Are you a software Boy Scout ?


If you are a developer like me, you probably worked on a legacy code based application. If not, don’t worry (or do) it will certainly happen… We all know a project that we fear to open because it is just a huge mess without a single test and nobody really understand how it works, it just does. Every software team has to work in order to prevent the effects of technical debt.

Refactoring a whole application to make the code “cleaner” can take an enormous amount of time, it can be weeks or sometimes months, depending on the project size and complexity. Some organization will incorporate refactoring phases during the development life-cycle. But since during these periods, the team does not provide any new features (i.e. no value), having these refactoring phases is a hard sell. Time to become a Boy Scout then !

What the boys scouts have to do with software development ? The answer is found in their rule :

“Always leave the campground cleaner than you found it.”

This simple rule can be applied to code and especially legacy code, and it becomes :

“Leave the code better than you found it.”

I present you the Boy Scout Rule (BSR) of programming. Making the code “cleaner” can be done at any moment, and it can be done piece by piece, no need to wait for a “Big Bang Refactoring” phase.

If you have a legacy project it is likely that you will have some improvements or bug fixing to do in it. This is the perfect time to embrace the boy scout philosophy. Of course after your passage the application will still be legacy but a bit less, and the next time you will improve it again. The code will become better with time and one day you’ll stop considering the project as a legacy one.

For example it is possible to rename a variable with a more meaningful name. Given the following code to calculate a triangle area :

var res = b / 2 * h

After the BSR applied :

var triangleArea = base / 2 * height

This is not much but it will help the next developer (maybe you) to understand the code and its purpose. And next time you will see that this piece of code is duplicate in several parts of the code. Time to create a method then :

public int CalculateTriangleArea(int base, int height)
    return base / 2 * height;

You now have a method that can replace your duplicate code and that can be easily tested with your favorite automated testing framework ! I know that this example is really simple but I’m sure you’ll find these kinds of easy “cleaning” in your applications.

There is a type of code refactoring I often use to make my code more understandable and to ease maintainability : moving repeated magic number value into a single constant variable. For example, a few years back, the french VAT was equal to 19.6% and now it is 20%. I let you imagine the pain it could have been to change every “19.6” in some projects where it could have been far easier to use a single constant with a meaningful name.

There are a lot of refactoring techniques to improve your code base, Martin Fowler gives you a list of some of them here.

A software craftsman does not fear legacy code, by following the Boy Scout Rule he will improve his projects.

See you next time !

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