Rewriting, refactoring, rearchitecting – when is the right time?

With any product development, there’s always a tension between perfection and getting things released.

The engineering mindset is geared much more towards architectural, design and implementation perfection. The phrase “it’s done when it’s done” is the ultimate manifestation of this approach but that simply doesn’t work with any real product. Customers expect rapid bug fixes, regular iteration and ongoing improvements.

It’s difficult to get the balance between good engineering and “good enough” to release. Bugs hurt the customer experience, creaky architecture can result in poor performance or entire outages, and technical debt wears away at the happiness of your engineering team. But there are some things which might indicate you’re spending too much time on the engineering!

  • Refactoring, rewriting or rearchitecting code as a project by itself. The best time to refactor is when you’re already touching the area of the codebase in question. Rewriting code delivers no customer benefit but takes up a lot of time, usually introducing new bugs as well. Major rewrite and replace is usually only justified once you’ve hit scale limitations but even then, taking a component based approach and delivering small changes sooner is better than a grand rewrite over months.
  • Investing time building for a scale you have not yet reached. Code will usually last much longer than you expect and so unless you have instrumentation which is showing a customer (or on call) impact either now or imminently, this is probably not a good use of time.
  • Rewriting in a new language, or introducing a new language into an existing codebase. Only dramatic changes in usage scope really warrant considering writing something in a language that isn’t already part of your stack. Hitting a scaling limitation might be a reason e.g. shifting from Python to Go for a systems problem within a high performance environment may make sense, but the right consideration should be given to the ongoing maintenance cost . Who else on your team has experience with that language for the future? How are you going to maintain the technology? Who is responsible for updates? What happens if that team member leaves and you have bugs to fix?

Generally speaking, starting a new project or component is the time to consider new technologies, languages, frameworks and approaches. Anything with the words “rewrite” or “rearchitect” should be approached with extreme caution and scoped within an existing project that will deliver customer benefits at the same time.