I’ve been refactoring code all my professional career. I started from C/C++, and when I hit C# (Resharper) and Java (IntelliJ), my productivity at refactoring was boosted by a few factors by the wonderful IDEs and refactoring tools that these languages have.
I am rather confident when I write “dirty code” in Java or C#, because I know that I can swiftly refactor it into beautiful code without too much trouble. Both aforementioned IDEs are so great at this, that it’s painless. You can take an ugly 300 line method and break it into several methods, break a long class into several classes, inline, move, and otherwise shape your code.
The language is dynamically typed
Compilers and IDEs can help you less when the language is dynamic. They can make less assurances about your code, making reasoning and refactoring harder. Safely moving a method from class Foo to class Baz is an easy feat in a statically typed language, and a difficult or impossible one in a dynamic language.
Classes are not first-class citizens
Again, if you “know what you’re doing”, you can structure your program perfectly in the first place, and won’t ever have to do this kind of “cross domain refactoring”. Sadly, we’re not all born with this kind of experience.
It’s harder to know when you’ve broken something
Backend code is so much easier to test than frontend code. While frontend testing is important, and growing, it is by no means as well understood or practiced as classical “backend TDD, this is a calculator, assertEquals(30, calc.plus(10, 20))”.
So, since BE code has much wider test coverage than FE code, and is bloody compiled for Java & C#, when you refactor FE code it has a much greater chance of breaking down, often in subtle ways you’ll only notice on IE 8, or when the network is slow, or whatever edge case surfaces your particular bug.
So … how do we manage?
- Refactor less – Since we know refactoring is hard, we try to do less refactoring and more pre-factoring. Think a little more than usual before coding. While I’ve grown the habit of “code first, think about design later” over the years due to power of refactoring, it’s less useful in FE dev, so I need to take the time before coding and try harder to get it the design right on my first attempt.
- Still .. refactor – IntelliJ and Resharper both offer some refactoring capabilities. I’m most comfortable with “limited scope refactoring” – those that affect one function like Extract Variable. Use the tools you do have, instead of whining about the tools you don’t.
- Try to think harder about the different problem domains (JS/HTML/CSS), and to develop a better understanding of how to structure your program in a way that won’t force you do to refactoring across problem domains.
Please do share your own experience with refactoring in web dev!