Jake Goulding

The stages of code review

We recently started using gerrit to perform code reviews for a legacy C codebase that I work on. I also help out on a couple of newer Java and Ruby projects that have had the benefit of having code reviews and testing infrastructure from day one.

Starting to use gerrit on our C code has led me to think about how we approach code reviews, and I’ve identified some stages that we have gone through. It’s loosely sorted by the order in which we adopted each check. While not every commit needs each point, this is a general idea of what might be required.

  1. Functionality

    This was what started us on the code review path - sometimes we would commit something that just didn’t work right. Occasionally, the code wouldn’t even compile! To try and address these problems, we would have a coworker give the code a once-over before pushing it. We actually started doing this long before gerrit by walking over to another desk.

  2. Function names

    One of our explicit coding conventions is that non-static functions must be prefixed with the module name they belong to. This keeps us sane and helps prevent name collisions. We also have a few conventions for constructors, destructors and other common patterns. These are all easy to check for and was something we started doing almost immediately.

  3. Resource leaks

    After a few annoying memory leaks got committed, we started looking at the code with a critical eye for all kinds of leaks. Resource leaks are easy enough to add and subsequently miss, especially in C. Leaks are really just a special type of non-functioning code, but one that bites you days/weeks/years later instead of immediately.

    Sometimes we use a tool such as valgrind to test for leaks, but in many cases we just inspect the code visually. We check to see if resources are handled consistently and pay special attention to various error conditions.

  4. Efficiency

    For better or worse, we almost always worry about how optimized our code is. Sometimes this is can be a valuable exercise, but in most situations it was probably overkill. There’s just a warm fuzzy feeling when you catch an O(n2) algorithm that could be O(n log n), even if you spend more time coming up with the faster algorithm than will ever be saved in runtime. Since this focus on optimization is part of our culture, it has found it’s way into our reviews.

  5. Tests

    Tests fall lower on this list than I would prefer. Unit testing C code is, at best, hard and/or annoying. Add the fact that trying to test code that was never designed to be tested is painful, and you can easily see why we tend to turn a blind eye when a commit doesn’t add any new tests.

  6. Documentation

    Code written in C should probably have more documentation than most other languages, simply due to all the ways you can shoot yourself in the foot. For example, you can’t tell if any given function will take ownership of the pointer you pass it, that information has to be documented somewhere. When we prefix our function names with the module name, the descriptive part of the name is often shortened to prevent extremely long function names. This means the function documentation is vital to understand what the function does.

    Reviewing documentation often comes down to checking that it makes sense and is proper English. It’s impressive how mangled a sentence can get when you refactor the code it is trying to describe.

  7. Coding style

    Many different aspects of code fall into “style”: the contents, formatting and spelling of comments; the names of variables, static functions, and structures; the size and complexity of functions; the contents of structures.

    These stylistic issues can be difficult to talk about in a code review, since sometimes it comes down to personal preference. The best you can do is express your preference and try to sway the other developer to your line of thinking. It helps if both people realize that the code has to be read and maintained by the entire development group.

  8. Test style

    Test code style is an entirely different kettle of fish from production code style. A test needs to focus on how a user would want to use the code. It should minimize the clutter required to perform the test so as to make the test as readable as possible, while still highlighting the interesting part under test.

    Similar to code style, the difficulty reviewing tests comes from differences in personal preference. This is compounded by the fact that we are not as experienced with writing great tests yet.

  9. Commit message

    Right now, this is my holy grail of code reviews. I once spent 15 minutes skimming through the git log to determine if we had a preferred verb tense in our commit messages (we did). More reasonably, this can involve ensuring that commit messages are capitalized consistently and that they describe why a change is being made, not just what or how.

Where we are now

The C project is currently somewhere around the “Tests” or “Documentation” stages. The Java and Ruby projects expect tests and documentation, so they hover around the “Code style” and “Test style” stages; I’ve only had one or two opportunities to correct someones verb tense :-).