Made of Bugs

Confessions of a Programmer: I Hate Code Review

Most of the projects I’ve been working on today have fairly strict code review policies. My work requires code review on most of our code, and as we bring on an army of interns for the summer, I’ve been responsible for reviewing lots of code. Additionally, about five months ago BarnOwl, the console-based IM client I develop, adopted an official pre-commit review policy. And I have a confession to make: I hate mandatory code review.

I should be clear that I think I still believe in code review as a useful tool for developers working together on a project. A reviewer will flag as bad style or inefficient or ugly things that you let slide working for yourself. A reviewer comes at code without the assumptions of how it’s supposed to work that you made, and can often spot errors you made because mixed up a mental model of your intent with the code you actually wrote.

In addition, code review is a great way to ensure that at least two people are familiar with each piece of your infrastructure. There is often a natural tendency for different developers to take ownership of specific pieces of code or infrastructure, and be the only ones who touch or maintain it. But then it breaks while they’re on vacation, and everyone else is left trying to figure out how this code was ever supposed to work. A mandatory code review policy is often a great way to mitigate that class of problem.

But, theoretical and observed benefits of code review aside, speaking personally, as both a developer and as a reviewer, I’ve been finding it a really frustrating process.

As an author

As a developer, I hate that code review adds unpredictably long latencies into my development workflow. Once I’ve finished and tested a feature to my satisfaction, and sent it off for code review, I have to wait for a potentially long time before I can actually mark it as done. This means that, when deciding what to do next, I have essentially three choices:

  1. Busy-wait. Get coffee, read reddit, and check my mail until the review request comes back.
  2. Continue development on top of the code I just sent for code review.
  3. Work on something completely different.

All three of these options suck. (1) is convenient if I can expect the review to come back shortly, since doing something idle like reading reddit or checking mail lets me keep the code in the back of my mind, so I don’t have to page it back in when the review response comes back. But obviously it’s inefficient, wasted time, and unacceptable if I don’t expect a reply within an hour at most.

(2) is often what I want to be doing. I’ll often be working on a project with several logically distinct but related stages. It often makes sense to send out a review request for each, since they can be deployed and reviewed separately.

However, if a reviewer comes back with significant comments on the code I sent out, I now not only need to update that code, but I also need to rebase the work I’ve done since then on top of the result, which may be a real pain if I’m working on something closely related (e.g. if my work used APIs I built previously, and the reviewer asks for changes in those APIs in some way).

Option (3) avoids both problems, but means that I’m continually swapping different projects in and out of focus. This slows me down, since I have to constantly re-remember where I was in each project, which APIs I was using, and so on. Any developer can tell you that they hate switching between different projects too frequently.

Option (3) might be more tolerable with large projects, where development/review cycles are on the order of weeks. But those aren’t the projects I’m working on.

As a reviewer

Reviewing code is one of those things that I would enjoy if I had infinite time, but that I find a nuisance when I don’t. I do enjoy reading other peoples’ code and figuring out how it could be better, and giving feedback to help get it there.

But doing so well takes a lot of time, and a lot of time is something I rarely have these days. In addition, because of my above complaints about dealing with code review as a developer, I’m always acutely aware that someone is probably waiting on my reply in order to get work done. So I always feel rushed to reply to code review requests, as well.

So, even though I always feel like code review should be something I’m enjoying, I tend to find it a frustrating experience where it just feels like a task I have to do before I can get back to real work.

This is, of course, in part just a symptom of being too busy, but code review makes it a task that bugs me more than other time drains. If a customer reports a critical bug that I have to drop everything to investigate, I’ll be annoyed, but I at least feel like I’m doing something important that fixes a real problem and hopefully ends with a happy customer. If I spend a day doing nothing but reading code reviews, I’ll end up feeling unsatisfied and unproductive. Because code review feels fundamentally optional – even though I believe it’s beneficial, it’s something we’ve chosen to do, not something that we absolutely have to do in order for the project or business to keep operating – it’s more frustrating to find myself spending a large amount of time on.

In conclusion

I believe in code review as a powerful tool. But in practice, I’ve found it frustrating to work with. I’d like to hear your thoughts: Does code review work for you? Am I doing it wrong, in some ways? Is it just a question of changing my attitude in some way?

I know that a lot has been written about doing code review effectively. I’d appreciate pointers to anything you’ve found particularly compelling.