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Software Engineering: Code Reviews vs. Peer Programming

I've been thinking lately about the benefits of code reviews vs. peer programming. In general, I think most companies that really care about code quality use either code reviews or peer programming. Various companies are famous for using either one approach or the other, which leads me to wonder which approach is better under which circumstances?

Pivotal Labs is famous for doing full-time peer programming. It's well known that they do a good job writing software. However, I wonder if full-time peer programming might be too expensive for mundane code. I also wonder if it makes sense to work as a pair when someone needs to spend a few days reading, learning, and researching.

In contrast, Google is famous for code reviewing all commits before checkin. Certainly this frees up engineers to get more work done since they can spend a high percentage of their time working in parallel on separate tasks. However, I wonder if a code reviewer really has the ability to make the same level of architectural improvements as a peer programmer. Certainly a code reviewer can catch style mistakes, but it's much harder to tell someone their entire approach is wrong (for instance, threaded code vs. asynchronous code).

Furthermore, I wonder if code reviewers in general can catch all the little assumptions that get built into code. It reminds me of a story my boss once told me. A few decades ago, he was working on satellite control software. There was a piece of code that made it through three levels of code review even thought it contained a bug. It was missing a minus sign in some equations having to do with navigation. When the satellite was launched, it started spinning because it kept "thinking" it was upside down. It wasted half of its fuel before they could get the problem under control. My boss said that for satellites, the lifespan of a project is directly connected to the amount of fuel onboard. Hence, this came to be known as the three million dollar minus sign.

If this code had been peer programmed rather than code reviewed (or in addition to code review), would the peer have spotted the problem as the equation was being worked out? Certainly this taught me a valuable lesson about code review. It's far too easy to get hung up on less critical issues that are easy to spot, like style, instead of focusing on more important issues that require more brain power to understand.

In the book Professional Software Development: Shorter Schedules, Higher Quality Products, More Successful Projects, Enhanced Careers (see my blog post), Steve McConnell said that NASA found that the single most effective way to cut down on defects was to always have a second pair of eyes present. They were talking about building the shuttle, but I think the same thing applies to software.

Despite their pervasive use of code reviews or peer programming, Google and Pivotal Labs have both had their fair share of bugs. Even NASA makes mistakes. Hence, it's easy to see that neither code reviews nor peer programming can banish all defects. Given how fallible human beings are, it seems to me that the best way to keep people from dying because of mistakes is to avoid situations where mistakes are fatal. Driving is a fairly dangerous activity, and tens of thousands of people die each year in the United States because of driving errors. However, even more than that make mistakes and yet survive because of various safety precautions.

So even though I think code reviews and/or peer programming are important factors in writing high quality software, I think it's even better to avoid situations where software defects can cause serious damage. I certainly think that the more mission critical a piece of software is, the smaller and stupider it should be.

Comments

Eddy Mulyono said…
The hard part is to arrive at a "smaller and stupider" approach to all those not-so-small and not-so-stupid problems.

Ahh, the beauty of software development. :)
> The hard part is to arrive at a "smaller and stupider" approach to all those not-so-small and not-so-stupid problems.

I talked about this with respect to air traffic control systems on a blog post here (http://jjinux.blogspot.com/2009/03/computer-science-faster-smarter-more.html) :)