Posted on Apr 11, 2022
Few engineers are immune to the siren’s song to refactor a piece of code. The idea of taking a block of crufty, unreadable, inefficient code and improving it is too strong of an allure for most of us to resist. But what starts as a refactor, more often than not, results in a restructuring of the code. What’s the difference? As Martin Fowler is often quoted:
Refactoring is the process of changing a software system in such a way that it does not alter the external behavior of the code yet improves its internal structure.
– Martin Fowler
Restructuring differs from refactoring in that it alters the external behavior. Argument types and arity, function names, classes, and modules can all be dramatically changed with a restructure. So can the return value.
I’m managing teams now, and aside from code reviews and the occasional one or two point story, I rarely get a chance to write code, let alone refactor anything. Nonetheless, I’m still captivated by refactoring; for the chance to improve processes and code.
I first stumbled on the idea of the team refactor meeting–as I most often do–after meeting with one of my team. In that meeting he made an offhanded remark about getting together with the team to consider which areas of the project needed the most work. Something about the way he said it gave me the idea for an ongoing meeting to make everything about the way we work better.
Unlike refactoring code, the team refactor is a meeting used to review and rethink the way your team and project operates. It’s a time to address the pain points we experience–but often ignore–in our project, processes, and the code base. It gives us the chance to ask questions such as:
It’s tempting to confuse this with a retrospective, but the two are altogether different. A retrospective focuses on the successes, failures, and lessons drawn from a sprint or feature release, whereas the team refactor takes a step back to look at the bigger picture, concentrating more on what can be done to make the team more effective.
The team refactor is a meeting, and should be held no more than once a month, and no less than once a quarter (we hold ours on the last Friday of every month). If it’s held weekly or bi-weekly, it’s difficult to see progress and you risk it devolving into a gripe session. Anything less than once a quarter and you’ll lose engagement. I recommend basing the frequency of the meeting on the amount of the team’s technical or organizational debt.
To make certain there are topics to discuss, regularly remind the team about it leading up to the meeting (such as in daily standups). It keeps the meeting “top of mind”, giving everyone time to watch for areas to improve. Make sure to keep a list of your own topics in case things stall out.
You can run the meeting any way you prefer. What I’ve done so far is break it up into three parts: Review, Propose, and Prioritize.
During the “review” section of the meeting, your job is to remind the team what was covered in the last team refactor, highlighting which items the team completed. If no progress was made, own up to it; it’s better for morale if you don’t hide from it.
This part usually takes less than a third of the meeting.
Note: The “review” only works if you keep notes from one session to another.
The bulk of the meeting should be dedicated to sharing and talking about new ideas and topics. During this time, each team member should have something they’d like to see improved, with the team lead or manager offering ideas after everyone else or if no one is willing to open up.
Use the last segment of the meeting to prioritize what the team plans to do. Which of the ideas discussed this time and in prior meetings should be tackled, and in what order? This part of the meeting should take the least amount of time.
Once the meeting concludes, it’s imperative you create stories to address the problems the team brought up. There’s no point in holding a team refactor unless the team can execute on those items. If the team isn’t allowed to act, you’ll deliver a gut punch to their morale. Don’t do that. Instead, make sure to schedule one or two items for work before the next team refactor. The stories don’t have to be completed, but they should at least be started.
Refactoring attracts developers, because it’s an opportunity to improve a piece of code; a way of proving we can solve the problem better. It’s the same thing for the team refactor. It’s coming together as a group, recognizing we can improve every area of our project, and then setting out to do it.
For the engineers, this means making the work environment–be it the system, processes, or codebase–more enjoyable to work in. They get to focus on solving problems instead of fighting the system or struggling to untangle spaghetti.
For the manager or the lead, it means seeing the team more engaged by proving that things can get better and are getting better. It also shows that you hear and understand them.
I’ve run team refactors on two different teams for a year, and I can honestly say it works. There may be griping in the first meeting or two about “yet another meeting,” but it settles down once everyone sees things improve. Once they see they’re the ones responsible for that change–that they’re the ones driving it–they only want more. That’s a good thing.