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Code Reviews in Large-Scale Projects: Best Practices for Managers

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Code review in large teams and projects is daunting. Almost everything is against you: you have many developers and a lot of code spread over a large codebase in an important application. If any part goes wrong, the consequences can be significant, impacting not just the immediate development cycle but potentially the overall product quality and customer satisfaction.

Effective management of code reviews becomes critical in this context, serving not just as a quality control mechanism but also as a means to foster team collaboration, knowledge sharing, and continuous improvement in development practices.

Managers must implement structured, efficient review processes and foster an environment where constructive feedback is valued, leading to robust, maintainable, high-quality code.

We’ve got six opportunities inspired by Google’s engineering practices that can help managers build better code review processes within their teams.

The #1 Focus of a Code Review Is To Improve the Codebase

The primary goal of a code review is to enhance the overall quality and integrity of the codebase. Everything that happens has to be viewed through that lens. 

For managers, this means emphasizing codebase health constantly. You need your team to understand that the codebase is a collective asset that requires ongoing care and improvement. Emphasize the importance of writing clean, efficient, and maintainable code and clarify that the code review process is critical for achieving these objectives.

To emphasize codebase health, managers can take these specific steps:

  1. Set clear coding standards. Develop and enforce a comprehensive coding standard that all team members must follow.
  2. Implement automated tools. Use static analysis tools for automated code quality checks.

  3. Encourage thorough documentation. Promote the importance of good documentation within the codebase for maintainability.
  4. Review metrics regularly. Monitor and discuss code review metrics to identify areas for improvement.

  5. Foster a culture of quality. Create an environment where quality is valued over speed.

It is that last one where a manager and leader have greatest sway. The cultural aspects of a development team can significantly influence code quality. By promoting a culture where quality is prioritized, meticulous and thoughtful coding is valued, and where every team member feels responsible for the health of the codebase, managers can foster an environment that naturally upholds high standards in coding and review practices. 

This culture shift requires continuous reinforcement, recognition of good practices, and leading by example to instill these values deeply within the team.

The #2 Focus of a Code Review Is To Improve the Developer

Use code reviews as opportunities to mentor developers, guiding best practices and coding standards. You need to offer constructive feedback aimed at helping developers grow and enhance their skills.

The best way to do this is to use code reviews to share knowledge. This involves pointing out errors or areas for improvement, explaining the reasoning behind certain practices, discussing alternative approaches, and highlighting good coding patterns. 

Two options for managers here are:

  1. Encourage understanding of broader project architecture and problem-solving strategies. Managers should promote a holistic understanding of the project. This involves guiding developers to see beyond their immediate tasks and understand how their work fits the larger project architecture. It helps in cultivating a mindset oriented towards strategic problem-solving and big-picture thinking.

  2. Foster an environment where developers feel comfortable asking questions and discussing alternative solutions. Creating a safe space for open dialogue and exploring different solutions is crucial. Managers should encourage team members to ask questions, challenge assumptions, and propose alternative approaches. This improves individual code contributions and fosters a team dynamic that values collaboration and continuous learning.

It's about creating a space where developers feel comfortable asking questions, exploring new ideas, and taking constructive criticism to grow professionally. This approach enhances individual skills and strengthens the team's overall competency and cohesion.

Go For Progress Over Perfection

Value each step towards better code quality. Focus on making consistent, incremental improvements rather than striving for unattainable perfection.

This may seem at odds with the point above of creating “an environment where quality is valued over speed.” It’s not. 

It’s not contradictory because valuing quality over speed doesn’t imply seeking perfection. Instead, it means taking the time necessary to do things right and improve consistently. The aim is to strike a balance where quality improvements are made continuously without getting bogged down in seeking flawless code.

There is a difference between perfection and improvement. It's about prioritizing the most impactful enhancements and recognizing that development is an iterative process where each cycle brings the codebase closer to excellence.

For managers, the core aim is to use metrics to understand time spent in review and balance that time with the quality of the codebase.

By carefully monitoring and analyzing review times and code quality metrics, managers can identify areas where the review process can be streamlined without sacrificing code quality. This balanced approach ensures that the focus remains on progressive improvement, fostering a productive environment where quality code is developed efficiently and effectively.

Create a Style Guide And Follow It

Establish and enforce a consistent coding style guide. This is one of the most pragmatic steps a manager can take. It may seem too in-the-weeds to make a big difference, but style guides create the guardrails teams need to be successful.

Style guides create the guardrails teams need to be successful by establishing a common language and approach to coding. This uniformity makes code more readable and maintainable and streamlines collaboration among team members.

By reducing ambiguity and decision fatigue over coding styles, teams can focus more on solving complex problems rather than debating syntax or formatting choices. In this way, a well-defined style guide is a critical tool in enhancing overall team efficiency and code quality.

To implement style guides effectively, managers can take concrete steps like:

  1. Collaboratively develop the guide. Involve the team in creating the style guide to ensure buy-in and relevance to your team's needs.
  2. Integrate with tools. Use tools that automatically enforce style guide rules during code submissions.

  3. Regularly review and update. Keep the style guide up-to-date with evolving best practices and language features.

  4. Educate and train. Provide training sessions on the style guide to ensure all team members are familiar with the standards.

  5. Lead by example. Ensure senior team members and managers adhere strictly to the style guide, setting a precedent for others.

  6. Positive reinforcement. Recognize and reward compliance with the style guide to encourage adherence.

Instill Professionalism In Your Team

Foster a culture of respect where feedback is given constructively and received openly. Code reviews leave developers vulnerable. It is the point where their work is subject to criticism. If your team can’t deal with this process professionally, it can have huge consequences for team morale and the quality of your codebase.

For developers, professionalism comes through not taking bad reviews personally and seeing this as an opportunity to learn. Developers must approach code reviews with an open mind, understanding that feedback aims to improve their skills and the project. They should view each review as a chance to learn from their peers, enhancing their coding expertise and professional development.

For reviewers, professionalism means thinking about the PR from the developer's point of view and using this as an opportunity to teach. Reviewers should approach each PR with empathy, providing feedback that is not only constructive but also educational. They should guide the developer in understanding the rationale behind each suggestion, turning the code review into a teaching moment that benefits both parties.

Managers play a crucial role in shaping a team culture that values professionalism, learning, and mutual respect and need to set clear expectations and lead by example. They should actively promote a culture where feedback is seen as a constructive tool for growth, not criticism.

Managers should provide training on effective communication and feedback techniques, ensuring reviewers and developers understand how to engage in productive, respectful code review practices. Regularly recognizing and rewarding professional behavior also reinforces these values. 

Allow Small Changes Only

Limit the scope of PRs to encourage small, manageable pull requests for more straightforward review. Constraining PRs to 200 lines can significantly affect the quality of your codebase because it makes everything else on this list more manageable.

  • It’s easier to improve the codebase. Smaller changes allow for more focused and detailed reviews, leading to a deeper understanding of the code's impact on the overall project. This granularity enhances the codebase's quality by allowing reviewers to pinpoint and address specific issues effectively.
  • It’s easier to improve the developer. With smaller PRs, feedback is more targeted and digestible, making it easier for developers to absorb and implement. This specificity accelerates learning and skill development.

  • It’s easier to make progress. Smaller changes mean quicker reviews and faster integration, maintaining a steady pace of development. This approach minimizes bottlenecks, leading to more consistent improvement.

  • It’s easier to adhere to a style guide. Smaller PRs make checking for adherence to the style guide simpler, as there's less code to scrutinize. This ensures consistent coding standards across the project.

  • It is easier to be professional. With a more manageable workload per PR, developers can maintain a higher level of thoroughness and attention to detail, reflecting a professional approach to coding and review practices.

Encouraging small changes streamlines the review process and cultivates a more efficient, focused, and quality-oriented development culture. By limiting PR size, teams can ensure that each change is given the attention it deserves, leading to a more robust and reliable codebase. This practice helps maintain high standards across the board, from coding quality to professional conduct, ultimately benefiting the project's overall progress and success.

Code Review Increases Quality

As a manager, you want to leverage code reviews as a critical strategy to enhance the overall quality within your team. This process not only improves the codebase, making it more robust and efficient but it also nurtures the growth and development of your developers. 

By fostering a systematic and constructive review culture, you can build a team that is both technically proficient and collaboratively strong, leading to a higher quality of work and a more cohesive team environment.

Codacy can help by automating and standardizing code reviews. Our best-in-class static code analysis solution helps engineering teams speed up development and save time in code reviews while prioritizing code quality over everything else. Try it for free today.

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