Working Effectively with Legacy Code

Author: Michael C. Feathers
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About This Book

Is your code easy to change? Can you get nearly instantaneous feedback when you do change it? Do you understand it? If the answer to any of these questions is no, you have legacy code, and it is draining time and money away from your development efforts.


In this book, Michael Feathers offers start-to-finish strategies for working more effectively with large, untested legacy code bases. This book draws on material Michael created for his renowned Object Mentor seminars: techniques Michael has used in mentoring to help hundreds of developers, technical managers, and testers bring their legacy systems under control.



The topics covered include

  • Understanding the mechanics of software change: adding features, fixing bugs, improving design, optimizing performance
  • Getting legacy code into a test harness
  • Writing tests that protect you against introducing new problems
  • Techniques that can be used with any language or platform—with examples in Java, C++, C, and C#
  • Accurately identifying where code changes need to be made
  • Coping with legacy systems that aren't object-oriented
  • Handling applications that don't seem to have any structure

This book also includes a catalog of twenty-four dependency-breaking techniques that help you work with program elements in isolation and make safer changes.


by PaulHoule   2017-11-25
You're definitely right that unit tests are a part of the solution.

can be read in a few different registers (making a case for what unit tests should be in a greenfield system, why and how to backfit unit tests into a legacy system) but it makes that case pretty strongly. It can seem overwhelming to get unit tests into a legacy system but the reward is large.

I remember working on a system that was absolutely awful but was salvageable because it had unit tests!

Also generally getting control of the build procedure is key to the scheduling issue -- I have seen many new project where a team of people work on something and think all of the parts are good to go, but you find there is another six months of integration work, installer engineering, and other things you need to do ship a product. Automation, documentation, simplification are all bits of the puzzle, but if you want agility, you need to know how to go from source code to a product, and not every team does.

by anonymous   2017-10-08
@gdbj good luck in any case, we've all been there! Strongly recommended reading: [Working Effectively With Legacy code by Michael Feathers](
by PaulHoule   2017-10-06
If you have to write mocks in the native language, mocks will probably drive you insane.

Tools like mockito can make a big difference.

I worked on a project which was terribly conceived, specified, and implemented. My boss said that they shouldn't even have started it and shouldn't have hired the guy who wrote it! Because it had tests, however, it was salvageable, and I was able to get it into production.

This book

makes the case that unit tests should always run quickly, not depend on external dependencies, etc.

I do think a fast test suite is important, but there are some kinds of slower tests that can have a transformative impact on development:

* I wrote a "super hammer" test that smokes out a concurrent system for race conditions. It took a minute to run, but after that, I always knew that a critical part of the system did not have races (or if they did, they were hard to find)

* I wrote a test suite for a lightweight ORM system in PHP that would do real database queries. When the app was broken by an upgrade to MySQL, I had it working again in 20 minutes. When I wanted to use the same framework with MS SQL Server, it took about as long to port it.

* For deployment it helps to have an automated "smoke test" that will make sure that the most common failure modes didn't happen.

That said, TDD is most successful when you are in control of the system. In writing GUI code often the main uncertainty I've seen is mistrust of the underlying platform (today that could be, "Does it work in Safari?")

When it comes to servers and stuff, there is the issue of "can you make a test reproducible". For instance you might be able to make a "database" or "schema" inside a database with a random name and do all your stuff there. Or maybe you can spin one up in the cloud, or use Docker or something like that. It doesn't matter exactly how you do it, but you don't want to be the guy who nukes the production database (or a another developer's or testers database) because the build process has integration tests that use the same connection info as them.

by anonymous   2017-09-24
This may not be a nice experience. Consider reading "Working Effectively With Legacy Code" (
by anonymous   2017-08-20

About testability

Due to the use of singletons and static classes MyViewModel isn't testable. Unit testing is about isolation. If you want to unit test some class (for example, MyViewModel) you need to be able to substitute its dependencies by test double (usually stub or mock). This ability comes only when you provide seams in your code. One of the best techniques used to provide seams is Dependency Injection. The best resource for learning DI is this book from Mark Seemann (Dependency Injection in .NET).

You can't easily substitute calls of static members. So if you use many static members then your design isn't perfect.

Of course, you can use unconstrained isolation framework such as Typemock Isolator, JustMock or Microsoft Fakes to fake static method calls but it costs money and it doesn't push you to better design. These frameworks are great for creating test harness for legacy code.

About design

  1. Constructor of MyViewModel is doing too much. Constructors should be simple.
  2. If the dependecy is null then constructor must throw ArgumentNullException but not silently log the error. Throwing an exception is a clear indication that your object isn't usable.

About testing framework

You can use any unit testing framework you like. Even MSTest, but personally I don't recommend it. NUnit and are MUCH better.

Further reading

  1. Mark Seeman - Dependency Injection in .NET
  2. Roy Osherove - The Art of Unit Testing (2nd Edition)
  3. Michael Feathers - Working Effectively with Legacy Code
  4. Gerard Meszaros - xUnit Test Patterns

Sample (using MvvmLight, NUnit and NSubstitute)

public class ViewModel : ViewModelBase
    public ViewModel(IMessenger messenger)
        if (messenger == null)
            throw new ArgumentNullException("messenger");

        MessengerInstance = messenger;

    public void SendMessage()

public static class Messages
    public static readonly string SomeMessage = "SomeMessage";

public class ViewModelTests
    private static ViewModel CreateViewModel(IMessenger messenger = null)
        return new ViewModel(messenger ?? Substitute.For<IMessenger>());

    public void Constructor_WithNullMessenger_ExpectedThrowsArgumentNullException()
        var exception = Assert.Throws<ArgumentNullException>(() => new ViewModel(null));
        Assert.AreEqual("messenger", exception.ParamName);

    public void SendMessage_ExpectedSendSomeMessageThroughMessenger()
        // Arrange
        var messengerMock = Substitute.For<IMessenger>();
        var viewModel = CreateViewModel(messengerMock);

        // Act

        // Assert
by Ruben Bartelink   2017-08-20

Other hanselminutes episodes on testing:

Other podcasts:

Other questions like this:

Blog posts:

I know you didn't ask for books but... Can I also mention that Beck's TDD book is a must read, even though it may seem like a dated beginner book on first flick through (and Working Effectively with Legacy Code by Michael C. Feathers of course is the bible). Also, I'd append Martin(& Martin)'s Agile Principles, Patterns & Techniques as really helping in this regard. In this space (concise/distilled info on testing) also is the excellent Foundations of programming ebook. Goob books on testing I've read are The Art of Unit Testing and xUnit Test Patterns. The latter is an important antidote to the first as it is much more measured than Roy's book is very opinionated and offers a lot of unqualified 'facts' without properly going through the various options. Definitely recommend reading both books though. AOUT is very readable and gets you thinking, though it chooses specific [debatable] technologies; xUTP is in depth and neutral and really helps solidify your understanding. I read Pragmatic Unit Testing in C# with NUnit afterwards. It's good and balanced though slightly dated (it mentions RhinoMocks as a sidebar and doesnt mention Moq) - even if nothing is actually incorrect. An updated version of it would be a hands-down recommendation.

More recently I've re-read the Feathers book, which is timeless to a degree and covers important ground. However it's a more 'how, for 50 different wheres' in nature. It's definitely a must read though.

Most recently, I'm reading the excellent Growing Object-Oriented Software, Guided by Tests by Steve Freeman and Nat Pryce. I can't recommend it highly enough - it really ties everything together from big to small in terms of where TDD fits, and various levels of testing within a software architecture. While I'm throwing the kitchen sink in, Evans's DDD book is important too in terms of seeing the value of building things incrementally with maniacal refactoring in order to end up in a better place.

by anonymous   2017-08-20

This is a repeat answer from a similar question.

Typically, it is very difficult to retrofit an untested codebase to have unit tests. There will be a high degree of coupling and getting unit tests to run will be a bigger time sink than the returns you'll get. I recommend the following:

  • Get at least one copy of Working Effectively With Legacy Code by Michael Feathers and go through it together with people on the team. It deals with this exact issue.
  • Enforce a rigorous unit testing (preferably TDD) policy on all new code that gets written. This will ensure new code doesn't become legacy code and getting new code to be tested will drive refactoring of the old code for testability.
  • If you have the time (which you probably won't), write a few key focused integration tests over critical paths of your system. This is a good sanity check that the refactoring you're doing in step #2 isn't breaking core functionality.
by anonymous   2017-08-20

for automated software unit tests I would recommend google test. There is a very good q&a on this platform, which you can find here.

Additionally, there is CPPUnitLite, which is developed by the author of "Working Effectively with Legacy Code", Michael Feathers.

I used AutoIt Scripts for testing a MFC application just a little bit, but it was not that easy to maintain them properly and build an effective logging system for failed tests.

However, the unit tests depend heavily on the architecture of your program and the structure of your class - especially the dependencies to other components / classes. So if you already have an existing MFC application, which was not built with unit tests in mind, you probably have to refactor a lot of things. Therefore, I would recommend the mentioned book. You can also use the classic "Refactoring" by Martin Fowler.

by anonymous   2017-08-20

If this was me I would not focus on unit tests for this. I would first try and get a suite of End-To-End tests which characterize the behaviour of the system as it stands. Then as you refactor parts of the system you have some confidence that things are no more broken that they were before.

As you point out, different linq providers have different behaviour so having the end to end tests will ensure that you are actually testing the the system works.

I can recommend SpecFlow as a great tool for building your behaviour based tests, and I can recommend watching this video on pluralsight for a great overview of SpecFlow and a good explanation of why you might be better with end to end tests than having unit tests.

You'll also get a lot out of reading 'Working effectively with legacy code' and reading some of the links and comments here might be useful as well.

You'll notice that some of the comments linked above point out that you need to write unit tests, but often you need to refactor before you can write the tests *as the code isn't currently testable), but that this isn't safe without unit tests. Catch-22. Writing End-To-End tests can often get you out of this catch-22, at the expense of having a slow running test suite.

by anonymous   2017-08-20

Your question is very broad as there are many techniques (e.g. heavily unit testing your code) that are of help. It is probably best to read a book on that topic. I can highly recommend you Michael C. Feathers

Working Effectively with Legacy Code

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Although this book is mostly Java-centric the described techniques are generally applicable. It will definitely change the way you write and think about code and will be of help when working with existing applications.

Feathers' book is also one of the books that are most recommended in this SO post.