Danny Guo | 郭亚东

How I Do Code Review

 ·  1,973 words  ·  ~10 minutes to read
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A coworker asked me about my approach to code review, as a reviewer. The following is my philosophy, which includes many tips and points that I have observed or learned from other people.


Manual code review shouldn’t be our first line of defense. Time is one of our most valuable resouces, so to the extent that it is practical, we should automate anything that might come up in code review. Continuous integration should catch things like formatting, lint, and test errors, allowing the author to fix issues before requesting a review. And we aren’t limited by what our tools provide out of the box. We can always write an ad-hoc script or shell command that verifies something.

I’m interested to see how generative AI will affect this aspect of programming. I’ve seen human-based code review services before, like Codementor and PullRequest, but tools like Metabob, CodeRabbit, and Bito might push the boundaries of what we can expect from automated code review. Though we need to be mindful of pitfalls like the possibility of hallucinations.

Manual Code Review

It’s also worth keeping in mind that we pay a cost by doing code reviews, in terms of engineering time and increasing how long it can take to ship a change to production. I think most teams will have a net benefit from doing them, but consider that Raycast doesn’t require code reviews. They leave it up to the author whether to request a review. I can imagine how that could work well under the right circumstances. Another approach is to do pair programming and consider that to be a replacement for code review. Code review is a best practice, but that doesn’t mean it’s always good or necessary.


So why do we do code review? The main reason is that it gives us a chance to catch problems, such as bugs, missed edge cases, race conditions, security vulnerabilities, and potential performance issues. Reviewers can provide a different perspective than we get from writing the code in the first place.

Similarly, reviewers can suggest opportunities for improvement. Maybe we can reduce reptition, or give a function a clearer name, or increase how many edge cases we cover with unit tests.

These are the direct benefits, but there are ancillary ones as well.

Share Knowledge

Code review gives the reviewer a chance to share knowledge with the author. For some problems and opportunities for improvement, the author may be able to come up with them on their own, especially if they take a second look at the code. But they may not know about something in the first place. For example, the author may introduce a SQL injection vulnerability and not even know what SQL injection is. So the reviewer can teach the author a new concept through code review.

This is especially the case when a senior engineer reviews code that a more junior engineer writes. But sharing knowledge goes both ways, regardless of any experience gap. Reviewing code can also teach the reviewer something. I have learned plenty of things from doing code review.

Stay Close to the Code

For engineering managers, code review can be a way to stay close to the code. Some engineers write little if any code after switching to management. Over time, this can cause them to fall out of touch with how things really work. Code review is one way to mitigate that atrophy.

Notice Patterns

Over time, a reviewer can notice patterns from doing multiple code reviews. Perhaps different people are making the same mistake or are implementing the same thing in different places. This gives the reviewer a chance to have a productive discussion with the team.


Even though the benefits are almost impossible to quantify, code review usually feels worthwhile to me. I appreciate receiving thorough reviews, and I try to make my reviews useful in turn. But how should we approach code review? Beyond the core act of leaving comments, I have some tactical suggestions.


Once someone (or an automated process) has requested my review, I try to prioritize it because I want to unblock others as quickly as possible. I use Google Apps Script to triage my Gmail inbox, and I’ve configured it to treat code review requests as high-priority emails.

I like to peek at the pull request (PR) or merge request immediately. If I think I can review it in a few minutes, I’ll try to knock it out in the moment, channeling David Allen’s two-minute rule. Ideally, I can approve it without much thought and let the author merge it without waiting. These PRs are usually small and easily understandable.

If I think the review will take longer, I’ll prioritize it against my existing queue of work, but I’ll still try to take care of it quickly. If I think it’ll take longer than a day, I’ll comment or message the author that I’m aware of the review request, but I need more time for it. So that the author knows the request hasn’t gone into a black hole.

Code review turnaround time is important to me for two main reasons. The first is that I know from personal experience that waiting for a code review isn’t fun. It can force an expensive context switch to another task or project. And it impacts the overall feeling and reality of being able to move quickly. See this tweet by James Long:

One of the biggest cultural shifts in my experience from Mozilla to Stripe is code review speed. At Mozilla you’d often wait days and have to hunt down people to review PRs.

At Stripe my PR is often reviewed within 10 minutes.

That makes a huge difference for shipping fast

The other, related reason is that at a business/organizational level, at least for most of the code reviews that I do, the review is the last significant blocker to getting a change merged so that it can produce value for customers, the organization, etc.

Consider all the possible work leading up to releasing a change, such as doing market research, coming up with the product specification, making the design, implementing the change, and testing it. All that work doesn’t produce real value until the change is merged and in production. The faster I can do the review, the faster we can start reaping value.


When I start a code review, I try to have an optimistic mindset of wanting to get to an approval. My attitude should be to help the author, not to be an overbearing gatekeeper. While I do want PRs (my own included) to be as good as they can be, my standard for approval isn’t perfection. Instead, the main question I ask myself is: “are we better off merging this PR than not?”

Understand the Context

Before diving into the code, I want to understand the context for the change so that I’m not reviewing in a vacuum. Context can come from a linked ticket, the PR description, a Slack thread, etc., and I’ll ask for additional context when necessary. Even when the context is well-documented already, I’ll sometimes ask for the author to make it an inline comment in the code so that it doesn’t get lost for future people.

Consider Emotions

Code review is another form of giving feedback, which can be hard (I recommend reading Radical Candor for advice on that). I try to consider the author’s emotions and the fact that nobody delivers their best possible work 100% of the time. I want to address issues directly, without suggesting that they reflect something about the author. If I say that a bit of code is stupid, the author could interpret that to mean that I think they are stupid. Instead, I’ll point out the issues with the code using language that is as objective as possible.

On a related note, code review doesn’t have to only involve pointing out negative things. I also like to point out things that are particularly good about the PR. And I’ll tell the author if they’ve taught me something.


I note which of my comments are merely nitpicks rather than actual blockers. I don’t expect the author to accept every suggestion. This gives the author the freedom to choose whether or not to make the change. But by labeling nitpicks, I don’t feel guilty about bringing up things that are relatively trivial.

Defer to the Author

Similarly, I sometimes have comments that are bigger than nitpicks, but I don’t feel that strongly about them, or there’s no clear “right” position, and it’s very much a matter of opinion. In these cases, I’ll explain my thinking, but I’ll leave it up to the author. Sometimes the issue warrants a team discussion. But in general, I defer to the author since they are the one who is responsible for the change. I want them to feel like they truly own it.

Approve Despite Questions

Sometimes I’ll have questions that could turn into blockers. If I don’t have any blocking comments otherwise, I’ll go ahead and approve the pull request, but I’ll say that my approval depends on the answers to my questions. This way, if the answers are in our favor, the author can answer them but also merge without having to wait for me to read the answers and approve.

So the process can go from:

  1. The author opens a PR and requests my review
  2. I ask questions
  3. The author answers and re-requests my review
  4. I approve
  5. The author merges


  1. The author opens a PR and requests my review
  2. I ask questions but go ahead and approve with a comment explaining how my approval is dependent on the answers
  3. The author answers the questions and merges
  4. I can read the answers asynchronously

Which removes an entire review cycle from the author’s perspective.

Get Second Opinions

I request second opinions as necessary. I may not be familiar enough with the code or context to do a good enough review on my own. Sometimes I’ll ask for another complete review. Other times, I’ll ask a specific question to the other reviewer.

Consider More Than Just Code

I don’t think a code review should be limited to just the code. I also look for succinct but descriptive pull request titles (and commit messages if we’re not squash merging). And I’ll comment if linked tickets and pull request descriptions aren’t detailed enough.

I also want to consider questions that aren’t directly related to what the code does and the quality of the code. Does the change introduce technical debt that’s going to hurt us in the long term? Are the right people aware of the change? What is the rollout plan? Did we miss something during the planning phase that could change our entire approach? And so on.

Suggest Addressing in a Follow-up PR

Some changes require more than one PR. If you know there is going to be at least one more PR that is related to the one you are reviewing, consider suggesting that the author address a particular problem in a follow-up PR, allowing them to merge the current PR immediately.

Consider Urgency

Code review depends on the urgency of the change. I’m not always going to do the most thorough review possible. If something needs to go out quickly, especially in an emergency, I may just glance through the code. Or I may give a rubber stamp and then do a more thorough review after the code is merged.

Loosen Standards

Similar to urgency, also consider how important the code is. Not all code in a codebase is of equal importance. For example, if I’m reviewing a one-off script that we don’t expect to run again in the future or to have to maintain, I loosen my standards. Though I will leave a comment acknowledging that judgment call.


Code review goes deeper than just checking a pull request for mistakes. It’s an important aspect of doing software engineering as a team and is one of the ways that learning computer science in school can be different from “real world” programming. Code review is another skill, another thing that we can improve at to benefit our teams.

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