best code review approach

Best Code Review Strategy

Estimated read time: 7 minutes

Want to make code reviews work in your organization? Implement the right code review strategy. The following are the best code review strategies:

1. Set goals and standards for code review

You need to set clear goals for code review. If you say that you want to find defects early, that’s not a clear objective. What kind of defects do you want to find?

Do you want to check whether the code functions according to the requirements and specifications? This requires one kind of review along with unit tests.

Do you want to find out if the code will meet non-functional requirements like performance and scalability? This requires a different kind of scrutiny of the code base.

Do you want to identify security vulnerabilities? You need to find bugs that are commonly exploited by hackers.

Alternatively, do you want maintainable code? Your focus can’t only be on functionality, performance, and security. Reviewers need to check if the code is readable. They need to check whether there are enough relevant comments in the code. You need to flag redundant comments.

Study industry-standard metrics. Use relevant metrics like defect density, defect rate, and inspection rate to measure the effectiveness of code reviews. Set goals and standards accordingly.

2. Effectively communicate the goals of code reviews and your expectations

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Explain the quality objectives that you want the team to achieve. Describe how these quality objectives tie into the larger objectives of the organization. Explain how the team can improve code quality to achieve these.

Talk about the need to provide constructive feedback during reviews. Explain how code reviews can become great learning opportunities for junior developers.

Communicate goals and expectations in an honest and caring manner. The team should look at code reviews as opportunities to improve and not occasions to blame.

3. Create and document a practical and realistic code review process

Build a robust code review process. You should cover the following questions and aspects in that process:

  • How will you conduct code reviews? Will the developers send emails to reviewers with the information necessary for the review? Do you plan to use a tool to manage the communication? Would you conduct an “over-the-shoulder” code review, or would you want a more formal review session?
  • Which coding guidelines will you use as the references for code review? How will you ensure that these are up-to-date?
  • Which code review checklist will you use? Who will keep the checklist up-to-date?
  • How will you conduct “root cause analysis” (RCA) exercises? Which tools and techniques will you use?
  • How will you conduct “lessons-learned” exercises?
  • Which metrics will you track? How will you measure them?
  • How will you report reviews?
  • Which tools will you use for tracking defects and closing them?

The above isn’t an exhaustive list. Brainstorm with your development team to come up with a comprehensive and realistic process. Finally, document the process clearly and publicize it.

4. Use an up-to-date checklist for reviewing code

Create a useful code review checklist for your development team. A code review checklist should remind reviewers to cover the important items during the review. You should include the following:

  • Technology-specific review items for relevant technologies like Java, JavaScript, Node.js, Python, Kotlin, Swift, etc.;
  • Industry-specific review items;
  • Review items concerning different project types, e.g., mobile development, web development, artificial intelligence (AI) development;
  • Environment-specific review items, e.g., best practices for cloud-native development;
  • Organization-specific review items.

When you find production defects or code quality issues, then you should conduct root cause analysis exercises. Review the effectiveness of the checklist at that time.

Update the checklist regularly to incorporate the lessons learned. You might need to do that frequently if you have frequent reviews.

Use a robust version-controlling process for the review checklist. Ensure that reviewers use the latest version of the code review checklist.

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5. Ensure the prerequisites are fulfilled before you review the code

You need developers to fulfill certain prerequisites before reviewing code. These prerequisites might vary based on the organization and technical environment. However, the following are bare minimum perquisites:

  • No code modifications should happen at the time of review.
  • You should only review after the codebase is locked.
  • You should review only the latest version of the code.
  • Developers should annotate the source code before the start of the review.
  • You should review code directly from the code repository used by the project. This helps reviewers to review the latest version of the code.

6. Schedule the review sessions smartly for an effective code review

You should schedule the code review ahead of time. Code reviewers need sufficient time for reviewing code.

If they are peer reviewers, then they already know about the project. What if the reviewers aren’t in the same project? They need sufficient time to familiarise themselves with the project.

Scheduling reviews smartly helps reviewers to prepare for the review. Developers benefit too if you schedule the review in advance. They get sufficient time to follow the version-control best practices. Programmers can follow annotations guides, furthermore, they get enough time to run unit tests.

7. Carefully plan the volume of source code to review

Code review involves rigorous analysis. It’s not a transactional job. When you extensively analyze code, you need a laser-like focus. Reviewers can maintain such focus for a certain duration only. Even experienced reviewers can’t maintain optimal focus for inordinately long hours.

If you review code for very long hours, then the laws of diminishing return set in. You might catch important bugs in code reviewed early in the session. However, this efficiency reduces as the review session is prolonged.

Schedule the code review exercise intelligently to avoid very long review sessions. Reviewers can then focus on a manageable volume of code to review. They can do a better code review then.

8. Use automated tools to augment the effort of code reviewers

You need experienced and competent human code reviewers. You can’t replace them with tools. However, you can augment their effort with code review tools.

A code review exercise can find many defects and code quality issues. Some of them are common issues. Automated code review tools can detect them easily. They compare the codebase against a comprehensive set of guidelines. This process is automated, therefore, code reviewers don’t need to spend time.

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Human code reviewers can look for more complex bugs that automated checks can’t detect. Thus, you use their expertise more effectively. A few popular code review tools are Review Board, Crucible, Phabricator, Collaborator, CodeScene, Visual Expert, Gerrit, Rhodecode, and Veracode.

9. Foster the right environment for great code reviews

You gain value from code review only if you foster a conducive environment for it. Build the right environment. Its characteristics are as follows:

  • Team leaders use code review to improve the performance of the team. They don’t use it to penalize team members. Project managers (PMs) and team leaders encourage team members to learn from feedback received during code review.
  • PMs and team leaders use the lessons learned during code reviews to improve the software development processes. They strive for continuous improvement.
  • Reviewers focus on important matters. They proactively try to detect bugs, which adds value to the project. If the code doesn’t have enough comments, then the reviewers report that. Adding comments to the code will improve the maintainability. However, reviewers don’t insist on changing the personal code style of developers.
  • Developers maintain a positive frame of mind when reviewers provide feedback. They don’t become defensive. Programmers treat code reviews as opportunities to learn.
  • Everyone in the team proactively maintains an honest, caring, and professional environment. The team strictly avoids personal comments, harsh words, hectoring tones, and inappropriate gestures.

10. Track the outcome of the code review process and ensure closure

You need to track the review comments and their closure. You can create a spreadsheet-based tracking mechanism for this. However, that will take time. You can’t scale that kind of manual tracking process either.

We recommend using a defect tracking tool. Explore open-source defect tracking tools like BugZilla, Mantis BT, Trac, The Bug Genie, and Redmine. Ensure that your development team closes the defects.

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1. Should I use the Extreme Programming framework to ensure the best reviews?

You can use Extreme Programming or techniques like Pair Programming if your project requires it. However, this is not a prerequisite for a good code review. You can follow the other relevant code review best practices too to perform code reviews.

2. Should I prioritize automated code review tools over human reviewers for better code reviews?

You should have automated code review tools to augment the effort of human reviewers for a better code review. You can save time this way. However, automated tools can’t replace the knowledge of senior engineers experienced in code review.

3. Should I only hire senior engineers for code review?

You can have peer code review in your organization. Reviewers and developers often have the same level of experience in the case of peer reviews. Look for reviewers with code review proficiency and experience. Even team members with mid-level experience can develop proficiency in code review.


Alexey Semeney

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