The Slow and Steady Refactor

Over the past week or so, I’ve been reading Refactoring by Martin Fowler and it’s all about how to make sweeping changes to a large codebase in a way that doesn’t cause everything to break. I bring this up because there’s a lot of really good notes in this book that have challenged my recent approach to auditing and refactoring a ton of CSS. A lot of the advice is small, kinda obvious stuff, but I realized that I’ve recently been lazy when it comes to how many of those small, obvious things I brush off on projects like this.

Martin writes:

…if I can’t immediately see and fix the problem, I’ll revert to my last good commit and redo what I just did with smaller steps. That works because I commit so frequently and because small steps are the key to moving quickly, particularly when working with difficult code.

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So: commit frequently and only do one thing in that commit. Further, constantly test those changes as you code.

The other thing I’ve started to be more aware of — thanks to this book — is that commit messages are precious things because they help other folks understand the meaning of changed work. We’ve all seen seemingly simple commit messages, like “refactored typography” that turn out to be thousands of lines long and we roll our eyes. That’s just asking for bugs to be introduced and visual regressions to happen. Smaller commits should prevent that sort of thing from ever happening. A good string of commit messages should sort of feel like you’re pairing with someone, as if you’re walking them through the changes step-by-step.

Although I’m getting better at this, I find this method of working extraordinarily difficult because it feels slower than sweeping changes and hoping for the best. In his book, Martin encourages us to subside that feeling. When we’re refactoring large portions of our codebase, he argues, we should always be slow and steady, patient and disciplined.

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