Why Should You Refactor?

I don't want to proclaim refactoring as the cure for all software ills. It is no "silver bullet." Yet it is a valuable tool, a pair of silver pliers that helps you keep a good grip on your code. Refactoring is a tool that can, and should, be used for several purposes.

Refactoring Improves the Design of Software

Without refactoring, the design of the program will decay. As people change code—changes to realize short-term goals or changes made without a full comprehension of the design of the code—the code loses its structure. It becomes harder to see the design by reading the code. Refactoring is rather like tidying up the code. Work is done to remove bits that aren't really in the right place. Loss of the structure of code has a cumulative effect. The harder it is to see the design in the code, the harder it is to preserve it, and the more rapidly it decays. Regular refactoring helps code retain its shape.

Poorly designed code usually takes more code to do the same things, often because the code quite literally does the same thing in several places. Thus an important aspect of improving design is to eliminate duplicate code. The importance of this lies in future modifications to the code. Reducing the amount of code won't make the system run any faster, because the effect on the footprint of the programs rarely is significant. Reducing the amount of code does, however, make a big difference in modification of the code. The more code there is, the harder it is to modify correctly.

There's more code to understand. You change this bit of code here, but the system doesn't do what you expect because you didn't change that bit over there that does much the same thing in a slightly different context. By eliminating the duplicates, you ensure that the code says everything once and only once, which is the essence of good design.

Refactoring Makes Software Easier to Understand

Programming is in many ways a conversation with a computer. You write code that tells the computer what to do, and it responds by doing exactly what you tell it. In time you close the gap between what you want it to do and what you tell it to do. Programming in this mode is all about saying exactly what you want. But there is another user of your source code. Someone will try to read your code in a few months'time to make some changes. We easily forget that extra user of the code, yet that user is actually the most important. Who cares if the computer takes a few more cycles to compile something? It does matter if it takes a programmer a week to make a change that would have taken only an hour if she had understood your code.

The trouble is that when you are trying to get the program to work, you are not thinking about that future developer. It takes a change of rhythm to make changes that make the code easier to understand. Refactoring helps you to make your code more readable. When refactoring you have code that works but is not ideally structured. A little time spent refactoring can make the code better communicate its purpose. Programming in this mode is all about saying exactly what you mean.

I'm not necessarily being altruistic about this. Often this future developer is me. Here refactoring is particularly important. I'm a very lazy programmer. One of my forms of laziness is that I never remember things about the code I write. Indeed, I deliberately try not remember anything I can look up, because I'm afraid my brain will get full. I make a point of trying to put everything I should remember into the code so I don't have to remember it. That way I'm less worried about Old Peculier killing off my brain cells.

This understandability works another way, too. I use refactoring to help me understand unfamiliar code. When I look at unfamiliar code, I have to try to understand what it does. I look at a couple of lines and say to myself, oh yes, that's what this bit of code is doing. With refactoring I don't stop at the mental note. I actually change the code to better reflect my understanding, and then I test that understanding by rerunning the code to see if it still works.

Early on I do refactoring like this on little details. As the code gets clearer, I find I can see things about the design that I could not see before. Had I not changed the code, I probably never would have seen these things, because I'm just not clever enough to visualize all this in my head. Ralph Johnson describes these early refactorings as wiping the dirt off a window so you can see beyond. When I'm studying code I find refactoring leads me to higher levels of understanding that otherwise I would miss.