Best Kept Secrets of Peer Code Review by Jason Cohen

Best Kept Secrets of Peer Code ReviewIt has been three years since I have been under the oppressive finger of the waterfall software engineering process, but that is still what comes to mind when I hear the words “peer review.” Corporate software outfits typically require programmers to present their code to other engineers in hopes of finding bugs and fixing them before they become a problem. Usually it involves some form of screen-sharing and walk-through of code snippets developed in the past few days. From my five years of experience doing this sort of review, reviewers rarely found bugs in code–no matter how poor a software engineer or how great a reviewer.

I know book-editing is a great practice, and I know that no software engineer is perfect, but my experience has prevented me from seeing benefit in the concept. Best Kept Secrets of Code Review by Jason Cohen renewed my perspective on peer reviews by presenting a more effective way of doing them. The book’s purpose is two-fold: (1) present compelling arguments and practices for effective code review and (2) sell a peer review tracking product called Code Collaborator. Thankfully, the book reserves the sales pitch for the last chapter and does a great job presenting the facts and arguments that ultimately led Smart Bear to build a peer review product. Here are some of my notes, but, like the reviews before this one, I must encourage you to snag your own copy.

Chapter Four: Brand New Information

  • Time is the one factor that a reviewer can control that will effect their ability to identify bugs. The reviewer cannot control the language, algorithmic complexity, or the experience of the developer who wrote the code.
  • 60 minutes of peer review is the sweet spot. Spend more or less time than that and you will statistically either miss bugs or waste time looking for bugs that don’t exist. (On that note: do not spend more than 90 minutes…ever.)
  • The more time a reviewer spends during his first pass over the code, the faster he will be at spotting bugs during his second pass. In other words, go slower the first time around.
  • Private inspection of code produces better results than being guided by the developer in a presentation format. Often reviewers will raise questions that are about how something works, not whether or not a particular piece of code is correct. (More proof that meetings usually waste people’s time and companies’ money.)
  • The hardest bugs to find are code omissions, so arm reviewers with checklists. This list might include items like “should this page require SLL?” or “is allocated memory properly destroyed?” Have your team keep a running list of common bugs to look out for.

Chapter Five: Code Review at Cisco Systems

  • Formal peer review meetings don’t uncover more bugs but do add to the cost of software engineering. (Yes, this is a repeat comment–just driving it home!)
  • The one benefit of a formal meeting is that it motivates the presenter (developer) to be more careful and produce higher quality material (code). Knowing that someone else is going to formally inspect your code will compel you to write better code.
  • Only 200-400 lines of code should be reviewed at any one time. (Recall our 60 minute sweet spot from above? 200 lines / 90 minutes = 2.22 lines per minute. 400 lines / 60 minutes = 6.66 lines per minute. That’s a lot of time.)

Chapter Seven: Questions for a Review Process

  • Keep your peer review checklist in-between 10 and 20 items. Too many, and the reviewer’s effectiveness drops.
  • If necessary, create different flavors of checklists to cover more than 20 items: logic bugs, security, design, etc. Have different reviewers use different checklists.

The book is also full of really nice references, case studies, techniques for measuring team effectiveness, and points for team leads. It’s worth the read, so check it out.

4 thoughts on “Best Kept Secrets of Peer Code Review by Jason Cohen

  1. I’m a firm believer in peer reviews and that was reinforced years ago while working at a banking company in Canton, OH whose management was forward thinking enough to bring in Judy Bamberger for a presentation. Since then, I’ve used a lot of her techniques and ideas for conducting various types of peer reviews. I have found that “virtual” reviews seem to work better than physical meetings for all but the most obscure of topics. Vital is management support else reviews suffer like plants w/o water in the middle of summer. That’s where the SQA discipline can help out but that’s a different topic. Another awesome coherent rambling – keep them coming!

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