Feedback: timing is everything

With feedback, like jokes, timing is everything. Good feedback at a bad time won’t do the trick.

I’ve mostly experienced programming feedback through pull requests. This is way better than no feedback. However, since most pull requests occur at the end of work, and not somewhere in the middle, some kinds of feedback are not conducive to pull requests.

Suppose all feedback falls somewhere on two axes: “timeliness” and “depth”. The narrow sweet spot of code review is apparent:

[caption id=“attachment_4302” align=“alignnone” width=“861”]Pairing and code review are not so similar Pairing and code review are not so similar[/caption]

The sweet spot in the top-right corner is when code review works best: unhurried and in-depth feedback. I’d hesitate to call the lower-right corner of hurried, minimal feedback a code review at all; it’s more like rubber stamping.

I’ve often referred to code review, flippantly, as the worst form of pairing yet invented. I’ve given a lot of code review feedback in the past that was better suited to the synchronous nature of pairing than the very asynchronous nature of code reviews. That said, I feel like pairing is an excellent way to give all manners of feedback in the moment the code is being conceived or written. You can immediately point out possible incorrectness or better designs and talk it out, with the code at hand, with your collaborator.

However, we can’t all pair all the time. Let me show you how I’m trying to better time my feedback when I can’t share it immediately.

A tale of four pull requests

Consider four PR subject lines. Which ones are appropriate for architectural ideas? What about optimization ideas? When is deep refactoring feedback appropriate? Can I look at one of these in an hour when I’m done with my current task?

  • “Hotfix Facebook Auth scope”
  • “Prevent sending email for failed payment jobs”
  • “Add tagging to admin storylines listing”
  • “WIP introduce Redis/Lua-based story indexing”

Lately, when I do pull request reviews, I use these guidelines:

  • Figure out if this PR seems like it’s a hot patch to production, a quick fix on existing work, a PR landing new functionality, or a work-in-progress checkpoint seeking feedback.
  • Bear in mind that hot patches and quick fixes are more time sensitive and need yes/no feedback on correctness more than detailed feedback.
  • For hot patches (e.g. “Hotfix FB auth”), I’m only looking for “is this correct” and “will it fix the problem?”; thumbs up or thumbs down and commentary as to what I think is missing to solve the problem. No refactoring ideas. I only touch on performance if I spot a regression.
  • For quick fixes (e.g. “Prevent sending email…”), I’m again looking for correctness and timeliness. I might leave ideas for how to improve the performance or cleanliness of the code later. Those kinds of notes are entirely up to the gumption of the other developer, though. I know the low-gumption feeling of wanting only to fix something and get on to the next thing.
  • Landing new functionality (e.g. “Add tagging…”) receives a full review cycle. Beyond baseline correctness, I’m trying to view this code through my crystal ball. When some value of N is grows, will this code slow down noticeably? Is the code structured so that future changes are easy and obvious?
  • Work-in-progress checkpoints (“WIP introduce Redis/Lua…”) are open to the full spectrum of feedback. Ideas for how to differently structure data, which APIs to export, how to structure objects, how to name the domain model, etc. are all in play. Pretty much the only thing out of play is anything that feels too close to bike shedding.
  • Bear in mind that everyone exists on a spectrum of coding specificity. More seasoned developers are likely open to ideas for restructuring code or considering novel approaches. Less seasoned developers (including seasoned developers new to the team) likely want specific guidance about which changes to make or factors they need to consider.
  • Where I may try to respond to hot patches and quick fixes in less than fifteen minutes, I may wait a couple hours before I look at new functionality or WIP reviews.
  • The most difficult part with these guidelines is how to handle ideas about refactoring on time-sensitive reviews. I want to hold the line against letting lots of little fixes accrete into a medium-sized mess. I don’t want to discourage ideas for refactorings either; I want them separately so I can act on them when I have the energy to really do them.

In short

Use different tactics when sharing feedback for code review; it’s not pairing. Identify patches, reviews, and full feedback pull requests. Sanity check patches, look for correctness in review, look for design in review. Use GitHub’s review process to indicate your feedback is “FYI” vs. “fix this before merging”. Time-to-response is most important for patches and fixes.

Above all: giving feedback is a skill you acquire with practice, empathy, and maintaining a constructive attitude.

Adam Keys @therealadam