Our guidelines for code review

Our guidelines for code review

Richard Brown

7 April 2022 - 13 min read

Code
Our guidelines for code review

What Are Code Reviews?

At Audacia, all code is reviewed by at least one other person before it goes through any other form of testing. It is the first quality gate at which potential issues can be raised and addressed.

Code reviews at Audacia, like most companies, are primarily conducted online via pull requests.

Why Have Code Review Guidelines?

Having a set of code review guidelines that encourages kindness can help to foster a more inclusive and collaborative working environment.

At Audacia we hire developers and testers at every stage of their career, from entry-level employees with no experience, to industry veterans with 10+ years under their belt. These guidelines help our junior employees by creating a safe space where they can learn without some of the more destructive code review practices that occur elsewhere in the industry. They also provide opportunities for senior employees to grow as mentors and leaders.

We designed guidelines to cover how authors should prepare and publish code for review, and how reviewers should conduct themselves when performing a review of someone else's code.

Author Guidelines

Build Code and Run Unit Tests Before Submission

Always ensure that the code builds and all tests pass before submitting a pull request.

Pull request build validation should be in place, which is part of our branch policy guidelines.

Further reading here .

Review Your Own Code

A self-review of a pull request can often find issues such as typos, commented out code and formatting errors.

If there are changes that you're not sure about, or would like a reviewer to take a closer look at, then you can notify the reviewer by adding comments in the appropriate places.

Further reading here .

Keep Pull Requests Small

The larger a pull request, the less likely reviewers are to spot issues. This study  found that the upper limit of lines of code that can be effectively reviewed at one time is around 400, as the brain's ability to process information (and therefore find defects) diminishes beyond this point.

Small pull requests are easier when user stories are broken down effectively, however even for large user stories, submitting multiple pull requests is almost always possible.

One way to think about this is to group related changes into a single pull request. For example, if there are linting fixes along with functionality changes for a particular card, then you should submit separate pull requests.

Further reading here  and here .

Use the Pull Request Title and Description

The pull request title and description should be used to provide context to the reviewer as to the purpose of the change. We also have commit naming guidelines, which leads to more meaningful commit messages that can then form the basis of the pull request description.

Further reading here .

Include Screenshots and/or GIFs for UI Changes

Styling/UI changes are extremely hard to review purely by looking at the code. Screenshots and/or GIFs actually showing what the result of the change looks like in the application can be invaluable.

Further reading here .

Leave Comments to Reviewers to Resolve

It can be very tempting to resolve comments yourself when implementing a suggested change, especially for trivial changes such as typos. However the only person who can judge whether something is resolved is the person who created the comment in the first place, i.e. the reviewer.

If a reviewer is happy to let the author resolve a comment then they should communicate that in the comment itself, e.g. by adding something like "Happy to let you resolve this yourself once it's addressed".

Reviewer Guidelines

Consider Functional Requirements

It's easy to dive straight into a code review by going through line-by-line, looking for issues, without ever considering what the code change is actually supposed to accomplish. You should always read the user story or bug linked to the PR, understand the AC/repro steps, and check that the change meets the functional requirements.

Consider Non-Functional Requirements

You should also always consider non-functional requirements, including but not limited to:

  • Security (e.g. does the code adhere to our secure coding standards)
  • Performance
  • Scalability
  • Maintainability
  • Usability and user experience (e.g. have the appropriate UI elements been used?)
  • Accessibility

Ask Questions

Phrase suggestions as questions rather than demands. This is much less confrontational, and the dialogue it prompts can reveal the intention behind certain decisions. Reviewers usually don't have the full context in which choices were made, so don't assume that you know best. For example:

Bad: "This method should be renamed: I'd go for GetUsername()."

Good: "What do you think about renaming this method: perhaps GetUsername()?"

Further reading here .

Understand the Code

As a reviewer, the code being reviewed is likely something that you will have to maintain in future, therefore it's important that you understand what it's doing and why. As a junior tester or developer it is easy to assume that more senior colleagues are right and their code must be perfect, but this is definitely not true! Everyone makes mistakes so go into the review with an open mind.

If you don't understand the code then ask questions: it may be that comments or documentation is needed, or that methods and variables could be renamed to add clarity.

Use I-Messages

Phrase feedback using 'I' or 'me', rather than 'you'. For example:

Bad: "You implemented this in a really confusing way."

Good: "I didn't understand this implementation."

Further reading here , and more detailed guidance on how to structure feedback here .

Talk About the Code, Not the Author

Phrase feedback to make the code the focal point, not the person who wrote the code. For example:

Bad: "You wrote a race condition here."

Good: "The code has a race condition here."

Further reading here , here  and here .

Give the Author the Benefit of the Doubt

Ensure your starting position is "there is a valid reason this has been done in this way". As mentioned above, reviewers very rarely have the full context behind decisions made when writing the code being reviewed, therefore giving the author the benefit of the doubt rather than assuming they're wrong and you're right is always the best approach. If you still think something is worth commenting on then ask questions about the code using I-messages.

Accept Alternative Solutions

Not every solution will be exactly what you would have implemented. Most of the time this is ok, and asking someone to change code purely to fit your personal preference is unreasonable. Prefer compromise and pragmatism over rigidity and pedantry.

It is important to realise that any suggested change has both a benefit and a cost to it. The benefit of making a change is generally that the codebase will be slightly improved as a result. The cost is usually twofold: the change will take time, often involving context switching for the author; and unless it is managed sensitively, the process can have a negative impact on the confidence and overall wellness of the author. Always weigh up whether the change you are suggesting is really worth it.

Further reading here  and here .

Don't Nitpick

If you are too critical then the author will likely be less receptive to feedback. This can mean that important feedback is not taken on board as the unimportant nitpicking has annoyed them to the point of them shutting down. As a reviewer you need to pick your battles, and sometimes that means letting the smaller things go.

If you must raise something, then signify it's a nitpick by prefixing the comment with nit:. For example:

Bad: "Could this extra whitespace be addressed?"

Good: "nit: Could this extra whitespace be addressed?"

On a similar theme, if a pull request contains the same mistake in several places (for example, missing braces in an if statement), don't add a comment for every single instance. Instead add a single comment making the author aware of the issue, or better yet speak to the author to explain the problem. Firing off tens of comments about what is essentially the same thing is a waste of time.

Further reading here , here  and here .

Ensure Feedback is Valid

You can ask yourself three questions before submitting feedback:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Is it necessary?
  3. Is it kind?

Is it true?

Don't make statements that are not actually facts; instead rephrase them as questions. For example:

Bad: "Never use a singleton."

Good: "Could you explain why a singleton has been used?"

If something is a fact, then back it up with a source. For example:

Bad: "Don't use camel case for method names."

Good: "Our C# coding standards say to use Pascal case for method names."

Is it necessary?

This is closely related to accepting alternative solutions and not nitpicking. Always think about whether the feedback is really worth it. Learn to be pragmatic and let some things go.

Is it kind?

Don't be unnecessarily confrontational. Ask questions and use I-messages to phrase feedback.

One rule of thumb is to avoid using the word just. It can come across as meaning "why didn't you think of this yourself?". For example:

Bad: "You can just use a constructor for this."

Good: Have you considered using a constructor for this?"

Another word to avoid is obviously, as what's obvious to you is not necessarily obvious to everyone. For example:

Bad: "It's obviously a good use case for a do...while loop."

Good: "This might be a good use case for a do...while loop. What do you think?"

Further reading here  and here .

Have a Face-to-Face Conversation

There comes a point in the back-and-forth of pull request comments where you should just speak to the other person. Often explaining feedback face-to-face is much more efficient, as you can more easily provide context and examples, and can even collaborate with the author on a solution.

Further reading here  and here .

Don't Ask Authors to Address Unrelated Issues

Asking the author to fix or refactor some code unrelated to their feature or bug fix "while they're at it" is a technical form of scope creep. It slows down the team and leads to issues with estimates and velocity. Instead raise a new card to deal with the issue that you've spotted.

Further reading here .

Ensure Online Communication is Clear and Unambiguous

Online communication is fraught with the potential for misunderstandings, stemming from the fact that we can't read facial cues or expressions. There are a couple of things we can do to reduce the risk of comments being misinterpreted.

Use Correct Grammar and Punctuation

Informal language or abbreviated words can sometimes come across as abrupt or even aggressive. Using correct grammar and punctuation can lead to clearer communication with less room for ambiguity.

Bad (the comment could come across as abrupt): "k."

Good (less abrupt; could be further softened with an emoji - see below): "Ok, that's fine."

Use Emojis to Remove Ambiguity from Comments

Using positive emojis (such as a smiley face) can help to clarify the intent behind a comment or remark. For example:

Bad (the comment could come across as abrupt or hostile): "I don't mind, the method can stay as it is."

Good (clear the intent behind the comment is friendly): "I don't mind, the method can stay as it is 😃"

Further reading here .

Note don't use negative emojis to signify dislike of something - use your words.

Give Praise

Don't focus solely on potential changes; it's important to also mention things you like or learnt from. Aim for one positive comment per pull request or more.

Praise doesn't need to be reserved solely for large or groundbreaking changes; praise should be given for a wide range of things. For example, if an author has had a tendency to make a similar kind of mistake across multiple pull requests, if you are reviewing code that eliminates this mistake, however small it may be, that warrants praise.

Positive feedback is particularly important for junior testers and developers, as it helps to build confidence and to reinforce learning, therefore particular attention should be paid to providing this feedback.

If a pull request is all good with no feedback to raise, then add a single comment to say so, e.g. "Good job!" or "Great work!".

Further reading here  and here .

Use Pull Request Actions Appropriately

Upon completion of a code review you should perform one of three actions on the pull request:

  • 'Approve': in other words, everything is ok and the pull request can complete (if this is first round of the review, i.e. no feedback has previously been raised, then this should be accompanied by a comment - see give praise)

  • 'Approve with suggestions': comments raised are optional (e.g. nitpicks) and the author can complete the pull request without them being addressed if they choose to

    • In this case it's implied that the author can resolve comments themselves if they're not going to be actioned (which is an exception to this rule)
  • 'Wait for author': at least one comment raised must be resolved before the pull request is completed

The 'Reject' action should never be used. If you think a pull request is fundamentally flawed then have a conversation with the author to discuss how to progress and, if it is mutually agreed that the changes should be started again, then the author should abandon the pull request.

Notes for Developers Reviewing Automation Test Code

Test automation code (e.g. UI or API automation) is typically written and maintained by testers, but it is common for developers to review and provide feedback on this code. Developer input is actively encouraged and valued, but because the code is owned by the test team there are some additional things to bear in mind:

  • Try and read the code from the point of view of the tester

    • Test automation code must, first and foremost, be readable and understandable
    • Some refactorings and abstractions can actually make the code harder to work with rather than easier
  • Don't take over - the code is owned by the tester

    • In particular things like test titles/method names, comments and the high-level structure of the test (i.e. what steps it takes in what order) are purely the domain of the tester
  • Suggest potential improvements, but always provide explanation, and remember it's up to the tester as to whether they implement the suggestions

  • All automated test code must be reviewed by another tester as well

Conclusion

In this blog post we have covered our code review guidelines. By following these steps, we can ensure we focus on supporting code authors with an aim to make the whole review process more valuable. One of our core company values is 'single team', which means that we actively promote collaboration and break down silos wherever possible. Following these guidelines aligns with this value by making code reviews more collaborative and encouraging team members to work together.

Further Reading

Further reading on code reviews, including the sources for most of the guidelines above, can be found in the following places:

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Richard Brown is the head of engineering at Audacia, responsible for steering the technical direction of the company and maintaining standards across development and testing.