What is Legacy Code? Is it code without tests?

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“Legacy Code”.

If you work in IT, that’s a term you’ll hear often in your career. Developers talk about it a lot. Usually with a lot of negative connotations.

But what exactly do they call “Legacy Code”? Is it just old code? Or someone else’s code? In any case, you understood that it’s not “good code”.

Now, if you’ve been in the game for some time, you might have realized that everyone has a different opinion on what good code looks like. So, is there a useful definition of “Legacy Code” you can refer to?

Code without tests

If you looked around before reading this, you may have come across this description.

In his book Working Effectively With Legacy Code, Michael Feathers gives a clear definition of what Legacy Code means to him:

To me, legacy code is simply code without tests.

This is an insight from years of experience.

Why is Feathers saying that? Because without tests, it’s usually very hard to know everything a code can do.

If you need to understand what the code is doing, you need to read it carefully, play the computer in your head and envision all the possible scenarios. You can also test it manually to see what it does. Generally, code without tests is tricky to change without introducing a regression somewhere.

I like this definition. It’s a working one. More often than not, tests are missing. So that’s a good start.

But I think it’s not complete.

2 aspects are missing:

  1. Code with tests can also be Legacy Code. Poorly written tests get in the way. Yes, code can be harder to change because the tests suck! If you read the tests but can’t understand what the code is supposed to do, they suck. Tested code can be as difficult to change than if it had no test, maybe even more!
  2. Code may not have tests and still be easy to change. Maybe you’re maintaining a small codebase that’s not tested but that’s easy to understand and change—although in my experience, that’s a rare animal. This codebase could be tested. But the lack of automated tests might not qualify it as Legacy Code.

Code you’re not comfortable changing

This is my definition of Legacy Code. Let me repeat that differently:

Legacy Code is valuable code you’re afraid to change.

Maybe you’re looking for the root cause of a bug. Or maybe you’re figuring out where to insert your feature. You want to change the code, but you have a hard time doing so because you don’t know how not to break existing behavior. This is Legacy Code.

You need to realize a few things:

  • Unfamiliarity with the code plays a lot. We overestimate the complexity of unfamiliar code. This is why you think this code you didn’t write is Legacy Code. Or that code you wrote because you can’t remember the hell you had in mind when you did. Yes, our past self often does silly mistakes. Don’t tell your future self 🤫
  • Good tests make you comfortable changing unfamiliar code. Hence Feathers’ definition. But poor tests won’t.
  • It gets better after a few months. Keep that in mind if you started on working on a legacy project and you’re struggling. I’m not saying the code is great—most of the code is terrible. But you’ll get used to it and understand its quirks and specificities better. Exciting isn’t it? Not feeling excited? Alright, let’s move on.
  • Most of the code is terrible because it’s the result of many people working on it, over a long period of time, with conflicting requirements, under time pressure. Legacy Code Recipe™. Knowledge is imperfect and shortcuts are taken to meet the deadlines. That’s VERY common. Eventually, you’ll reach a state where every move introduces a bug and any feature takes forever to be implemented. Meh.

Hear me out again:

Legacy Code is the code you need to change and you struggle to understand.

Why is that definition useful? Because it states something people fail to realize: Legacy Code is a personal point of view.

It depends on your understanding of the code. And your feeling about changing it.

Some code might be a challenge for every developer of the team. Some code might feel complex to you because you don’t understand it yet. Some code you might understand, but you still don’t feel comfortable changing. 🤷

Hopefully, there are techniques to get familiar with Legacy Code faster!

Learning to understand Legacy Code is essential to be productive.

Legacy Code, Legacy Code everywhere

There is a lot of Legacy Code out there! Every codebase you’ll work on will mostly be Legacy. You can try to avoid it and feel bad when you’re stuck with it…

Or you can see this as an opportunity to develop valuable skills that will make you stand out as a great developer.

Nicolas Carlo

Written by Nicolas Carlo who lives and works in Montreal, Canada 🍁
He founded the Software Crafters Montreal community which cares about building maintainable softwares.

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