Why Is Refactoring Your Code Important?

Anna Buczak
15 October 2020 · 9 min read

Code refactoring is a bit like taking care of a bonsai tree. Not only does it help your developers stay centered and zen, but it also saves you from overspending, and from being surprised by security exploits and bugs.

Code refactoring is one of the main key terms in software development nowadays. By definition, it is the process of editing and simplifying the software code, without changing its behavior. In this blogpost we show you 6 reasons why is code refactoring important and benefits linked to this process.

What is code refactoring?

Code refactoring means making changes - mainly editing, restructuring and tidying up - in an existing codebase. The key to refactoring is that you don’t change the way the code works.

When refactoring, you don’t make changes to the functionality of your application. You edit code to make the codebase cleaner, more understandable and more readable. You remove unnecessary parts of code, simplify the way it is written, but you don’t change what the code does.

This means that the most important benefits from refactoring are for developers who are currently working on your product, or will be working on it in the future. Your end-users might not feel the change right away, or it might not be noticeable, but they will benefit from refactoring too.

Three main goals of code refactoring in software projects

There are three situations when should you refactor code:

  • Avoid technical debt
  • Make it easier to make changes and scale your project
  • Make your application easy to maintain, add new parts, and use the latest versions of software

Avoid technical debt

Definition of technical debt:

Technical debt essentially means a backlog of things that should be fixed, changed or updated.

A lot of software projects are built in a busy environment with limited budgets and short deadlines. No programmer wants to write code that’s poorly structured, not readable, or not future-proof. But when you need to get a product into the market within a short period of time, engineers often need to make compromises.

Technical debt is detrimental regardless of how your system is designed. Poorly written code might cause the whole system to fail, and at the very least it will make life hard for other engineers.

In simple terms, if you don’t have time to test and rework code until it’s clean, simple, and properly functioning, then your technical debt grows. You’re going to have to test and rework that code at some point, you’re only pushing it away to the future.

As technical debt grows, your team’s understanding of the codebase decreases. Instead of pushing new features efficiently, developers have to spend more time understanding existing code and fitting new parts into the pool of messy and overly complicated code.

This can be avoided if refactoring becomes a regular practice on your team.

Make it easier to make changes and scale your project

Without refactoring, your codebase becomes messy, full of workarounds and lines of code copied straight from StackOverflow or GitHub. Developers almost always plan to refactor messy code in the future, it’s usually put there just to speed up development and achieve short time-to-market.

Problems start accumulating when development teams don’t have any time to revisit that code and clean it up. As time goes by and the project grows, it becomes increasingly harder to change things and scale up.

Your team should be able to find the time to go back to the code and make it clean, understandable, and efficient. This way it’ll be much easier to change things and scale the project in the future, whether it’s done by the same developers or a completely different team.

Make your application easy to maintain, add new parts, and use the latest versions of software

When code refactoring is a standard part of your process, it’s easier to maintain and debug the codebase, as well as do Quality Assurance. There’s usually a long list of considerations before adding new third-party software to your project or updating existing software to the newest version.

In some cases - like upgrading from Python 2.x.x to Python 3.x.x - it is a process that takes months. The time to upgrade code that’s messy and unreadable is significantly larger compared to the time it takes to upgrade refactored code. This ultimately means that without refactoring, you risk going over-budget and slowing down the progress on your project.

6 reasons why code refactoring is important

Why should you take code refactoring seriously, and make it a part of your regular process?

There are six important reasons to refactor the code:

  1. Your code becomes clean, which makes it easier to maintain and expand
  2. Your application might become faster
  3. It’ll be easier to add new features
  4. You’ll remove duplicate code, reduce complexity, and streamline development
  5. It makes bugs easier to find
  6. It makes your application more secure

#1 - Your code becomes clean, which makes it easier to maintain and expand

A clean codebase is like a puzzle with just the right amount of pieces that fit perfectly together. Developers know what the code does when they look at it, they don’t need to spend hours analysing every function, variable and semicolon.

If you need to build a digital product quickly, then you can make compromises, and the codebase can be messy - but it shouldn’t stay that way. If you’re planning to grow the project in the long term, you should adopt a refactoring process as soon as possible.

One of the trickiest cases here is refactoring legacy code. Legacy code is outdated code that comes from older, no longer supported versions of technology used in the project.

In an ideal world, legacy code would be substituted with updated code over the lifetime of a system. But it usually happens the other way around, and as the system grows, it becomes harder to refactor the code without breaking it.

#2 - Your application might become faster

The goal of refactoring isn’t to speed up your application, but it’s possible. Removing unnecessary parts and optimizing the code might make your application faster.

Just like it happened when Kickstarter engineers refactored code responsible for notifications on their page. When it was small, notifications weren’t a problem, but once it had millions of users, notifications started stalling. By refactoring one type of database query, Kickstarter engineers were able to reduce load times by over 100ms for the most active users.

It goes to show that refactoring can be beneficial not just for developers working on the project, but also for the users.

#3 - It’ll be easier to add new features

In order to make refactoring a regular activity on your team, it helps when you refactor code while adding new features. Say a feature will take 3 days to implement. A developer should add an extra 1 day to rethink and refactor the code base, to make it ready for the new feature. This is the fundamental way to remove technical debt in a continuous way.

#4 - You’ll remove duplicate code, reduce complexity, and streamline development

In a messy codebase, you’ll often find multiple parts of the code that do the same thing. Refactoring enables you to find those parts, and unify them. It’s not just about duplicating, but also removing all of the unnecessary fluff which doesn’t contribute to the application’s performance or functionality. When the codebase is free from duplicates and unnecessary parts, growing the project and maintaining it is a smoother process.

#5 - Working with clean code makes developers happy

Knowledge workers, like software engineers, thrive when they can enter a state of flow during their work. But it’s not easy to make your workflow when you’re constantly wondering how parts of the code work, and why they were written the way they were. Continuous refactoring leads to a cleaner codebase, and a clean codebase is much more pleasant to work with than a messy codebase.

#6 - It makes your application more secure

Refactoring your code is a bit like taking care of a bonsai tree. You cut a little bit here, cut a little bit there, make sure it’s healthy and in pristine condition. Over time your understanding of the code grows, and the codebase gets better and more optimized. It’s easier to find security holes in a system that’s well-designed, efficient, and easy to understand.

Whereas if you don’t refactor your code at all, security holes might come out of the blue. In the worst-case scenario, you’ll realise they exist the moment a bad actor takes advantage of them.

To sum up:

Why is refactoring your code important? - Ulam Labs
Why is refactoring your code important? - Ulam Labs

If you start refactoring, how will you know that it’s working?

Refactoring is not a quick-win strategy or something that will instantly make everything better. It’s something that should be a part of your product development philosophy, and it creates value in a way that’s sometimes hard to quantify.

There are a few clear indicators that refactoring is working:

  • Delivering new features takes less time
  • New features are more stable
  • Developers can estimate new features more precisely

Refactoring might be time-consuming, and it might feel like that time would be better spent building new things. That’s rarely the case, especially if you want your project to live for a long time. If you’re just building a quick MVP with no plans of growing it, then sure, refactoring isn’t a priority.

But when you’re building a project that’s supposed to scale over time and operate for years, refactoring should be a routine part of your development and maintenance process.

Refactoring or rewriting - what’s the difference?

When you refactor the code of your application, the user doesn’t know that you did anything. The application works the same way it did before, any changes that might be seen are only in performance (it might work faster). The main benefit of refactoring is for development teams that are currently working on the application or will be working on it in the future.

Whereas when you rewrite code, it can mean anything from completely changing how the application works, switching the software it uses, to rebuilding the codebase from the ground up.

In an ideal situation, refactoring should be done regularly, you don’t need a reason to refactor code. Rewriting should be done only when there’s a real reason to do it, and it’s a separate project that usually results in major changes to the application.

Code refactoring or rewriting - difference - Ulam Labs
Code refactoring or rewriting - difference - Ulam Labs

Why is refactoring your code important? - conclusion

There are many reasons why it is important to refactor your code. The most crucial are:

  • code becomes clean
  • application might become faster
  • it’ll be easier to add new features
  • you’ll remove duplicate code, reduce complexity, and streamline development
  • it makes bugs easier to find
  • application is more secure

Refactoring is important and it's a big part of long-term software projects. Without it, you’ll encounter many issues that can be avoided.

When you do routine refactoring, your project will go smoothly, and you’ll find and fix potential issues before they cause you to lose money or clients. It really is a no-brainer. If you’re building software that’s supposed to last for a long time, you should be regularly refactoring your code.

If you are looking for a software development company to do code refactoring, or work on your digital product, get in touch with us!

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