Code review & Time Travel

time to read 4 min | 672 words

A not insignificant part of my job is to go over code. Today I want to discuss how we approach code reviews at RavenDB, not from a process perspective but from an operational one. I have been a developer for nearly 25 years now, and I’ve come to realize that when I’m doing a code review I’m actually looking at the code from three separate perspectives.

The first, and most obvious one, is when I’m actually looking for problems in the code - ensuring that I can understand what is going on, confirming the flow makes sense, etc. This involves looking at the code as it is right now.

I’m going to be showing snippets of code reviews here. You are not actually expected to follow the code, only the concepts that we talk about here.

Here is a classic code review comment:

There is some duplicated code that we need to manage. Another comment that I liked is this one, pointing out a potential optimization in the code:

If we define the code using the static keyword, we’ll avoid delegate allocation and save some memory, yay!

It gets more interesting when the code is correct and proper, but may do something weird in some cases, such as in this one:

I really love it when I run into those because they allow me to actually explore the problem thoroughly. Here is an even better example, this isn’t about a problem in the code, but a discussion on its impact.

RavenDB has been around for over 15 years, and being able to go back and look at those conversations in a decade or so is invaluable to understanding what is going on. It also ensures that we can share current knowledge a lot more easily.

Speaking of long running-projects, take a look at the following comment:

Here we need to provide some context to explain. The _caseInsensitive variable here is a concurrent dictionary, and the change is a pretty simple optimization to avoid the annoying KeyValuePair overload. Except… this code is there intentionally, we use it to ensure that the removal operation will only succeed if both the key and the value match. There was an old bug that happened when we removed blindly and the end result was that an updated value was removed.

In this case, we look at the code change from a historical perspective and realize that a modification would reintroduce old (bad) behavior. We added a comment to explain that in detail in the code (and there already was a test to catch it if this happens again).

By far, the most important and critical part of doing code reviews, in my opinion, is not focusing on what is or what was, but on what will be. In other words, when I’m looking at a piece of code, I’m considering not only what it is doing right now, but also what we’ll be doing with it in the future.

Here is a simple example of what I mean, showing a change to a perfectly fine piece of code:

The problem is that the if statement will call InitializeCmd(), but we previously called it using a different condition. We are essentially testing for the same thing using two different methods, and while currently we end up with the same situation, in the future we need to be aware that this may change.

I believe one of the major shifts in my thinking about code reviews came about because I mostly work on RavenDB, and we have kept the project running over a long period of time. Focusing on making sure that we have a sustainable and maintainable code base over the long haul is important. Especially because you need to experience those benefits over time to really appreciate looking at codebase changes from a historical perspective.