August 9, 2023

What is Code Refactoring, and Why Is It Needed in Software Development

Frequently, working on software involves carrying out code refactoring, a task sometimes performed on code that has been written in the past. It's important to understand what this is

An essential phase of working on any software often becomes code refactoring. This refers to the process of enhancing its structure and improving readability without actually altering functionality. In this instance, new features are not added, and errors are not corrected, but the code is cleaned and simplified.

Code refactoring is done to eliminate outdated fragments that might operate inefficiently or not function at all. The overhaul is needed to make the code more readable, simplify its maintenance, and finally, acquire comprehensive documentation.

Code refactoring may seem utterly useless in the short term but will be beneficial in the long term. The decision about its appropriateness is made only by highly experienced developers who understand the potential complexity of the process, but also recognize the opportunities it opens up.

Martin Fowler, who wrote an entire book on this subject called Refactoring, is considered the father of code refactoring. This is a real guide to the safe and rapid transformation of code, vitally necessary for effortlessly modifying it for future needs.

Why Code Refactoring May Be Necessary

It's important to understand that the benefit of refactoring will only be noticeable in the long term

For someone who has never engaged in the development of software independently, it can be quite challenging to understand why one should even undertake code refactoring. It often seems that improving something that already works well is simply unnecessary. However, this opinion is often mistaken.

To better understand the appropriateness of this process, just imagine an archive of paper documents in an office without a clear storage scheme. Finding something in it is possible, but it might take even more than a day. Meanwhile, you could spend just a week to organize it.

A similar chaos can occur in the code of software that various development teams have worked on for many years. Most likely, such code lacks logic and a clear structure. Everything works, but further development will likely require refactoring.

After quality refactoring, any new specialist who joins the development team will be able to immediately understand what is happening in the code, as well as add something new. If after refactoring everything works the same but the code has become simpler and more understandable, the process was successful.

When Code Refactoring Is Needed

Only an experienced team of developers that the company truly trusts can assess the real need for code refactoring

Code refactoring is needed when there are many identical fragments instead of calling a single function, overly long names of application elements that are unclear to team members, an excessive number of temporary variables, the presence of unused files, and an overabundance of comments.

Software modification then takes too much time. If the task of adding any new feature, even the smallest, takes developers too much time, it's time to think about code refactoring. Most likely, it will have to be carried out as soon as possible.

This also applies to bug fixing. If achieving proper functioning of the software after minimal modifications is too difficult, it is a bad sign. This also applies to temporary code fragments that were initially not meant to be used on a permanent basis.

In the end, code refactoring will undoubtedly be required if no standards were used previously in software development. At present, the simplest and most demanded are the Google rules, available for many key programming languages and frameworks.

How Developers Perform Code Refactoring

The duration of code refactoring usually depends on its complexity and the starting point | Source: Unsplash

During code refactoring, a wide variety of operations can be carried out, depending on the complexity of the project and the goals set for the team. Sometimes it's necessary to replace individual libraries, frameworks, and even the programming language previously used for the frontend or backend.

Simple refactoring often involves replacing complex statements with simple and clear methods, extracted into separate files. Then, instead of endless chains of if, then, else, or switch, descriptive names appear, which immediately become understandable to new developers.

Even a simple renaming of methods often makes the code simpler and more understandable. For example, the method name getfn() does not provide a clear understanding of what exactly it does. One has to locate it and figure out the nuances of its operation. Meanwhile, the method getFirstName() immediately describes the essence of the process.

It's essential that the code is divided into separate fragments and logically distributed between files. Moreover, several functions that are always performed together and sequentially can become part of a single entity. It's vital that after refactoring, the code becomes more clear, understandable, and convenient.

What Is Not Considered Code Refactoring

Fixing errors in software code is not considered refactoring | Source: Unsplash

Refactoring is often referred to processes that are not, in fact, refactoring. But thanks to them, it is often possible to improve the software code and significantly increase its quality. However, refactoring may often be needed before or after the processes described below.

Debugging involves fixing errors in software code. Error correction often involves changing functionality or making significant modifications to the code. In contrast, refactoring, in the usual sense, does not allow for altering the functionality of the software.

To increase performance and speed, optimization of certain code fragments is also used. This often makes it less readable for the developer but more understandable for the computer, which is hard to call refactoring.

There are times when the code needs to be completely rewritten. Often, a completely different structure is used, new functional capabilities are added. Calling this process refactoring is incorrect, although some mistakenly do so. It is actually the creation of a new application.

What Is Unacceptable When Refactoring Code

Most importantly, one must initially determine whether the software really needs code refactoring

When refactoring software code, it is unacceptable to neglect regular testing. Before beginning this process, all necessary tests must be prepared in advance and regularly performed after each minor change. This way, the process can be conducted most efficiently.

It's not wise to undertake changes to everything at once. Instead, refactoring should be done on small fragments of code, as editing large ones can lead to confusion in the changes, result in mistakes, and consume an inordinate amount of time searching for them. This is especially crucial if a new developer on the project has been assigned this process.

When refactoring code, one should not make changes that negatively affect its readability by all developers on the team. It makes no sense to simultaneously search for errors, optimize, and refactor. In this case, the chance of encountering problems in the end is too great.

Finally, one must be 100% sure of the need for refactoring from the outset. Most often, it is a rather labor-intensive process that, in and of itself, will not immediately benefit the project. Only developers with significant experience will be able to determine the feasibility of the entire endeavor.

Unlock Software Success with Strategic Code Refactoring


Mykola (Nick) Hrytsaienko