What is Refactoring in Agile? Benefits, Principles, and Techniques

Have you ever looked at the back of an embroidered picture? While the front side the viewer sees is tidy and nice to look at, the flip side can be a jumble of tangled thread, messy knots, and wasteful loops.

Similarly, software developers typically rely on quick and dirty techniques when writing code. Backend code, or the internal structure of a program, may need to be cleaned up every once in a while. This process is called code refactoring and is an integral function of any team using Agile software development. Refactoring in Agile improves code quality and design without touching the functionality of the program — making code more effective and maintainable.

But neither cross-stitcher nor software developer wants to deconstruct chains of code (or thread) only to have the whole beautiful picture unravel. That’s why it is important to know the benefits, principles, and techniques of refactoring in Agile. This article will help you understand what code refactoring does (and what it does not) as well as the dos and don’ts of refactoring in Agile.

Agile Review

What is Agile anyway?

Agile is a form of project management that prioritizes fluidity and user feedback. Agile projects use iterative processes and ensure changes can be made quickly while delivering continuous releases. Agile software development allows teams to continuously create, test, revise, and release code, changing the code and improving it without compromising overall structure and functionality.

Why is Agile so popular?

Before Agile became widely used and accepted, the most common form of project management was Waterfall. Waterfall management is based on a concrete plan that is written from start to finish toward the beginning of a project. This linear method created roadblocks for developers including making it difficult to alter code, working toward the end goal without user and customer feedback, and delaying testing until the project is complete. Using an Agile framework solved these issues and allowed development teams to refactor code when needed, implement user feedback, and test code along the way.

Refactoring in Agile

Why is refactoring necessary?

Coding is a complex task. This intricacy can make updating and maintaining code difficult. As Agile projects evolve, the complexity of the work increases. To maintain internal quality, the development team must take user feedback and damage control into account and restructure code as needed. As a project grows, the needs of the application can change as well. Solutions that were built before may no longer fit these new needs. Previous solutions need to be reworked and rewritten so that they meet current and future project needs.

What is the purpose of refactoring?

The purpose of refactoring code is to take an existing code base and make it better. Refactoring helps software development teams restructure and clean up code by making incremental changes that do not affect overall project behavior.

Refactoring DOES:

  • Improve code quality
  • Improve design
  • Prevent future bugs
  • Simplify quality assurance tests
  • Improve product scalability
  • Improve code readability and simplicity
  • Remove duplicate code

Refactoring DOES NOT:

  • Alter the function of the program
  • Change the purpose of the code
  • Change output of the system
  • Affect internal behavior

How does Agile facilitate code refactoring?

An Agile framework greatly enhances refactoring. Agile teams are capable of moving quickly because of the lack of rigid and detailed planning. Instead, Agile practices encourage experimentation and light solutions. In an Agile environment, developers can refactor code as well as maintain and add functionality to existing code. Using an Agile framework allows a development team to change gears quickly, making it easier to multitask and prioritize assignments.

Benefits of Agile Development

Refactoring makes and keeps code clean. Agile improves the refactoring process by breaking down development into bite-sized pieces and allows teams to focus on weeks-long sprints instead of looking at the whole project all at once. Software development teams favor refactoring in Agile because it offers:

  • Flexibility
  • Improved communication
  • Team cohesion
  • Adaptability


Rewriting code with an Agile mindset allows you to switch between tasks quickly according to user feedback. Programmers can solve problems depending on their priority instead of adhering to a linear checklist.

Improved communication

Not only do Agile teams need to foster good communication with each other, but Agile development also promotes open conversations between users and developers. Customer feedback is sent to the team through user stories and helps drive the development and refactoring process. A user story can provide the information needed to get a better idea of where your code is going in the future to meet user needs.

Team cohesion

Agile requires teamwork and heightened levels of communication and collaboration. Refactoring in Agile requires team members to clearly understand the intended purpose of the rewrite. Examples of this practice can include unit test frameworks, automation, continuous integration, and the team’s agreement on the goal of the refactoring. Team coherence will lead to a feeling of shared code ownership. This confidence helps stimulate experimentation which can lead to improved strategies and solutions.


Because Agile refactoring is focused on small increments, it becomes easy to adapt on the fly. When users throw you a curveball about what they want the app to do or a feature they want to be added, you can change direction quickly without scrapping all of your work. Because developers are coding in short spurts, they can change the application easily, allowing for quicker development.

Principles for Refactoring

Before you start rewriting code, it’s important to know key principles that will help you make complex code changes without compromising the project’s integrity. Here are some requirements for code refactoring in Agile.

  1. Identify risks and benefits
  2. Keep problems small
  3. Stay on target
Identify risks and benefits

Whenever a developer changes code, there’s risk involved. Just like our embroidery analogy, you wouldn’t cut a stitch and pull it out without knowing how it’s connected and how the removal will alter the big picture. Refactoring in Agile has the same risk — knowing how many pieces of the application your changes are going to touch is essential. What benefits will you gain from this refactor? Is it worth the risk of altering code and its dependencies? Knowing the risk-to-benefit ratio is critical for any developer before refactoring.

Keep problems small

The larger an edit, the riskier it becomes. Therefore, developers need to keep problems small through incremental refactoring. Incremental refactoring is a process that breaks down refactoring into smaller sections. Using an incremental approach to refactoring minimizes risk and the domino effect of change. Incremental coding also improves code health and allows for improvements when required.

Stay on target

When you’re staring down a piece of code, it can be easy to get sidetracked. Software developers should make sure to focus on the task at hand. Don’t get sidetracked and start adding new features or changing the function of the code. Remember that the purpose of refactoring is to make code easier to modify, read, and maintain. Refactoring code should be done independently from adding new features to existing code.

Agile Refactoring Techniques

Refactoring in Agile allows teams to switch directions easily and alter processes and goals on the fly, all while delivering high-quality products that meet user expectations. Here are some refactoring techniques and actionable items developers can implement to help refactoring go more smoothly.

Write unit tests

A popular method used by Agile developers is test-driven coding. Test-driven development is a “test first” approach to writing code. This means the first step for a developer is to create a unit test that will prove or disprove the code’s functionality or output. Step number two is to write code that will pass the test. Test-driven development is an excellent tool for implementing small changes in refactoring code in Agile.

Know your code smells

In software development, there are tried and true patterns for good, sustainable code. There are also tried and true patterns for bad code. This commonly occurring, badly written code is referred to as “code smell.” Common types of code smell include code duplication, long methods, and long parameter lists. When identifying where to begin your refactor, code smells are a great place to start. Knowing these code smells can help you identify where your code needs to be refactored.

Identify technical debt

Code rot occurs when you make assumptions about a problem and write code as a solution to that problem but then later find out your assumptions were incorrect, making your code no longer viable. This code then begins to “rot” and is considered technical debt. In these cases, the quality of your code deteriorates, or rots, over time making it irrelevant. Examples of technical debt include unreadable code, unused code, inconsistent data, and outdated documentation. Technical debt can occur when a developer writes a feature with a “fix it later” mindset and puts off important aspects of the coding process including writing tests, updating documentation, or checking for readability. Identifying the code’s technical debt aids the refactoring process by showing developers areas that may need fixing.


Refactoring in Agile improves code quality and design without touching the functionality of the program, which makes code more effective and maintainable. Benefits of Agile development include flexibility, improved communication, team cohesion, and adaptability.

Principles software development teams should consider before refactoring include: identifying risks and benefits, keeping problems small, and staying on target. Actionable items developers can use in refactoring techniques are writing unit tests, knowing code smells, and identifying technical debt.

Now that we’ve reviewed the benefits, principles, and techniques for refactoring in Agile, hopefully, you’re better prepared to clean up code and make the back side of your code look as good as the front.