Once upon a time, a consultant made a visit to a development project. The consultant looked at some of the code that had been written; there was a class hierarchy at the center of the system. As he wandered through the hierarchy, the consultant saw that it was rather messy. The higher level classes made certain assumptions about how the classes would work, assumptions that were embodied in inherited code. That code didn’t suit all the subclasses, however, and was overridden quite heavily. If the superclass had been modified a little, then much less overriding would have been necessary. In other places, some of the intentions of the superclass had not been properly understood, and the behaviour present in the superclass was duplicated. In yet other places several subclasses did the same thing with code that could clearly be moved up the hierarchy.
The consultant recommended to the project management that the code be looked at and cleaned up, but the project management didn’t seem enthusiastic. The code seemed to work and there were considerable schedule pressures. The managers said they would get around to it at some later point.
The consultant had also shown the programmers who had worked on the hierarchy what was
going on. The programmers were keen and saw the problem. They knew that it wasn’t really their fault; sometimes a new pair of eyes is needed to spot the problem. So the programmers spent a day or two cleaning up the hierarchy. When they were finished, the programmers removed half the code in the hierarchy without reducing its functionality. They were pleased with the result and found that it became quicker and easier both to add new classes to the hierarchy and to use the classes in the rest of the system.
The project management was not pleased. Schedules were tight and there was a lot of work to
do. These two programmers had spent two days doing work that had done nothing to add the
many features the system had to deliver in a few months’ time. The old code had worked just fine. So the design was a bit more “pure” and a bit more “clean.” The project had to ship code that worked, not code that would please an academic. The consultant suggested that this cleaning up be done on other central parts of the system. Such an activity might halt the project for a week or two. All this activity was devoted to making the code look better, not to make it do anything that it didn’t already do.
How do you feel about this story? Do you think the consultant was right to suggest further clean-up? Or do you follow that old engineering adage, “if it works, don’t fix it”?
Six months later the project failed, in large part because the code was too complex to debug or to tune to acceptable performance. The consultant was brought in to restart the project, an exercise that involved rewriting almost the whole system from scratch. He did several things differently, but one of the most important was to insist on continuous cleaning up of the code using refactoring.
This is an excerpt from the book preface “Refactoring – by Martin Fowler”.