The two-step approach to big code modifications

We all have to make significant code changes from time to time. Most of these code changes are large. Consider the scenario that you merged one such significant change, and then other team members made a few more changes on top. Then a major bug is detected. You desperately make the fix. It makes it in. You declare a victory, and a few hours later, your colleague notices another bug/crash/performance regression. Your commit cannot be reverted. It isn’t just about you. Many others have built on top of the change you made—the code sloths along in this broken state for a few days before you eventually fix it. Everyone has faced this issue at some point or the other.

If the code change is small, this is a non-issue, you can revert it and fix it at your own pace. Therefore, when making significant code changes, always try to do it in two different commits (pull requests). In the commit, you add the new code, add a switch (command-line flag or a constant) to turn it on, and keep that switch off by default. In the second commit, turn the switch on. Now, if there is a problem, you immediately turn the switch off and start working on a fix. No one else will deal with the broken code. It would be even better if the switch is a command-line flag since you can turn on the flag for 10% of the machines (or users) and see the behavior for a few days before rolling it out to 100%. It big teams, it is usually good to add a comment to switch mentioning when it should expire or else you will end with Uber scale problem.

There are a few cases where this cannot be done, for example, during big code refactoring. I think big code refactoring touching code written by multiple teams is almost rarely justified in a single commit.

Examples of some cases where this is useful

  1. Switching over from consuming data via v1 of some API to v2
  2. Switching over from returning computed results to stored results (for faster response time but possibly inaccurate outcome)
  3. Switching over from JSON to Protocol Buffer/Thrift
  4. Switching over from VMs to Kubernetes (don’t delete the old code yet, you might regret it)

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