in Coding

Tools to understand Java code

I have recently read a question on Stackoverflow whether there are any tools to help understanding Java code. Somebody asked it, because he started to use a pen and a sheet of paper to get the clue of some code given to him. Not uncommon.

But the problem was, that nobody tried to answer the question, instead giving him tips like “learn Java” or “read tutorials”. I think they have misunderstood the question – because there are definitely tools for that:

  • A good IDE just like Eclipse is one basic tool to understand code. It helps you in various ways:

    • It shows the structure of folders and files of the project. You can easily get an overview of everything. Just import the project and have a look what you got.
    • It gives you the ability of syntax-highlighting (trivial, I know), but also the ability to format code like your are used to in a second. That helps reading it, even (or especially?) when you have some experience in the language.
    • It shows you the JavaDoc comments right away at every position in your code. So you will always have the documentation with you when needed.
    • It provides tools such as a debugger, a call-hierarchy view and many more. All this tools will help you to get an understanding of how the code works.

    And it can to much more for you. So it’s really worth to get familiar with your IDE.

  • UML is a widely used standard for modeling and visualizing code. The purpose of UML is simple and exactly what was asked: it should help you to understand code. The strength of UML is the abstraction. You can easily visualize a big architecture without mention any detail at all. On the other hand, you can add any detail you want if it is important for the understanding of the system.

    The basics of UML are not hard to learn, a quick look at Wikipedia should be enough to draw a class diagram. But UML is also enough standardized, that it could not only be read by humans, but also by machines – so you can generate it (so called round-tripping)!

    Tools like ObjectAid helps you to generate class diagrams as easy as possible. Just install it in your IDE, create a new class diagram and drag all Java classes in it.

  • Tests, especially unit tests (e.g. JUnit tests) could be also very useful to understand the code. A good test is something like a additional documentation or a contract on code-level. It exactly defines how a method can be used (e.g. input parameters) and what it should make (that’s what the test is testing ;)). So, if you don’t understand what a method should do and you have tests, take a look at them. And what if you don’t have any tests? Write your own ones! This is a good approach to explore an API in a structured and repeatable way. Whenever you are not sure what the API does, try to create a test about your assumption.

So, what to do if there is a bunch of new code?

  1. Import the project to your IDE.
  2. Get an overview of folders, files, packages and so on.
  3. Explore the code: What’s in the JavaDoc? What types are used? What about the call hierarchy?
  4. Run the unit tests and try to understand what the methods are doing.
  5. Try to run the debugger for a test or two.
  6. Draw or generate a UMl diagram.

I have uploaded some screenshot in the slideshow above for the open-source RSyntaxTextArea library from Fifesoft. But you will also find some good tutorials in the internet for every point mentioned before. Try to get familiar with at least some of the tools.

Best regards,
Thomas Uhrig

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  1. Hi Thomas, thank you for this interesting post listing methods and tools that Java developers can use to understand unfamiliar code bases!

    We are two Java two developers in France trying to build such a tool by recording Java program executions. You can then visualise the dynamic dependancies and the execution paths through a web interface. Moreover, the execution can be replayed step by step, forward but also backward in time.

    You can find more details on our website, with a demo video. If you are interested, feel free to download it and try it, it’s free! We’d be glad if you have any thoughts or suggestions to share with us!


    • There used to be a tool years ago which showed the execution of code (Java I think) in realyime as an object graph – so it showed each object as it was created, how it caled tohers and when it was destroyed, sometime in the 90s, don’t know what happened to it and can’t remember the name though

  2. Thanks Thomas for the input. I have been searching the same and almost everyone suggested to learn java ūüôā Though IDE shows javadoc comments, as a beginner I was searching for an application which will show me why a function/variable is used in a particular line of code. For example
    this.firstName = firstName, here this is used to access the class variable.