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When to Refactor: A Case for Quality

Software, like all things in life, decays, mutates, and grows old. Much like the barnacles that sprout across the belly of a ship, the slow creep of destructive rust on a tractor, the corrosion of metals in kinetic machinery, or the gradual degradation of your cells' ability to repair themselves — software gets old. In the world of software, we call this technical debt. 

Technical debt is a complex, abstruse, but impactful impediment to the success of projects and the efficiency of development. Minor changes in the development approach of a feature can leave relics of the old approach behind, which later can cause confusion, misdirection, and inefficient code. This is true for the integration of modules and services, as well as APIs. Over time these issues become compounded and will negatively impact future development timelines and system stability the longer they remain unaddressed. Additionally, over time improvements are made to how code is written, new standards become ubiquitous, and best practices change. The summation of this is technical debt spiraling out of control, which slows down productivity and can cost companies millions.

Much like aging, there is no cure for technical debt. Only treatment and prevention through refactoring.

Refactoring is the process of rewriting and restructuring to smooth out the rough edges and pare logical dead ends in the code. This is all in effort to bring the code into alignment with current standards in the industry. Logic is simplified to be more efficient, code is written in a way to be more resistant to errors, and to be replicable throughout the entire codebase.

It is, in part, the process of keeping the hull clean, the tractor shielded from the weather, and the machinery well oiled and in good working order. The tangible results of refactoring, however, can be deceptively subtle because it is empirically hard to prove the net benefits (and ROI) from preventative maintenance. But, as we have found time and time again, technical debt will get paid—and the cost differences between proactivity and reactivity are drastic. 

When it comes to software, the old proverb of “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is fundamentally true. Proactively resolving small issues now can prevent tremendous complexities in the future — which in the world of websites and applications can foreseeably assuage user frustrations, down time, opportunity costs, and lost revenue. 

We at Metal Toad continually strive for excellence in our code and products, and to that end we strongly recommend that all projects or iterations on older codebases — large or small — have some allotment of time and budget for refactoring efforts. 

A proactively maintained and well-cared-for tractor can last an owner more than half a century and, though the lifetime of a website or application is much shorter, the same dynamic applies. Invest in quality; refactor often and with intention, and software will perform better, faster, and longer.

Date posted: October 8, 2018

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