Merlin42 writes "I recently took a Test-Driven-Development (TDD) training course and the teacher recommended that I read "Working Effectively with Legacy Code" by Michael Feathers. First things first, a note about the title. Feathers defines "Legacy Code" a bit different than you may expect, especially if you are not into the XP/Agile/TDD world. I have heard (and used) a number of definitions for "legacy code" over the years. Most of these definitions have to do with code that is old, inherited, difficult to maintain, or interfaces with other 'legacy' hardware/software. Feathers' definition is 'code without tests.' For those not into TDD this may seem odd, but in the TDD world, tests are what make code easy to maintain. When good unit tests are in place, then code can be changed at will and the tests will tell automatically you if you broke anything." Read on for the rest of Kevin's review.Overall this is definitely an interesting read, and useful to anyone who has ever yelled "FSCKing LEGACY code!" It will be most useful to someone who already has some appreciation for TDD and wants to use it to 'pay down the technical debt' in a legacy code project. In my opinion adding unit tests (a sort of retroactive TDD) is the best ... err ... most effective approach for getting a legacy code project into a more malleable state.
One caveat is that most of the book is focused on working with object oriented programming languages. There is some coverage of techniques for procedural languages (mainly C), but this is not the main focus of the book. In a way this is unfortunate, since there is a lot of really useful C code out there gathering dust. But in the book he states that "the number of things you can do to introduce unit tests in procedural languages is pretty small." Unfortunately I would have to agree with him on this point.
One of the greatest things about this book is that it is written by someone who has worked with a lot of legacy code, and there are numerous real world anecdotes sprinkled throughout the text that really serve to help drive the points home. The code examples are plentiful, but not verbose. They all look like real code you might find lurking in a dark corner at work, not some fanciful made up snippet.
The high level goal of the book is show you how to write good unit tests for code that wasn't designed with unit tests in mind. The first step for writing unit tests is getting individual classes or functions into a test harness where you can apply known inputs, and check the outputs or behavior. To do this you need to break dependencies in the original code. The bulk of the book is dedicated to looking at different approaches to breaking dependencies.
Much of the book is organized like a FAQ. There are chapter titles like: "I Need to Make a Change. What Methods Should I Test?" and "My Project Is Not Object Oriented. How Do I Make Safe Changes?". This organization makes the book work a bit better as reference than as learning material. After the first few chapters there is very little flow to the book. Each chapter tends to stand as an independent look into a particular problem common in legacy code. As a result, you can read the table of contents and usually skip to a self-contained chapter that will help with the problem at hand.
The final chapter of the book is a listing of all the refactoring techniques used throughout the rest of book. So if you have a particular dependency-breaking technique in mind, you can skip straight to the description of the technique you want to use. This can be quite helpful when you need to perform a refactoring before you can get your code into a test harness. The descriptions are straightforward and provide a little checklist at the end that will help you make sure you didn't miss anything.
In conclusion I would definitely recommend this book to a colleague who is trying to introduce unit tests into code that was not designed with testing in mind. In fact I have already lent the book to several people at work, most of whom have bought their own copy.
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