Context Driven Refactoring

16 December 2012

I got excited about this refactoring website called Users post refactoring questions and vote on the best answers. The website is kind of a simplified version of the Programmers Stack Exchange. But as I explored the ruby section, which is definitely still in it’s infancy, I was a little disappointed.

Here is an example of a question and solution that was titled “Simplifying Nested If Statements”.

Question Code

@problems =
    if @tags.blank?
        unless @language.nil?
            Problem.where(language: @language).desc(@sort).page(@page)
        unless @language.nil?
   @tags).where(language: @language).desc(@sort).page(@page)

Solution Code

@problems = Problem
@problems = @tags) unless @tags.blank?
@problems = @problems.where(language: @language) unless @language.nil?
@problems = @problems.desc(@sort).page(@page)

The solution is definitely a start. In fact it “simplifies the nested if statement” perfectly. And I would be a much happier programmer if I happened upon the solution code than I would be if I came across the question code. My disappointment is that the refactoring lacks context. It’s just an example of a refactoring formula:

# Nested

if A
  if B
  if B

# Not Nested

chain = Z
chain = chain.X(A) if A
chain = chain.Y(B) if B

The solution is “correct”, and it’s a valuable technique, but it misses the mark. Refactoring often falls short because people blindly apply a selection of these transformations and then call it a day. Refactoring isn’t just about rewriting code. Let’s take a look at a couple of questions that might help us devise a better strategy for approaching this problem.

Question One: Why should I refactor this code?

Refactoring is fun, but if the code is a mess, and you don’t need to touch it, leave it alone. As Sandi Metz explains, if you can’t see the mess, it doesn’t exist. Refactoring should always happen for a reason. In this case there are multiple potential reasons we might need to refactor. But leaving that reasoning out of the discussion can lead to a misguided solution.

Do I need to add a new search parameter? Then I’m probably in need of a solution that reduces complexity.

Am I replicating this code somewhere else? Then I’m probably in need of a solution that DRYs up my existing implementation.

Step One: Establish a context for the refactoring.

Let’s start with, “I need to add a new search parameter.” This helps us establish that the code is too complex, and that we need to address this issue because we need to change the code.

Question Two: How am I going to test this code?

Imagine, first without using a database, how you would go about testing the question code, or even the solution code for that matter. You would definitely have to provide stubs for #in, #where, #sort and #page. You would have to test conditionals for @language, @tags, and your new search parameter. And all those tests have to combined with the rest of the controller tests for the search action.

Even if you allowed yourself use of the database, you would still have to construct objects for each of the test scenarios and verify that the conditionals were working properly.

That’s a lot of stuff (otherwise know as responsibilities). The “always write tests” mantra isn’t just meant to increase code confidence, it helps illuminate design flaws and unwanted complexity.

Step Two: Read/Write Tests.

Assuming the tests don’t already exist, write them. Even though they are brutal to write after the fact, you need to have test coverage before you start moving code around.

Question Three: What did the tests teach us?

Probably that we have a “Fat Controller”. You’ve probably heard of “Fat Models, Skinny Controllers”, but this heuristic does not really mean Fat ActiveRecord::Base classes and Skinny ApplicationController classes. It means that objects responsible for connecting business logic and views, should do only that. It’s the “Single Responsibility Principle” in Rails terms.

The reason we should strive for single responsibility objects is that they are easier to extend and test. In this case we’ve seen how difficult it is to test the code (in both the question and the solution) which indicates that the proposed solution should probably not be our first refactoring step.

Step Three: Refactor Your Code

Because the tests indicated an unnecessary complexity, we know that we should probably introduce a new object this is responsible for handling some of the logic, without involving the controller.

@problems =, @tags, @sort, @page).find

So what goes into ProblemSearch#find? Probably the original solution, but at this point it really doesn’t matter because it’s completely isolated. The original non-nested code is definitely simpler and easier to extend than the nested code, but that’s the transformation part of refactoring, not the reason we are refactoring in the first place.

You should always simplify your programming constructs so that they are more intention revealing, but the meat of this refactoring is really in the domain modelling and the tests. The original code had too many responsibilities, it was hard to test, and it was hard to extend.

When we needed to add a new search parameter and tried writing tests, we realized how complex that was going to be and identified the need for a refactoring. Allowing that context to guide us, resulted in an intention revealing, testable and extensible solution.