Software Engineering-Formal Technical Reviews

A formal technical review is a software quality assurance activity performed by software engineers (and others). The objectives of the FTR ...

A formal technical review is a software quality assurance activity performed by software engineers (and others). The objectives of the FTR are  

(1) to uncover errors in function, logic, or implementation for any representation of the software;  
(2) to verify that the software under review meets its requirements; 
(3) to ensure that the software has been represented according to predefined standards;  
(4) to achieve software that is developed in a uniform manner; and  
(5) to make projects more manageable. 

In addition, the FTR serves as a training ground, enabling junior engineers to observe different approaches to software analysis, design, and implementation. The FTR also serves to promote backup and continuity because a number of people become familiar with parts of the software that they may not have otherwise seen.

The FTR is actually a class of reviews that includes walkthroughs, inspections, round-robin reviews and other small group technical assessments of software. Each FTR is conducted as a meeting and will be successful only if it is properly planned, controlled, and attended. In the sections that follow, guidelines similar to those for a walkthroughare presented as a representative formal technical review.

The Review Meeting

Regardless of the FTR format that is chosen, every review meeting should abide by the following constraints:
Between three and five people (typically) should be involved in the review.
Advance preparation should occur but should require no more than two hours of work for each person.
The duration of the review meeting should be less than two hours.

Given these constraints, it should be obvious that an FTR focuses on a specific (and small) part of the overall software. For example, rather than attempting to review an entire design, walkthroughs are conducted for each component or small group of components. By narrowing focus, the FTR has a higher likelihood of uncovering errors.

The focus of the FTR is on a work product (e.g., a portion of a requirements specification, a detailed component design, a source code listing for a component). The individual who has developed the work product—the producer—informs the project leader that the work product is complete and that a review is required. The project leader contacts a review leader, who evaluates the product for readiness, generates copies of product materials, and distributes them to two or three reviewers for advance preparation. Each reviewer is expected to spend between one and two hours reviewing the product, making notes, and otherwise becoming familiar with the work. Concurrently, the review leader also reviews the product and establishes an agenda for the review meeting, which is typically scheduled for the next day.

The review meeting is attended by the review leader, all reviewers, and the producer. One of the reviewers takes on the role of the recorder; that is, the individual who records (in writing) all important issues raised during the review. The FTR begins with an introduction of the agenda and a brief introduction by the producer. The producer then proceeds to "walk through" the work product, explaining the material, while reviewers raise issues based on their advance preparation. When valid problems or errors are discovered, the recorder notes each.

At the end of the review, all attendees of the FTR must decide whether to (1) accept the product without further modification, (2) reject the product due to severe errors (once corrected, another review must be performed), or (3) accept the product provisionally (minor errors have been encountered and must be corrected, but no additional review will be required). The decision made, all FTR attendees complete a sign-off, indicating their participation in the review and their concurrence with the review team's findings.

Review Reporting and Record Keeping

During the FTR, a reviewer (the recorder) actively records all issues that have been raised. These are summarized at the end of the review meeting and a review issues list is produced. In addition, a formal technical review summary report is completed.

A review summary report answers three questions:
1. What was reviewed?
2. Who reviewed it?
3. What were the findings and conclusions?

The review summary report is a single page form (with possible attachments). It becomes part of the project historical record and may be distributed to the project leader and other interested parties.
The review issues list serves two purposes: 
(1) to identify problem areas within the product and 
(2) to serve as an action item checklist that guides the producer as corrections are made. An issues list is normally attached to the summary report.

It is important to establish a follow-up procedure to ensure that items on the issues list have been properly corrected. Unless this is done, it is possible that issues raised can “fall between the cracks.” One approach is to assign the responsibility for followup to the review leader.

Review Guidelines

Guidelines for the conduct of formal technical reviews must be established in advance, distributed to all reviewers, agreed upon, and then followed. A review that is uncontrolled can often be worse that no review at all. The following represents a minimum set of guidelines for formal technical reviews:

1. Review the product, not the producer. An FTR involves people and egos. Conducted properly, the FTR should leave all participants with a warm feeling of accomplishment. Conducted improperly, the FTR can take on the aura of an inquisition. Errors should be pointed out gently; the tone of the meeting
should be loose and constructive; the intent should not be to embarrass or belittle. The review leader should conduct the review meeting to ensure that the proper tone and attitude are maintained and should immediately halt a review that has gotten out of control.

2. Set an agenda and maintain it. One of the key maladies of meetings of all types is drift. An FTR must be kept on track and on schedule. The review leader is chartered with the responsibility for maintaining the meeting schedule and should not be afraid to nudge people when drift sets in.

3. Limit debate and rebuttal. When an issue is raised by a reviewer, there may not be universal agreement on its impact. Rather than spending time debating the question, the issue should be recorded for further discussion off-line.

4. Enunciate problem areas, but don't attempt to solve every problem noted. A review is not a problem-solving session. The solution of a problem can often be accomplished by the producer alone or with the help of only one other individual. Problem solving should be postponed until after the review meeting.

5. Take written notes. It is sometimes a good idea for the recorder to make notes on a wall board, so that wording and priorities can be assessed by other reviewers as information is recorded.

6. Limit the number of participants and insist upon advance preparation. Two heads are better than one, but 14 are not necessarily better than 4. Keep the number of people involved to the necessary minimum. However, all review team members must prepare in advance. Written comments should be solicited by the review leader (providing an indication that the reviewer has reviewed the material).

7. Develop a checklist for each product that is likely to be reviewed. A checklist helps the review leader to structure the FTR meeting and helps each reviewer to focus on important issues. Checklists should be developed for analysis, design, code, and even test documents.

8. Allocate resources and schedule time for FTRs. For reviews to be effective, they should be scheduled as a task during the software engineering process. In addition, time should be scheduled for the inevitable modifications that will occur as the result of an FTR.

9. Conduct meaningful training for all reviewers. To be effective all review participantsshould receive some formal training. The training should stress both process-related issues and the human psychological side of reviews. Freedman and Weinberg  estimate a one-month learning curve for every 20 people who are to participate effectively in reviews.

10. Review your early reviews. Debriefing can be beneficial in uncovering problems with the review process itself. The very first product to be reviewed should be the review guidelines themselves.
Because many variables (e.g., number of participants, type of work products, timing and length, specific review approach) have an impact on a successful review, a software organization should experiment to determine what approach works best in a local context. Porter and his colleagues  provide excellent guidance for this type of experimentation.

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