Thursday, October 17, 2013

How Do I Change Someone Else's Code?

I had an interesting question come up at my Clean Code session at Silicon Valley Code Camp:
How do I change someone else's code?
This question came up as we were talking about refactoring code to improve the readability. And the question was not coming from the technical standpoint, it was coming from the interpersonal standpoint. So, the question could really be stated several different ways:
How do I deal with a developer who is possessive about the changes made to "his" (or "her") code?
How do I tell a developer that his/her code could be more readable?
Let's start with the first question.

Code Ownership
If people are possessive of "their" code in the codebase, this is a sign of a larger issue.

Note: I'm approaching this from a standpoint of developers on a team working for a company just so we have an idea of the environment. But this applies to other types of teams as well.

Our focus really should be on the business -- how the applications we build move the business forward. And the most productive environments I've worked in have this mindset.

In the agile world (and I'm reluctant to use that word since a lot of people who are "Agile" really aren't), everyone on the team is responsible for the code. If someone sees a problem in an application, he is empowered to fix it (or alert someone about it if he is not capable of fixing it himself) -- and arguably, he would be irresponsible to not do anything about it.

So, if you find yourself in a situation where you can't touch a certain module because "that's Jim's code", it might be time to bring in someone to help with the dynamics of the team.

We don't always have control over the team, but we do have control over ourselves. If you find that you're offended that someone changed "your" code, then it's time to take a step back and re-evaluate your own attitude.

Controlling the Ego
Developers are known for having large egos. This really isn't surprising because at its heart, development is more of a creative process than a technical process. The last thing that an artist wants to hear is that you think his painting is ugly. Developers generally react the same way.

But we need to take a step back and look at what we're really doing: we are building tools that propel a business forward. And we don't even own the code we write (from a legal standpoint), the company owns it. This means that the company can do whatever it wants with the code, including rewriting it, breaking it, using it incorrectly, or even never using it at all. So, we cannot get personally attached to any particular function that we create.

I won't say that this is an easy thing to do as a developer. I put a lot of thought and effort into the software that I write. When I see that it is not being used or being used improperly, it really annoys me. But then I take a step back. In my experience, there is very little benefit that comes out getting worked up over these things. I voice my opinion and then let it go (sometimes more successfully than others).

Learn from Other Developers
The same holds true if another developer makes changes to code that you originally wrote. Instead of having a kneejerk reaction, understand that the other developer is not calling your painting ugly. He (hopefully) has the same goal that we all do, to propel the business forward.

So, stop and look at the changes that were made. If you think they are good, learn from them. If you think they are bad, talk to the other developer. Communication goes a very long way in the development world. We don't always approach problems the same way (actually, we probably never approach problems the same way). It's good to understand what someone else is thinking. I've used this several times as a learning experience. And sometimes by working together, we come up with something that neither one would have come up with separately.

It's All in the Approach
So, now let's deal with the second question: How do I tell a developer that his/her code could be more readable?

A great way to approach this is to ask the developer to explain the code. "Hey, Jim, I'm having a little trouble understanding this block of code. Could you help me out?"

If he asks why you're looking at "his" code, tell him that you're just trying to get a better understanding of the system overall.

This may or may not work. It all depends on the other developer. We don't have any control over how other developers react. Just remember to keep your own reactions in check.

If he does explain the code, then you can offer some suggestions to make it more clear to someone just walking up to the code for the first time. Hopefully, you'll be able to work together on making the code better.

Sometimes We're Stuck
If we are part of a dysfunctional development team, sometimes there's nothing we can directly do about it.

But there is a big difference between being *on* a dysfunctional team and being *part of* a dysfunctional team. It is very easy to be overwhelmed by the things going on around you and let them affect you. I've had that experience. I let the problems of a team I was working with get the better of me, and it affected my attitude. I was lucky enough to have someone point this out to me, so I was able to readjust how I was reacting to things.

Attitude is Infectious
Just like a negative attitude is infectious, so is a positive attitude. We can't control others, but we can control ourselves. I've found that if I take a certain attitude toward development (focusing on the business, checking my ego, constant learning), it rubs off on other members of the team.

We *can* change the attitudes on our team. It starts with us re-evaluating our own attitudes. From there, we set a good example, pump out some excellent code, and focus on the goal. Others will want to follow. (And if that doesn't work, polish up the resume. If this is your approach to development, I want to work with you.)

Happy Coding!

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