7 Tips for More Effective Code Reviews

Developer, Marcin, reveals his top tips for effective code reviews and explains how you can apply them to your working environment.

By 2016, I’d spent about seven years as half of a whole dev team, an owner of a small software house...and a contractor here at Cogworks. One afternoon, I was asked a question by a Cogworks colleague that I'll always remember:

'Can you prepare for a code review...tomorrow?'

My thoughts? Panic. It was my first code delivery as a contractor. I got on the case asking friends,

'What is this code review? Should I be ready for being criticized if I screw up? How can I review what I have already delivered?' (E.g. If I've created a pull request with my changes)

I received some helpful feedback. My friends explained that it’s just a standard procedure where you can prove and defend your approaches. Cool. Others said it might be a PITA, a never-ending story, and that I should be prepared - especially if I have just "done my thing" without adjusting to systems, solutions and practices.

It turns out, they were all correct. Code reviews can be one of the above, or something completely different...

My first code review was a friendly chat about my work! I remember I was appreciated for the approaches, new patterns, data structures and refactorings I had introduced! Phew.

This just showed me what I’d been missing, another pair of eyes (and an extra brain!). Many pairs of eyes, looking and helping me evolve to make my code even better than I thought it could be. It’s not that myself and my business partner were not helping each other. Still, it was the first time I’d witnessed code reviews be an integral of a company process so that high-quality code is more secure, reliable and easy to understand!

Since 2016, I can't understand how code reviews can not be a part of effective software development. We're aiming to perform code review and get minimum of two approvals on every Pull Request which we create (besides the obvious and trivial ones - see point six below).

Here are my tips for producing more effective and valuable code reviews. If you’re not familiar with code review practice, you can learn and plug it into your existing process.  Enjoy, and share with your colleagues or friends if you think it can help them too!


1. Treat code reviews seriously and understand their purpose.
 

- Remember, it's not just a check for typos and spelling mistakes...

- Carry out code reviews (pull requests, or peer reviews) at the start of the integration process.

- If code to be reviewed is too big, ask the creator to divide it into smaller manageable chunks...(it shouldn’t be too long in the first place).

- Take your time and don’t rush - it’s not a task to be ticked off your to-do list, but a team effort to improve the solution quality.


2. Ensure reviewer(s) knows enough about the project or feature to perform an effective review.


- To get a valuable review or perform an effective one, be aware of as much as possible; from how the application is built, to the architecture used.  

- Comment, or receive comments, with the bigger picture in mind. It’s impossible to approve coding parts without knowing or seeing the bigger picture.

- Prepare for the review. If you’re the author, describe what you’ve done and why you’ve done it. Pro-tip: Paste a link to the task card from your task management software or have a quick meeting to explain.

 

3. Don’t be afraid to judge or be judged. It’s not a battle about who can “do it better”.

- Be honest as a reviewer or a creator, don’t be afraid to disagree. The idea is to help make the code and application better. 

- You’re on the same team! Encourage each other and head for the same goal.

- Respect other people's opinions. If you don’t agree, why not find a way to compromise?

- Understand that everyone has their own style and vision. Seek to understand things that you don’t. :)

 

4. Initiate discussions.

- Expand on your comments. If you spot something a little “off” or you see something being approached in a strange way, try to contribute something a little more than “change this” or “replace that”. 

- “Why?”, is a great question for reviewers to ask so that the reasoning or motives behind the code can be explained. Ask it regularly to help both sides learn.

- Respond to your review. If you’re the author of the code, take the time to answer each question even when you don’t agree, as they’ve taken the time to review your work with that shared goal in mind. Plus, it’s just a nice thing to do. :)


5. Be consistent.

- Work with your team to document company best practices that you can use as guidelines for spotting mistakes in your code reviews. Discuss some standard solutions or approaches you'd prefer when it comes to the specific areas of your expertise, and go from there...

- Organise or take part in internal demos of the latest procedures to ensure that other teams are always aware of the above aspects and knowledge is continuously exchanged! 

- Flag wider issues to your team to reduce the probability of making the same mistakes more than once. 

- Use tools to help you maintain consistency across your projects; Roslyn Analysers/FxCopAnalyzer, StyleCopAnalyzers are good examples of external tools to validate and perform static code analysis for you...(more useful tools in point seven below).

- Share and highlight good work to show your colleagues you appreciate what they do. Good people make work good!


6. Respect your team's time.

- Be sensible and pragmatic. If you're only making tiny changes, or you’re 100% confident in what you've done, don't wait or even ask for a code review if it means holding up a deployment or testing phase of the project.

- Establish some team rules. Let's say you have the “green light” (an approval from two members for example), merge your changes. Find something that works for you and your team with all of the above and below points in mind.

- Chase people to perform reviews. It’s best not to assume that because there are no comments, you’re good to go. ;)

- Use tools to help you with the above. An excellent addition is Pull Reminders for Slack which allows you to notify and remind others when they are assigned to a specific review.


7. Automate everything where possible.

- If you don’t want to waste time on trivial stuff, spend some time and invest in static code analysis - there are some great tools (free and commercial) like SonarQube, SonarSource and NDepend, which can be integrated with your source control system, E.g. Github, CI/CD Pipeline or Azure DevOps.

- Set out your initial standards for the review using tools. If you want to ensure that standards are clarified before the review is submitted, Roslyn Analysers, StyleCop and Resharper are great to highlight the potential issues you can reference to keep rules from the beginning!

- Establish the process and follow it. For example, automate warnings instead of just breaking builds...there might be situations where things are done for a reason.

- Use automation to focus on the bigger picture and the “real” issues instead of fighting about who can find more typos or spelling errors!

Bonus* - Appreciate good code reviews and good code

- Be sure your team knows about excellent and outstanding performances with code reviews. Highlight them to motivate others to do the same and increase team quality in general!

- Share your tips (maybe you can write a blog ;)) to help others improve their practices around this - and other topics!


Summary 

Code reviews or “peer reviews” can be vary - they can be more or less “painful”. The truth all depends on the team, leaders and practices established within the teams. They will be different in teams where there are people at the same level of expertise (e.g. senior developers only), different when teams are mixed in the area of experience levels and different when simply performed with the wrong purpose or attitude.

All of the above tips made our code reviews so much better and more effective. Feel free to use them and adopt your team to follow your standards and suggestions.

With a positive attitude behind you and your team, you can find a way to approach a code review style that works for you using all or a few of the tips above.

More useful resources:

• Handy SourceCode analysis tools and Code Review Resources.

• A pretty cool slide deck on conducting code reviews by Adrienne Tacke.

Maybe you want us to carry out a code review for you?

We’d love to chat with you about your project - feel free to send us a message on the form below to see how we can help you reach your business goals.

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