How to refactor a monolithic codebase over time

  • Understand the application thoroughly. Talk to previous developers, business owners, PMs, etc. Read through code comments, code commit messages, README files, documentation, wikis. Checking the bug-reporting tool used as well. Put all the learning together.
  • If source code is not stored under version control, get it under version control. Check for static code analysis.
  • If there is no test suite, build that before you refactor. If there is a test suite, understand the level of code coverage. Check how long it takes to complete the suite, whether it exhausts available memory, how many tests fail, are skipped or are outdated, whether there is a good mix of unit, integration and functional tests, whether there are sections of codebase escaping coverage. Also, look for comments indicating something that was to be fixed later.
  • Begin refactoring, keeping in mind that your code will never be perfect. So know when to move on.
  • To clean up a complex codebase, sometimes you need to make seemingly trivial changes. But most of the changes should have a clear, effective purpose, such as creating a new feature or fixing a bug or defect.
  • Work to a project plan, with a series of achievable tasks, a realistic timeline, and resource requirement, sufficient staff to work on the tasks in isolation or in parallel with other projects.

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