My first Code Retreat - Legacy Code Retreat in Frankfurt on Sep 15, 2012

If you are not familiar with the concept of a code retreat, listen to this podcast (or read the transcript).

While I knew about Code Retreats for a while, this was the first I actually managed to attend). It was organized by the German Software Craftsmanship community group, hosted by Namics, and facilitated by Nicole Rauch and Andreas Leidig. And it was great, thanks to everyone involved in putting up the event!

The format has been described by others, so I won't cover that. I have to say though that I really like the format and I wish I started socializing (in software related matters) first at a code retreat instead of conferences or usergroups - the format of the event guarantees one doesn't have to worry about uncomfortable silences to be filled with smalltalk. The day starts with coding, the retrospective is group talk, and with the exception of the lunch, the breaks are only five minutes long, and you are searching for the next programming pair during that time anyway. Great way to get more comfortable interacting with strangers about software! (And if you do want to socialize, just come early for breakfast and stay after the event).

I wonder if being familiar with automated testing is a pre-requisite

My assumption is that one could attend a legacy code retreat even if (s)he has no experience with automated testing, since

  • You could learn the basics of testing from the pairs you are working with
  • You can see it applied in the real world. The most common objection I hear from people recently introduced to automated testing/TDD is that it might work on greenfield projects, but cannot be applied on their existing project

So if you are (or know of someone who is) a person who attended such a code retreat with no prior testing experience, please let me know - I would love to know whether the above hypothesis matches your experience! Unfortunately all my pairs had prior experience, so it's still just a hypothesis.

Iteration impressions, lessons learned

  • Dynamic language IDEs still have a long way to go, so for now I'll probably stick to Vim for python
  • While it's interesting to take a guided tour of a language you don't know, the focus of the codebase is not on datastructures (only uses lists/arrays) and thus you only catch a glimpse of the language. I'll have to attend a normal code retreat to see whether this would be different there
  • Giving a language demo is interesting, and you learn a lot about the language too. People new to a language tend to ask questions about things you take for granted, yet you may not know the answer to
  • Taking baby steps and not assuming anything is a Good Thing ™ - the codebase is devious one, crafted with care to make you trip over. I.e.: it is a proper legacy codebase, despite its small size!
  • The "never assume" advice holds especially as you move between iterations. During one iteration we made a mistake that wasn't caught by the regression tests. Since in the previous iteration (with another pair) we had 100% (line) coverage, the fact that in the next iteration we might not have that didn't occur to me...
  • Discipline is hard. I was totally carried away refactoring during the last iteration. I had this craving to actually make progress with the refactoring, and I caught myself saying things "were we responsible coders, we would now stop to write some tests, but let's just move on now", as well as tugging multiple pieces of the spaghetti at the same time. While here I might be forgiven (after all, the last iteration was a free to choose what to do (with) this codebase), it's an important reminder that I should watch myself at work - I would have never expected myself to get so off track in a matter of 10-15 minutes. And I used to pride myself that I realize when I'm in a dead end and have no trouble throwing away code to start from the last known good state!
  • The code retreat format is great for teaching people the importance of prototypes, I will keep that in mind for the future. During the functional iteration we haven't made much progress, but on the train home I did a quick experiment to start making it functional from the outside in, starting at the main() method, introducing the GameState as a subclass of Game, and each step returning a new GameState (while still modifying the old game state, since the refactoring was incomplete, as it usually is the case). This approach didn't occur to me the first time, and had I not started from a clean slate, I would not have thought of it if I were to continue where I left off the previous attempt.
  • While the facilitators keep going around, we didn't always get deep into the issues they commented on (e.g.: I think if the test case and the test name express clearly the domain and the scenario, it is totally fine to use a variable called sut, etc.).
  • However, there is a lot of time available to discuss with your pair, not having to worry whether or not the code will be finished, which is great. One caveat is that you do have a time limit on the discussion, since you don't want to bore your pair and want to actually write code, so you are forced to condense your thoughts. Luckily, this limit is not as bad as twitter's
  • Theory vs. practice, a.k.a. talking the talk vs. walking the walk. I've been guilty of this myself, describing how my ideal test case would look like in theory, and what guiding principles I follow while writing an actual test case. Then the pair politely points out that the theory is great, but what we have here in the code is not a manifestation of those principles...

The Iteration I wish was there - working towards a change request

Each iteration had a different focus, and I assume that there isn't a static final (pun intended) list of possible restrictions and it evolves. So despite this being my first ever code retreat and being told that these ideas wouldn't fit the format, I'm documenting them here, so that I can refer back to it after my next code retreats to see whether I still feel the same about these, since now I think they would be similar restrictions like during the traditional code retreat when one is not allowed to speak or use if statements in the code.

I really missed having a clear functional goal for the iterations, since one usually refactors legacy code when some new feature/enhancement is needed - and it has a huge impact on how one approaches a refactoring.

One mistake I have (seen) made when working with legacy code is going on a refactoring spree, touching parts of the codebase which we don't need to change. The danger of it is that we can easily code ourselves into a corner for days and slip on the original delivery. If it ain't broken, don't fix it (and this doesn't contradict the boyscout rule). This issue has been exposed during the iterations, many of us refactored one part of the application that wasn't business logic heavy, but was a low hanging fruit. While one iteration wouldn't be enough time to finish testing that part, the conversation around it (what test cases would be needed to provide sufficient code coverage, what's the minimum refactoring we need to do to achieve that, etc.).

I raised it during the final retrospective, and people agree it's an important aspect, but they suggested it's not fit for the format of the code retreat.

The other great benefit of having a clear goal is that they demonstrate how fragile the regression characterization tests can be. A neat little change request to the core business logic would have left us without the safety net again, and would have made us think back to the previous iterations when we felt skipping writing a specific test is safe. While everyone knows it, that doesn't mean we wouldn't fall victim to it..

And if you prefer to see a concrete example, instead of just reading through this abstract text, I have something like the Double Dawg Dare in mind.

Some technical notes for attending a code retreat:

  • doublecheck with the organizers what you'll need to attend. They probably plan to send out a reminder/notification email before the event, but I so rarely use my laptop in an online environment that their notice was too late for me to actually prepare my laptop for the event.
  • know your settings & IDE. There are a ton of yaks to be shaved, and many minutes have been wasted by setting things up. It doesn't take away from the experience, but it did stress me a bit the first time
  • either know how to use git, or just create two copies of the codebase so you can easily revert to a clean codebase after the sessions. We had some problems with this.

    git clean -x -f -n # remove -n to really remove them git reset HEAD . # remove everything from the changelist in case you added it git checkout -- . # revert everything below the

  • bring a USB stick, and if you are not using your own laptop during all the sessions, make a copy of the golden master textfile onto it after each of your sessions in a new programming language (my laptop was only used during the first and the last iteration, so for the last we had no sample output textfile we could work against, and it took some time to obtain it.

  • bring your own keyboard and know how to change a mac/linux/windows machine's keyboard layout (or install one). I have not been typing in a number of sessions because of this (try typing on a German mac keyboard, when you are used to windows US layout!)

In Summary

It's a great event, you meet great people, and I would be surprised if you came away from a code retreat not having learnt anything new.

  1. Adrian Bolboaca on 2012/09/21 10:44:14: Thanks for the great write-up.

    I have a kind of an answer for why I don't get to that session of change request. When I thought about the legacy code retreat and added a couple of sessions I wanted to have a more natural flow. I wanted to have this session also, sometimes in the end of the day. But as a facilitator I saw that the attendees do not really know the techniques so we are stuck into explaining the basics that they need in order to be able to handle a change request. During all the legacy code retreats I facilitated maybe the 7th iteration would have been the "change request constraint".
    I e-met Andreas and Nicole a couple early this year when we had a skype call about the legacy code retreat. Then I met them at the Socrates conference this year. I'm sure they are doing an excellent job as facilitators, and maybe they have some answers to this. My guess is that we need more legacy code retreats happening and only after a while when the attendees know better the basics we can start and introduce this session. Or maybe we can find together a solution on improving the current format.
    1. pboop on 2012/09/23 16:44:45: I agree with you. In my opinion a leagcy code retreat is about HOW to change the code not WHY or WHICH WAY in order to open room for a new requirement.

      Every participant is free to let her/his imagination grow after (or even during) the retreat and play around with the code base, inventing new requirements and so on.
    2. Peter Zsoldos on 2012/09/30 17:11:58: Thanks for the comment and sorry for the late followup.

      I didn't intend that section as a criticism for the facilitators. Since it can be misread, I would appreciate if you could point out where and how, so I can correct it to avoid anyone else misunderstanding my intent (re-reading my post didn't help, I'm afraid I have too much context about what I wanted to say).
    3. Peter Zsoldos on 2012/09/30 17:12:58: I don't know what the exact goal was behind creating the legacy coderetreat format. But I have always preferred learning not just a practice, but also its underpinning ideas and the limits of it. While I can practice refactoring on my own, there may not be someone around pointing out that not everything needs to be refactored. Both are important and have their places, and we seem to disagree about the latter. My thinking is influenced by seeing people (myself included) overdoing/overvaluing the latest pattern/practice they have came across (HelloWorldProxyFactoryImpl), without knowing the limits of their usefulness and knowing the difference between understanding something in theory versus doing that in practice - being told something is brittle/unreliable and understanding it on an intellectual level is very different from actually experiencing it. The latter tends to be easier to remember :)

      But I might have fallen victim to offering a solution instead of raising a question. If the Nuremberg global code retreat will be a success, and there will be more following it, I'll be happy to immerse myself deeper into the code retreat community and see how I feel about this original idea after some time - one of the motivations for posting it was so that I can come back and revisit it later.

What do you think? I would love if you would leave a comment - drop me an email at, tell me on Twitter!

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