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Mastering Code Refactoring: When and How to Clean Up Your Code

If you don't refactor your code, problems will eventually come up. So how can you prevent this? By timely using code refactoring early.
Daniel Zacharias


October 18, 2023
Software developer refactoring code

You’ve probably heard the saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

While that might be true in some cases, when it comes to coding, sticking to that mindset can lead to a big mess. How so? Because even if a piece of software works fine, it still needs to be frequently optimized and maintained.  

Not refactoring code just because it works is like not getting your car regular check-ups because it still runs. Eventually, problems will come up, and they’ll probably be worse and more expensive than if you addressed them early. 

So how can you prevent this? I learned the hard way: Refactor early and refactor often!

Understanding code refactoring

Refactoring basically means restructuring existing code without changing what it does externally. It’s like reorganizing a messy closet, making sure everything has its place, is easy to access, and makes sense. The goal is to make the code more precise, efficient, and maintainable, setting a solid foundation for future development. 

Now, it’s important to understand what refactoring isn’t. 

Many developers wrongly think refactoring means rewriting code. While both involve code changes, they have different purposes. 

Rewriting code usually means starting from scratch and bringing in new tech or completely changing up a system. Refactoring is different — it’s about improving what’s already there without messing with the core functions. Think of it like polishing a gem instead of making a new one.  

There are some key principles for refactoring code properly and safely:

  • Do no harm. This is a good reminder that even though the internal structure changes, the external behavior should stay the same. Try to keep new bugs out and don’t break stuff while refactoring. 
  • Refactor early and often. Waiting too long leads to a tangled mess that’s risky to fix. Being proactive catches issues before they spiral. Even short, regular refactoring sessions keep the code clean and flexible, ready for new requirements and tech.  

Signs it’s time to code refactor

Experienced developers know that feeling when, sometimes, looking at code, something seems off.  It’s not always super obvious, but there are subtle signs a codebase needs some refactoring love. These are called code smells. Just like a weird smell in your house might mean a hidden problem, code smells hint at underlying issues. 

Code smells include:

  • Duplicated code. Finding the same code structure in multiple places is a red flag that you can probably make things cleaner by creating a shared method or module. 
  • Long methods. When methods get super long, they become hard to follow and understand. They usually try to do too many things instead of just one. 
  • Huge classes. Classes that handle a ton of stuff can get messy and tough to maintain. They normally have a bunch of methods and attributes, so it’s better to break them into smaller, more focused classes. 

Why should you refactor code? 

Refactoring is extremely important for sustainable software development, as it impacts everything from coding to the software lifecycle.  

Some big benefits of getting your code a thorough refactoring are:

  1. Enhanced code readability. Clear code is like a well-written book — it tells a story. It’s easier for developers to read and follow the logic, understand the software’s architecture, and make modifications without getting lost in a maze of complexity. 
  2. Facilitated maintenance. When code is modular and follows established patterns, identifying the root cause of bugs or adding new features becomes a more streamlined process. 
  3. Optimized performance. Refactoring isn’t just about making code “look” better. It’s also about making it “run” better. This could mean implementing more efficient algorithms, reducing redundant operations, or leveraging newer technologies.
  4. Reducing technical debt. Technical debt arises when you sacrifice code quality in favor of something else, often the need to meet deadlines. While some technical debt is inevitable, letting it accumulate unchecked can cripple a project. Refactoring is “paying down” this debt, ensuring that the software remains sustainable in the long run.

Potential code refactoring pitfalls and how to avoid them

It’s tempting to go overboard trying to make code perfect. However, refactoring without a clear goal wastes time and makes things more complicated unnecessarily. 

One big risk developers overlook is accidentally breaking existing features while refactoring. That’s why I always say having solid unit tests in place first is crucial!

Run those tests after refactoring to confirm everything still works right. If the tests aren’t thorough enough, write more before you start refactoring. 

Moral of the story: The more unit tests you have, the more successful your code refactoring will be!

Balancing refactoring with feature development

Let’s be real: There’s always pressure to ship new features and hit deadlines. This creates tension between spending time refactoring and pushing out new stuff. And you can only do one at a time! 

While refactoring is critical for long-term software sustainability, it shouldn’t completely halt feature development. 

Some strategies I use to strike a perfect balance between the two are:

My code refactoring secrets 

I’ll let you in on a secret: there are ways to refactor code like a pro used by all the big tech companies managing massive codebases.

Companies like Google and Facebook, with millions of lines of code, can’t stop everything for refactoring sessions. So what do they do instead?

They do incremental refactoringMaking small, ongoing improvements rather than huge overhauls. It makes sure the software keeps working, and any problems introduced are quickly found and fixed.

Another secret weapon is having a dedicated refactoring team with frequent refactoring meetings and code reviews. Having lots of eyes and everyone on the same page ensures refactoring achieves its goals without new issues.   

Refactoring mastery: Achieved!

Fact: Behind every flashy development win lies well-done code refactoring. Its benefits span from improved readability and performance to reduced technical debt, making it indispensable in modern software projects. It’s about continuous improvement and setting the foundation for future complex projects. 

And for starting developers, it’s not just a mere task  — it’s a vital skill! Embracing it early in your career makes you a better developer and sets the stage for leadership roles in your future.

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