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Meanwhile, I'm successfully rewriting your code

posted under category: Software Quality on January 26, 2020 at 8:41 pm by Nathan

I really enjoy a lot of the content on Y Combinator’s Hacker News. One recent article that came up was Why do we fall into the rewrite trap?, which was a great look into the anti-pattern of software rewrites instead of thoughtful refactoring.

The comments tend to be as good as the articles, for example, one commentor mentioned Theseus’ Gambit - a philosophical engineering question about replacing every plank on a ship, at what point is it a new ship? This is a great question when it comes to software rewrites. Isn’t a refactor somehow creating a new work? Or is it only a rewrite if you start over?

So many comments agreed with the author and added their own notes. One wrote “rewriting a codebase is a lose-lose proposition: I’ll never suggest or recommend it again.” Others mentioned the need to rewrite based on technologies, like old Flash applications.

A few years ago, I was on a 3-person team asked to upgrade and visually update one of our applications. At one look, you would have guessed it was built in 1996. It was abandoned and disavowed by all the previous programmers. We looked at the code and went over the security, and decided that there was absolutely no part of it that could move forward. Management had been sold on a refactor but we needed a rewrite. We are determined to do what’s necessary, so we kicked it off. Our project manager collected requirements and relayed some of our ideas, then my friend Shawn and I worked through the new database needs, new CSS frameworks, new JavaScript frameworks, and the new security system. In a short handful of months, we had a much improved replacement for the old system, ran the implementation plan, migrated all the data, and turned off the old site. It was a big win for the business, and for #TeamRewrite.

Not long after that, #TeamRefactor got a victory on a desktop app - it was a bigger team and while the code was bad - I mean like, a complete misunderstanding of OOP - we decided to refactor a lot of it instead of starting over. It was a somewhat political decision because we didn’t want to make the previous dev team angry. Unfortunately, they were equally offended that we were planning a refactor. Some drama took place. The refactor effort took a long time. We finished it eventually, but we ended up with an app that we still didn’t like (it was better, and many of the initial underlying problems were fixed, but…), our friends didn’t like us anymore, and a lot of time was wasted - far more than we expected. I would vote that refactoring this app was an overall failure.

A little later I was given charge of an IT app that was built only 6 months earlier and still in active development. Its foundation was in ASP.NET WebForms and VB.NET. After I gagged a tiny bit, I swallowed my pride and tried to hunker down and start on improvements. Backing up, our department has been a C# MVC group for some years, and when we follow one path, we try to make the rest of our choices as vanilla, gravy, plain, and standard as possible. This helps with ramping up new employees. The group that started this app chose .NET but then went with every other different choice, probably just based on familiarity. I took a task off the backlog for creating a mobile-friendly version, which turned into a reimplementation of the entire app, running much faster, was natively responsive, perfectly printable, and ended up being the spearhead of the larger vision for version 2: a complete rewrite. I did it with tact, not offending any parties, announcing my successes and advertising my work while helping the product team make the right choices on the vision. The end result was a much better product that fell closer in line with department goals. Another point for #TeamRewrite!

Not long after, I was handed a C# MVC + React app. The current steward was about to leave the company, so I had a transition week and then it was mine. The app was fine, there was nothing really wrong with it. On day one of independence I had about 30 commits to fix a bunch of things that I thought needed changing but didn’t want to do it and stomp on my former co-worker’s code and feelings. Very quickly, a number of things started working better, I caught up with all the changed from the data team that worked out of our Seattle office, I refactored some things that probably needed it, created my own backlog, and pretty much got bored about 3 weeks in. This is when I started to rewrite the UI in Vue.js. There were some requirements coming down that would have me using Redux, and I do not want to use Redux again, also I couldn’t figure out React-Router’s chunk splitting (I guess it depends on React.lazy()), and I don’t like the React runtime’s bloated file size. On the other hand, I’m a huge fan of Vue, which is smaller, faster and I just like it more. I’m opinionated! I was pretty sure I could keep up with the React app changes and create the Vue version (I could), chalk up the UI change from React-Semantic-UI to Vuetify (Material) as just being a visual update (I did), and get it all done in 4 weeks (I didn’t). It took me 6 weeks. I floated it with the data team and they were positive on it, so I pushed it to the users… they barely noticed. After a while I got some comments about how much they liked the changes. The result was an application that ran a little faster, downloaded quicker, was more maintainable, could easily support all the new requirements, and I just plain liked it more. #TeamRewrite for the win. Was it worthwhile? Maybe, until I consider the pain I would have to go through for implementing Redux, then it was definitely worth it!

So what have we learned?

Maybe that Nathan just likes to rewrite applications for fun. Am I an anomaly if I keep having a lot of success with it? I work on internal enterprise systems; I wonder of the applications I keep inheriting are just really, terribly bad.

For the record, I’ve worked on plenty of systems that I did not suggest rewriting. I have one app that I inherited and have kept alive for twelve years now. It’s been through some major refactors, but it’s been evolutionary the whole time. Of course now it’s time for a rewrite - haha! It’s ColdFusion after all, and we don’t do that anymore. How did this application avoid Nathan’s swift justice against poorly coded enterprise apps? Well it was very well structured from the start - strong MVC roots, layered architecture, it was built on a firm foundation. Maybe #TeamRefactor should get a few more points.

While refactoring is typically less expensive, I have a list of reasons that will ping that rewrite bell in my head.

  • When the existing application is very obviously, truly a disaster
  • The UI looks like it’s 20+ years old
  • When the existing technology platform is inadequate
  • When upcoming changes require significant rework

I remember reading - though I can’t recall where - a hard figure. It was something to the extent of: when more than 60% of an application or component needs to be refactored, that application or component should probably be rewritten.

I really don’t prefer to rewrite, and neither should anyone, however, I believe that rewrites are much more possible than we are led to believe.

Nathan is a software developer at The Boeing Company in Charleston, SC. He is essentially a big programming nerd. Really, you could say that makes him a nerd among nerds. Aside from making software for the web, he plays with tech toys and likes to think about programming's big picture while speaking at conferences and generally impressing people with massive nerdiness and straight-faced sarcastic humor. Nathan got his programming start writing batch files in DOS. It should go without saying, but these thought and opinions have nothing to do with Boeing in any way.
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