Software evolves with continuous source-code changes. These code changes usually need to be understood by software engineers when performing their daily development and maintenance tasks. However, despite its high importance, such change-understanding practice has not been systematically studied. Such lack of empirical knowledge hinders attempts to evaluate this fundamental practice and improve the corresponding tool support.
To address this issue, in this paper, we present a large-scale quantitative and qualitative study at Microsoft. The study investigates the role of understanding code changes during software-development process, explores engineers’ information needs for understanding changes and their requirements for the corresponding tool support. The study results reinforce our beliefs that understanding code changes is an indispensable task performed by engineers in software-development process. A number of insufficiencies in the current practice also emerge from the study results. For example, it is difficult to acquire important information needs such as a
change’s completeness, consistency, and especially the risk imposed by it on other software components. In addition, for understanding a composite change, it is valuable to decompose it into sub-changes that are aligned with individual development issues; however, currently such decomposition lacks tool support.