Code reviews have made significant strides in the past few decades—just like everything else in the computing and software development industries. There are new tools and systems to help, in addition to tried-and-true practices like using the buddy system to manually review code.
Developers should bake some type of structured code review into all software processes, regardless of the strategy and tools they choose. This helps eliminate errors as you go and significantly reduces cycle time.
In this article, we’ll explore some common code review approaches and their pros and cons. But first, let’s look at the importance of code reviews and why they make sense for your company.
Why do you need code reviews?
Code reviews are crucial for ensuring consistency and maintaining a cohesive approach when writing code within a team.
When multiple developers are involved in building a product, it becomes a team sport, and the codebase needs to reflect that collaborative effort.
The primary goal of code reviews is to establish a consistent approach and adhere to industry standards, regardless of the formatting, layout, naming conventions, or specific coding style preferred by individual developers.
If one developer writes something that works but it’s not understandable to everyone, that’s a problem. Code reviews ensure that everyone can understand, edit, debug, and enhance code over time following industry standards.
Common code review approaches
There’s a caveat for tool-assisted review. Even though it’s a great way to shorten the review process and automate the tedious parts, it won’t help you check if the core business logic is sound.
That’s why it’s absolutely not a one-to-one replacement for a formal code review involving actual humans. The next step is to put some real eyeballs on it.
For example, once the tool has done its job reviewing code for lower-level issues, developers can flag any prospective changes and send them into a “pull requests” repository. Here, other team members, like senior developers, can review the code to ensure that the change is ready to implement into the main codebase.
In the case for developers using a linter or code analysis tool, the pull request might just be to check the business logic. Issues like naming conventions or layout would’ve already been checked by the linter.
Test-driven development isn’t technically a strict review process. It’s more of a preventative development strategy. But it’s definitely worth mentioning in this discussion, as it helps to prevent issues down the road.
While a standard approach is to write code and then unit tests it to ensure it’s solid, test-driven development works the other way around. The unit test is written first, and then the code is iteratively developed until it passes the test.
This process is continued throughout the development process, resulting in a suite of passing tests.
There are several benefits to test-driven development. For starters, it requires developers to think about requirements upfront, which ultimately leads to code that’s more robust and less buggy.
Debugging is a faster process because the test gives a clear indication of the issue that needs to be fixed. Plus, each test acts as a safety net to prevent existing functionality from getting broken by new additions.
There are tons of specialized tools out there designed to streamline the development and review process. Common types of tools in the tool-assisted review include linters and other static analysis tools, unit testing tools, and code coverage tools.
These tools typically look at the code’s syntax, structure, and layout to ensure consistency: things like improper indentation, unused variables, missing semicolons, and inconsistent naming conventions, just to name a few. Linters also help ensure the code adheres to an org-wide standard. They’re set up with a guide that gives instructions on how code should look…things like using single quotes or double quotes are a common examples.
Keeping things uniform and standardized helps the legibility and consistency of a codebase. Without standards, troubleshooting code can take way longer than necessary, and as a codebase grows, the more this becomes an exponential issue.
Pair programming, also called over-the-shoulder programming, is a dance of two developers that offers a simple yet powerful code review approach. One craft the code while the other takes a seat, reading or even modifying it on the fly.
Pair programming is a proven bug-busting and knowledge-sharing activity. The reviewers’ proximity to the code allows for intricate scrutiny and detailed review. By carefully reviewing and addressing any issues or suggestions, developers can catch bugs, improve code readability, and make sure the code aligns with project guidelines.
The path of pair programming demands a significant investment of time and effort, but with multiple hands on the keyboard, the average number of lines of code per developer is reduced.
But alas, there’s always another side to the coin. Pair programming can eat up a lot of upfront time, and it won’t work for remote developers. There’s also an absence of a formal tracking or documentation system, which can create its own set of issues in the grand scheme of things.
To compensate for this “con,” consider adding code annotations, where developers capture the explanations within the code itself. You can even add supplementary documentation to share detailed information beyond the scope of the immediate review.
Code review is more user-friendly than ever
These code review approaches each serves their own unique purposes, with their own benefits and drawbacks to weigh out. There’s no single right answer for which approach will be the best, so you’ll need to look at your own unique situation to decide which is right for you.
Of course, you can always pass the development and review work to an experienced, knowledgeable web app development company to get your app up and running exactly how you want it.