Sustainable Refactoring

Balancing Code Health and Feature Delivery

Sustainable Refactoring

Balancing Code Health and Feature Delivery

In the fast-paced world of software development, maintaining code health while delivering new features is a constant challenge. One strategy that has emerged as a crucial practice is refactoring. However, the traditional approach to refactoring can often clash with the demands of project timelines and stakeholder expectations.

In this post, we’ll explore how sustainable refactoring techniques can help strike a balance between code health and feature delivery.

Benefits of Refactoring

Refactoring is the process of restructuring existing code without altering its external behavior. It offers numerous advantages:

  • Improved Code Quality: Refactoring eliminates code smells, improves design patterns, and enhances readability, making the codebase easier to understand
  • Reduced Technical Debt: By addressing legacy issues, refactoring helps reduce technical debt, leading to long-term cost savings and improved project sustainability
  • Enhanced Maintainability: Refactored code is easier to maintain and extend, reducing the time and effort required for future updates and modifications
  • Increased Developer Productivity: Developers can work more efficiently on clean, well-structured code, leading to faster development cycles, fewer bugs, and higher-quality software
  • Enables Further Changes: Refactoring isn’t just about improving existing code quality; it also enables future changes and feature additions by restructuring the code to be more modular, flexible, and extensible

Challenges: Time Concerns for Managers and Customers

Despite its benefits, refactoring can be perceived as time-consuming by managers and customers. The notion of developers spending significant time refactoring without delivering new features can raise concerns about project timelines and return on investment. This mindset often leads to resistance towards dedicating resources to refactoring efforts.

While we could try to persuade stakeholders with arguments about long-term benefits and reduced technical debt, a more practical approach exists.

Solution: Parallel Refactoring with Feature Development

A more sustainable way to refactor is to parallelize it with feature development to address the challenge of time concerns. Instead of treating refactoring as a separate, standalone task, it can be integrated into the development workflow in small, incremental steps.

Consider how single-core processors handle multitasking through time-division multiplexing. Despite having only one core, these processors can execute multiple tasks concurrently by switching between them rapidly. Similarly, developers can integrate refactoring tasks into their regular feature development process, allocating small chunks of time to refactor existing code alongside implementing new features.

We don’t necessarily have to do large-scale restructuring. It’s a good start if we apply the Boy Scout Rule: leave the code better than we found it. Using this principle, we can ensure that each code modification includes a small refactor to improve the quality of the surrounding code. Over time, these incremental improvements accumulate, leading to a healthier and more maintainable codebase.

Boy Scout
Boy Scout - Photo by Andrea Sánchez on Unsplash

Will this impact development speed? Certainly. But not the way we think. By keeping the code in a healthier state, future changes will be much faster to make. In other words, we slow down to go faster.


Sustainable refactoring is not about sacrificing feature delivery for code health or vice versa. Instead, it’s about finding a balance that allows continuous improvement while meeting project requirements. Teams can effectively achieve code health and feature delivery goals by integrating refactoring into the development process and adopting parallelization strategies.

Embracing sustainable refactoring practices is vital to building software systems that are functional, resilient, and adaptable to future changes.

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