team, it must always serve a function. Never refactor chunks of code that you do not intend to change. 

Today, many projects can consist of extreme programming requirements and still move at a blistering pace, and, for these requirements, Agile Methodologies are well suited to create powerful and adaptable software. But, in the actual approach, refactoring in Agile is still sometimes not performed, creating a major missed opportunity for many Agile development teams. Often, an Agile shop may cite time dependencies as the reason for skipping refactoring. They are in a race to lower the time to market, but this can often result in half-baked objects and programs. While refactoring may take an initial setup phase, it actually can result in a faster time to delivery. Add refactoring to your standard practice and you may see the overall quality of your output increasing, and this is something that all Agile development teams can support. 

Sider Scan Supports Code Refactoring in Agile

Among the many tools available to agile teams for refactoring, the problems caused by code duplication is an area where tools and solutions are lacking. This is because relevant code duplication is not only difficult to find, but extremely challenging to assess risk. As a codebase grows and matures, and passes through the hands of many different developers and teams, the problems associated with code duplication grow, making it exponentially more difficult to refactor them. 

Try Sider Scan, our original duplicate code detection tool, and find more opportunities to refactor code. It can scan an entire codebase and provide an assessment, as well as help prevent unnecessary duplicates from further lowering the quality of your code.

Aki Asahara

CEO of Sider. Aki joined Fixstars in 2008 and served major clients such as the US Airforce, MIT, USC, Toyota, and Hitachi High-technologies. After his successful tenure, he was appointed CEO of US operations in 2012. He was appointed CEO of Sider in 2019. He holds a Ph.D. in Astrophysics from Kyoto University and is a Certified Scrum Master.

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