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Working Effectively with Legacy Code

Michael C. Feathers

The average book on Agile software development describes a fairyland of greenfield projects, with wall-to-wall tests that run after every few edits, and clean & simple source code.


The average software project, in our industry, was written under some aspect of code-and-fix, and without automated unit tests. And we can't just throw this code away; it represents a significant effort debugging and maintaining. It contains many latent requirements decisions. Just as Agile processes are incremental, Agile adoption must be incremental too. No more throwing away code just because it looked at us funny.


Mike begins his book with a very diplomatic definition of "Legacy". I'l skip ahead to the undiplomatic version: Legacy code is code without unit tests.


Before cleaning that code up, and before adding new features and removing bugs, such code must be de-legacified. It needs unit tests.


To add unit tests, you must change the code. To change the code, you need unit tests to show how safe your change was.


The core of the book is a cookbook of recipes to conduct various careful attacks. Each presents a particular problem, and a relatively safe way to migrate the code towards tests.


Code undergoing this migration will begin to experience the benefits of unit tests, and these benefits will incrementally make new tests easier to write. These efforts will make aspects of a legacy codebase easy to change.


It's an unfortunate commentary on the state of our programming industry how much we need this book.

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