Dev Team Interactions: Conducting Good Code Reviews

In part 2 of my series on dev team interactions, I’d like to talk about conducting good code reviews. Most dev teams will find themselves in a situation where code reviews are necessary, and in my experience many do them very poorly. I’ve even worked in companies that had such a negative code review culture that people left the review sessions upset, even considering quitting. With a few easy adjustments, you can quickly learn to conduct excellent and positive code reviews with your team.

The Ground Rules

A code review is a process. Like any good process, clear rules need to be established and followed to ensure a consistent experience. Here are mine:

  • Attack the code, never the person. Criticizing code is OK, but people are not code. It’s never OK to criticize the person and make them feel bad. Focus strictly on the code output and never make it personal.
  • Don’t laugh or make negative jokes. A person who has their work on display – often on a projector in front of others – is feeling self-conscious as it is. Don’t snicker at their work. Avoid joking about their decisions. I assure you they are trying to do the right thing.
  • Set a strict time limit as a means of focus. Make the code review 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or even 1 hour. Stick to this schedule. This forces you to prioritize the important stuff and ensures (intentionally) that you can’t review absolutely everything the person has done. Don’t take unlimited time to scrutinize every single line of code written. Ever had someone comb through your code line by line, making commentary as they go? “And how did that make you feel?”
  • Thank the person for sharing their code with you. A code review is an intimidating, scary thing – especially for developers on the junior side of the spectrum. Set the tone correctly by being appreciative of their time and sharing. Make it known that they are valued and you appreciate their work up front. This will help them feel relaxed and learn to enjoy code reviews, which in turn will cause them to want to share more of their code willingly in the future as well.

The above rules serve only as an example from my personal experience. You should create rules that work for your company and work culture. Use real and practical standards that matter to your team, not just theoretical ideologies that someone on your team read in a book. Always remember: a process is only as good as the people that follow it, so try to be consistent with whatever rules you decide on. And if they aren’t working well in practice, change them up!

Seek Understanding, Not Power

The general goal of your code review attendees should be to seek understanding, not explanations. Avoid an us-them conflict or standoff. This can be easily accomplished with a subtle shift in communication approach. Rather then asking aggressive questions that demand the reviewee explain the code to your team such as “why would you do it that way?” or “how could that possibly work?” you need to ask questions to promote understanding the code instead. Once your team and the reviewee correctly understand the code being reviewed, you can proceed to discuss a different approach without conflict or hurt feelings.

When you see some code that makes you think “what the hell were you smoking?” (explain) you should instead ask “Can you tell me why you wrote the method this way?” (understand). These statements are similar but the former gives the power to you while the latter empowers the code reviewee to share their knowledge and thought process in a non-defensive way. This approach to questioning takes a bit of practice, but is very powerful. Some other examples of how you’d change common code review aggressive thoughts and statements from explaining to understanding:

  • “This class name is wrong” becomes “This class name doesn’t conform to our standards, was that intentional?” You’ll probably find that they say it wasn’t, and agree to fix it on their own volition.
  • “I see a bug in your code!” becomes “I think there’s a null reference exception on line 28 for variable X, do you see how it happens?”
  • “This is terrible” becomes nothing – keep your mouth shut. There’s no value in such a statement other than to make the person feel bad. If the code truly is terrible, express these concerns to the person (and maybe their manager) privately for further investigation and resolution.

People are not robots, and will never conform perfectly to your shop’s coding standards. That’s OK. Pick your battles, and call out only the major violations. Let the little things (like naming and spacing) slide. If the dev is hitting 90% of the standards, the rest of the team can pick up on the 10% deviation without much worry or effort. That is to say, the code won’t be that different than what they expect to see.

If you seek understanding consistently, you’ll find that the person drops their defenses and ego, and instead feels encouraged by your positive approach and attitude. They’ll even start pointing out and suggesting fixes to their code themselves – right on the spot – which is the golden sign of trust and confidence. The best kind of code reviews are the ones that a person points out issues themselves to fix, rather than the team having to do it for them.

Avoid Opinion Wars

When reviewing code, there will be two general categories of issue:

  1. Objective, fact-based issues
  2. Subjective, opinion-based issues

Focus explicitly on objective issues, and disregard all subjective issues. An objective issue is an exception or oversight in conforming to well-defined coding standards. A subjective issue is you not liking the way the person solved the problem, or feeling that what they did is not what you would have done. You’re right because you’re different people. Striving to make others conform to your thought process as the one true standard is egotistical, destructive, and stressful. In the long run you will be unhappy because there will always be a gap between others and yourself. This is natural so go with the flow. Allow members of your team to be individuals and write code with their own flair and flavor. It’s OK, it will be OK, and you will be OK. I promise.

Be Humane

Code is for computers, but programmers are humans. Be kind to each other and always remember that the thing on the other end of the code review is a real live person with feelings and emotions. Treat them with respect in what you say and do. Recognize that they are valuable and thank them for their hard work. Together you will create a great team that others will love being a part of!

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