Skip to content

Code Refactoring as a Team Sport

Sasha Rezvina

By: Sasha Rezvina
March 01, 2016

Team Building

Software teams trying to improve the health of their codebase are often hindered by a lack of refactoring experience. Combine this with a mix of experience levels (both with the code and the domain), and differing style preferences, and it’s easy to understand how even well-intentioned teams find it hard to effect positive change.

There are a variety of techniques to help in these cases, but our favourite is “Mob Refactoring”. It’s a variant of Mob Programming, which is pair programming with more than two people and only one computer. This may sound like complete chaos — and we certainly don’t recommend working like this all the time — but it can be a very effective approach for leveling up the refactoring abilities of the team and establishing shared conventions for style and structure of code.

Here’s how it works:

1) Assemble the team for an hour around a computer and a projector. We recommend ordering food and eating lunch together — your long-term code quality goals will only be helped if there’s a positive association between refactoring and delicious food.

2) Bring an area of the codebase that’s in need of refactoring. Have one person drive the computer, while the rest of the team navigates.

3) Attempt to collaboratively refactor the code as much as possible within the hour.

4) Don’t expect to produce production-ready code during these sessions. The value of the exercise is in the conversations that take place, not the resulting commits.

5) Stick to your one hour timbebox and, when you’re done, throw out the changes. Under no circumstances try to finish the refactoring after the session — it’s an easy way to get lost in the weeds.

Do this a few times, and rotate the area of focus and the lead each week. Start with a controller, then work on a model, or perhaps a troublesome view. Give each member of the team a chance to select the code to be refactored and drive the session. Even the least experienced member of your team can pick a good project — and they’ll probably learn more by working on a problem that is on the top of their mind.

Mob Refactoring sessions provide the opportunity for less experienced members of the team to ask questions like, “Why do we do this like that?”, or for more senior programmers to describe different implementation approaches that have been tried, and how they’ve worked out in the past. These discussions help close the experience gap and often lead to a new consensus about the preferred way of doing things.

If you have a team that wants to get better at refactoring, but experience and differing style patterns are a challenge, give Mob Refactoring a try. It requires little preparation, and only an hour of investment, but the impact can be massive.

Get articles like this in your inbox.