Wednesday, April 11, 2018

On Good Code

Good code.  What makes a codebase good?  What makes good code... well, good?

Coming into a new company again has refreshed my mind on what it is like to delve into a complex pre-existing codebase for the first time.  Sometimes the experience is agonizing, sometimes it's fairly straightforward, and sometimes it lies somewhere in between.

I remember when I first started at PlayStation, who are for the most part, a Java shop.  Getting my environment set-up, discovering the shape of things, where to find things, what libraries were there and beginning to dig into the project I'd be working on.  Opening up my IDE for the first time and initializing the first maven pom into a project for IntelliJ to index and for me to digest.

I pulled out my OmniGraffle, and started making diagrams for my own edification, tracing from the start of the application flow, where requests arrive, and following the call flow all the way down into the guts of the application where SQL queries start popping up and the particulars of the relational organization of the platform become evident, making flow charts and relational diagrams as I go so I can understand what kind of a picture it all paints.

Today, coming into a new company, I begin the process all over again, but this time I'm in a director role, so today, my chief concern is more to do with deliverables and project timelines, overarching technology goals and direction that it is with the low level of our implementation.  However, being a startup, it means that whilst my primary focus is more long-term, I have to be conversant with all those gruesome details, and able to function therein.  It's PHP, it's AWS, it's Docker, it's Linux, it's MySQL.

My standards for what "good code" looks like are very high.  Over the years I've discovered this in my professional life, and that most people aren't nearly as exacting as my preferences would prefer.  It's been a long journey from the young up-and-commer who left Southampton University for the U.S.A with a baby on the way and dived into commercial software development with gusto to today, a Engineering Director for a small company in California.  Over those years I've worked on many systems, from the smallest companies like ZiftIt, where the technology team consisted of me doing all the core engineering, a front-end guy doing UI, and the CTO, to vast sprawling multi-billion dollar organizations like Sony PlayStation where I was just one cog in a vast machine delivering content at massive scale to users the world over.

One common thread that shows up across these companies is that good code makes a difference.  Not in theory, but in practice.  I've lived in companies where the toxicity of the codebase rose up and strangled the organization from within as it took more engineers just to beat back the zombies and skeletons of rushed implementations, where interacting with system became an effort in managing the edge cases that were so prevalent it was like trying to play patty-cake with Edward Scissorhands, and the edge-cases were so much at the edges as baked all the way through.

Let me start by describing what good code feels like.  When your codebase is good, it feels safe.  It's a warm blanket that welcomes you to work in the morning, where you feel confident that your timelines are accurate.  Where you can estimate with ease, and new features are just a matter of solving for the complexity of the design.  Where you go home on Friday, and thinking about refactoring something, arrive Monday, and the refactoring is done by close of business Tuesday.  Where when a business owner asks for a new feature, you smile and say, it mostly already does that because it's just a logical extension of the relational design.  Where you can look at your database, and immediately get a sense of what the data means.

Contrast that with bad code.  Where any step taken is fraught with peril.  You can't change anything for fear of the whole system collapsing like a house of cards, worse even, you daren't even step heavily around it, in case the table shakes and the whole thing just collapses apparently of it's own accord.  Where implementing anything requires long heavy test cycles that seem to take forever, and where business is always angry that what they are being given is so full of bugs and problems that never seem to go away all the way.

I want to take a moment now to look at why this is.  What makes one codebase such a pleasure to work with, and another such a horrible pain.  Let's think about the human psyche, where we came from and who we are for the world, let's get metaphysical for a moment.  When you open up a good novel and dive in, what is it that is engaging?  When you look at a page of mathematics, unless you have a PhD in Math, why does it occurs as noise?  All this points to the first trait of a good codebase:

It tells a story.

Open up the sourcecode to your project, and see, what is the story it's telling say?  Can you tell?  The statistics suggest that the average developer spends 10x as much time reading code in a day than they spent writing it.  If your codebase isn't telling a compelling story, and doing so in a way a good book does, you've probably got a pile of frustrated coders on your hands.  When you open up a class or script and your brain fires off in horror "Oh my god, who wrote this?!", or "Oh my god, what does this even do?!", you know you might have a problem.

I'm not an English major, my wife holds that distinction in our family, but I know that a good story has compelling characters, solid plot, a place it starts, a clear direction, and a place it ends up.  The best stories might be surprising or insightful or emotional; but they are all engaging and compelling.

If your codebase doesn't tell a compelling story, there's a pretty good chance that your product doesn't either, and that your company doesn't either.  Conway's law says that companies write applications with the same structure as their organization.  If your code base looks a certain way, it might be an indication of your organizational culture, and, that might also be something you want to look at.

If you look at the Clean Code book by Robert C Martin, you'll see that code that has clearly distinguished levels of abstract will have a mixture of fuction or method types.  There will be methods that talk almost in English: return userDataAccess.fetchUsers() map (getPersonalData andThen tokenize).  A non-developer can, with just a little explanation of what what "map" does, fully understand what this accomplishes!  This function tells a story.  If you don't have functions or methods in your code that looks like this, this is a strong symptom of failing to have appropriate levels of abstraction.  It also means that you like have a great deal of copy/paste in your system going on and that refactoring anything is going to result in you finding places where the same operation is performed with slight variations that were never normalize.

Okay, so you've realized that what you have on your hands is a dry math paper, and not a novel.  What can you do about it?

Cure for code that doesn't tell a story: normalize the heck out of it.

Go through, start seeing where there are services present.  like userDataAccess.fetchUsers.  If what happens all over the place is raw queries to your datastore, you'll benefit from normalizing this into a service component.  Normalize with a passion, normalize with vigor.  You'll see the size of your codebase shrinking and shrinking.  You'll start to see the story of your system emerge.  And, you'll start to see productivity rise.  If you didn't have any before, you'll be able to write tests now.  If you had tests before, you'll start seeing them simplify greatly.  You'll start to see developers actually want to write then because it enables them to develop new features faster.  Incidently, this is also one antidote for tangling and scattering, another common problem.

That's enough pontificating for one morning, I'll come back and write a part two, where, I'll talk more about tangling and scattering, and also abstraction versus simplification.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Technology... The Madness of MySQL

Back working for a start-up again.  This brings all the pluses and minuses as per usual.  Crazy hours sometimes, fun projects, more control, less process.

It also brings something else.  MySQL.

Anyone who knows me, knows just how much visceral hate I have for this "database".  In the last 48 hours, I've learnt two more fun facts to add to the list of solid reasons why to skip MySQL in favor of better solutions:

1. Nullable false leads to an implicit default.

We use Liquibase to version our database.  It's good.  But, it means that generally I find myself writing schema in XML format, not in SQL format.  Creating a new column on a table is easy enough, and there's even a handy XML block for constraints.  I copied the definition from another column definition from before, which included a nullable=false constraint, which on first glance, seemed appropriate enough.

I run the update, and wonder what's taking so long...

Turns out if you specify nullable="false", MySQL will use a default value, all databases would, that's perfectly sensible.  The thing that's not sensible is is that in this case, I didn't specify one!  So MySQL, instead of throwing an error, telling my schema change is invalid and missing something, just goes ahead and implies a default.  Stop implying things MySQL, you're guessing what I mean, not doing what I say.  This is generally a bad thing for software to do.  And it implied I meant that I did in fact want a default value and that default value should be 0 for a bigint column.  Not a bad assumption necessarily, but, an assumption nonetheless; and to assume, makes an ass out of u and me, but in this case, mostly just me.  This of course then expended a lot of CPU resources to apply as this particular table has a great many rows.  No problem, kill the session and remove the constraint.

Which leads us swiftly to number 2...

2. Adding a column to a table in MySQL requires a full table update, even in InnoDB.

o_o. o_O.  O_O.

I think in 2018, every single other database engine handles this correctly.  It's a meta-data change.  Not so in MySQL.  Even with no default value, the database engine insists on rebuilding the entire database store.

So if you're an enterprise with a large(ish) table, and you need a new column.  Downtime will be required.  Downtime in 2018 is not what users have come to expect.  Downtime is never acceptable to users.

MySQL.  I didn't think I would discover new reasons to despise you for being a pile of poorly implemented not really ACID compliant unhelpful non-SQL standard compliant database.  I was unpleasantly surprised.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Law of Demeter and perhaps something more strict that isn't quite

Looking at a piece of code today and thinking about the consequences of discovering things about objects a method is passed.

If I have a method that is responsible for performing a mapping, let's call it from type A to type B so

A -> B

or to use a more Scala-ish syntax:

f(A): B

then I might argue that the method f, should not attempt to enhance in any way the object of type A.  If the properties that require the construction of B are not immediately present in A as per the law of Demeter, or if we recast the system slightly such that A may represent a composite, the set of objects represented by A, then there should be an intermediary method that gathers the required information for the mapping operation and creates an enhanced context.  This would be a separation of concerns, one being the enhancement of the object of type A, and the other the operation of generating a B.

A -> B then expands to A -> C -> B

where C is the set of information required to construct B, so we might get two methods:

constructB(C): B so that our type arrow is C -> B

and enhance(A): C so that the type arrow is A -> C

This means that should somebody construct logic that does some kind of side-effecting operation in enhance(), that operation can be isolated from the mapping.

This means that when we look at a mapping function, we can say it should not contain ANY additional type arrows within.  It should only access and map properties from the composite C to create an object of type B.  Any additional mapping or derivation that occurs within, or the processing of a type arrow breaks separation of concerns.

This feels pretty strict, but I'm looking at code today where if that rule had been followed, a very nasty side-effecting piece of code that was buried several levels deep in an abstraction would never have been permitted!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Java 8 - Exploring FunctionalInterface

A few days ago I posted a highly frustrated post on Facebook about Java having Lambdas, but not having any Try<> mechanism meaning that in most cases, you're left declaring a try block inside a lambda.  Turns out there's a different way to approach this that gives a different resolution.

Say you're a Scala person like me, and have discovered that checked exceptions actually are more of a pain than they're worth, and believe they actually break SOLID engineering principles, particularly the part about encapsulation.  When first exploring Java 8, it seemed to me that the lack of a Try<> type was pretty bad news.  I still think Try<> would be useful, but there is at least a way to get around having a very ugly try/catch block inside a lambda.

So Java, I take it back - you've done something weird, but cool.  Turns out you don't need to worry about Function<> specifically; any interface that declares only a single method is functional, and will be eligible for syntax magic.  (Though I don't like magic, it's at least traceable magic).  It's perfectly valid to declare:

public interface ExceptionalFunction<A, B> {
    B f(A a) throws Exception;
    default B apply(A a) {
        try { return f(a); }
        catch (Exception e) { throw new RuntimeException(e); }

and then your call that uses thusly:

public <T> T withMyThing(ExceptionalFunction<MyThing, T> f) {

and then

withMyThing(x -> isAwesome(x));

or because apparently you can:


This means that if isAwesome() throws a checked exception, our wrapper will capture it and it will be suppressed down to a runtime exception.  I'm not going to debate the merits of that here, only to say that here be dragons, and that probably breaks expected behavior in many situations, but, at the same time can be pretty useful too, particularly in Test Suites, where exceptional behavior is either being explicitly elicited, or explicitly checked against.  Though I supposed that if you're eliciting it, getting back a RuntimeException containing the expected might break the test case... like I said, here be dragons.

Though we might have noticed that now apparently interfaces in Java can have method bodies... Uh wut?  This is doesn't seem any different to me than having say:

public abstract class ExceptionalFunction<A, B> {
  public abstract B f(A a) throws Exception;
  public <B> B apply(A a) {
    try { return f(a); }
    catch (Exception e) { throw new RuntimeException(e); }

I suppose it does have the syntactic implication, that the function you're declaring could be something other than public, which in a function interface context wouldn't make sense, but perhaps that should be a compiler error rather than changing what an "Interface" fundamentally means in Java?

So be here yea forewarned: Interfaces in Java 8 may have method bodies!!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Software Development -- Why we need software engineers

I frequently see posts by some folks talking about how software development is the realm of the elite and erudite, requiring much training and arcane knowledge. Somehow, these people seem to think this is a bad thing, or an odd thing that is in need of remediation. It doesn't. And there are many simple analogies that can help demonstrate why.

The most basic one goes as follows. As a business owner, you have an office probably, or a place of business. This place has electrical systems, and plumbing, and a building with doors and a roof and other such infrastructure. If your sink gets clogged, you might pour some drano down it and try to unclog it. Anything beyond that - you call a plumber. If a roof leaks, you call a roofer. If your door needs fixing, you call a carpenter. Without training, you can't just make a new door, or install a new sink, or do a major roof repair. These things require skill and training to do well, and in some cases even at all. You don't know which tools you need, and you certainly don't own them. As a business person, you also understand that your time is much better invested in doing things you are an expert at doing, and using that revenue to pay someone who is an expert in plumbing to do that rather than wasting ten times the effort of our own time trying to do it yourself. It's called delegation, and whilst I'm no Harvard MBA, I'm pretty sure it's a major component in how you make a business successful. What on earth would posses you to believe that given you have zero training and knowledge of computer systems, that you could whip up a piece of software that was anything more than the software equivalent of drano down a sink, or duct tape on a pipe?! Or to the people writing these kinds of articles, what on earth would posses you to think that what you do is any less difficult than what many professionals do, and is something that any ordinary Joe could manage with little or no training? Software deals with many highly complex interlocking problems and requires training and specialized knowledge to do, and certainly to do well. You have to know about the tools that exist, and you have to know how to use them. For a software engineer who does this full time and then some, the range of tools and techniques available is dizzying, far more than is available to a carpenter or a plumber. The notion that a regular Joe should be able to write software, of any kind, anything really beyond basic spreadsheet macros is ridiculous. For decades, people have been trying to make these magical 4GLs that allow you to plug big blocks of awesome together to make systems that get things done. To date, they have all failed to one degree or another.

I believe that most people, even programmers often have little idea about what we actually do every day. What we do everyday is mostly not engineering. That's right, I'm a programmer, and what I do everyday is mostly NOT engineering. There is an engineering component, but I believe that most of what I do every day is philosophy.

Programming is a discipline that is more akin to philosophy that it is to engineering, and I believe that this is often true for higher mathematics and higher physics also, though I'm not in those fields, so I may be wrong.

What we do everyday is reason about the universe around us, and then turn it into a model that the computer executes. Most of the programming we do is essentially a simulacrum. It's a mirror of the real word, defined by us, the philosopher and executed by a machine, the computer. How good our software is, is typically far more to do with how well we can reason about our problem domain and far less about how good an engineer we are. Any programmer who has seem code written by Math people has an idea about this. From an engineering perspective, the code is often pretty terrible, but the things it can do are amazing, and us lowly engineers often don't have the mathematical knowledge and understanding to reason about it, and thusly can't understand it. The mathematicians software is brilliant because she knew a language with which to describe the universe that was very advanced, and could precisely describe that universe back to a machine to do interesting things with it.

Why do you think people do postgraduate work in science on a thing called a PhD, it's not a Doctor of Science, it's a Doctor of Philosophy.

To describe our model of the universe to the computer, we need engineering, and that is honestly the part that is pretty tedious after you've been around the wheel a few times. The languages we user are arcane because a computer has to know precisely what to do. There can be no ambiguity to a computer, and when there are ambiguities in our code, that's one major cause of bugs. Humans are very bad at describing things precisely, but it's the only way a computer can function and so we have a disjoin. We also have a disjoin because our model of the universe is typically very small, and only represents a very very small part of the universe. And sometimes the universe we're modeling is centered around things that only exist as constructs in human conception, like money. They don't have solid rules and have weird exception cases and often don't make a lot of sense from a purely logical perspective. They are models of human behavior, which humans who study psychology and neurology don't even fully understand, so what chance as a software developer do we have, trying to describe it for a computer to understand?! The raw fact of the matter is that that model is incomplete and imperfect. No amount of hand-wringing is ever going to make it less than that because we ourselves don't have a perfect model of the universe, and certainly not of human behavior, all we have are approximations.

I also am coming to believe that engineering, the actual implementation of our models is a secondary concern to the philosophy. That is to say regardless of what languages and methodologies we use, if our fundamental model of the universe, the shapes of the pieces of our simulacrum we defined in our mind are a poor fit, no amount of brilliant engineering will make the software good. The most elegant code that doesn't serve the user is ultimately not going to be useful and have a long life beyond being a teaching aid. The most ugly code that serves the user well, is going to have a long life, even if it is the bane of the engineers maintaining it, and we've all worked on that kind of code in our career. That legacy app that is just so critical to the business that it can't be left to die, despite it being the most horrible piece of code ever conceived? That little gem, is a wonder of philosophy, but a travesty of engineering, and guess what, it's value as a model as a machine as a tool for the business outweighs it's ugliness as a work of engineering.

So I would call programmers to be philosophers and historians first, and engineers second. Take the time to gain a better understanding of the world around us first, learn about what other programmers have done before you and the challenges they faced second, and then be a syntax god and engineer third. And most of all, what we do, day in and day out is hard. It's part philosophy, part art, part music, part mathematics and part engineering. To be good at programming, you have to be at least capable in all of those disciplines, and whilst engineering might be third, it's still really important. Not many people have the capacity to be cross-disciplined to that level, programmers have to be, and that quite frankly, makes us pretty special, and that's okay!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Subcut with GlobalSettings and Filters in the Play Framework

Quick post on an issue with Filters when using the Subcut template from activator.  If you use the Subcut template from TypeSafe Activator, and decide you want to use Filters on your Global object, you will likely run into this issue:

java.lang.ClassCastException: Global cannot be cast to play.GlobalSettings

or you will see that you can't call super.doFilter(next) as suggested in the documentation.

This is because there are two GlobalSettings classes in Play, one which is a Java class, and the other that is the Scala trait.  In most scala applications you will be extending a Scala trait. The Subcut template uses the Java class, and that's because the Subcut template relies on your Global being an instance, rather than a companion object, and the Scala GlobalSettings trait only works on an object, not an instance.

You can fix this problem by extending from both of these classes:

class Global extends GlobalSettings with play.api.GlobalSettings {

  override def doFilter(next: EssentialAction): EssentialAction = {
    Filters(super.doFilter(next), LoggingFilter)

Thank goodness for traits!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Raising Option[T] to Try[T] - Handling error situations with aplomb

I've started using this pattern for dealing with situation where functions I'm working with may return an Option[T] for a given query, but the contextual meaning of returning None is really an error case. A good example of this is looking up an Item in a database by it's ID based on a shopping cart. If the application receives an item ID during a shopping cart process of an item that doesn't exist in the DB, then returning None on the DAO access is fine, but the upshot is an error condition. The application has received bad data somewhere along the way, and this should be manifested as an Exception state, which I'm choosing to encapsulate in a Try[T] so I can pass it cleanly up the stack rather than violating SOLID by throwing an exception, which I know is a subject of some debate.

To help with this, I wrote a simple wrapper class that I've called MonadHelper thusly:

object MonadUtil {
  implicit def option2wrapper[T](original: Option[T]) = new OptionWrapper(original)

  class OptionWrapper[T](original: Option[T]) {
    def asTry(throwableOnNone: Throwable) = original match {
      case None => Failure(throwableOnNone)
      case Some(v) => Success(v)

This allows one to construct a for comprehension elevating None returns to an error state somewhat gracefully like this slightly contrived example:

case class CartItemComposite(account: Tables.AccountRow, item: Item)

trait AccountDAO {
  def findById(userId: Long): Option[Tables.AccountRow]
trait ItemDAO {
  def findById(itemId: Long): Option[Item]

def findShoppingCartItem(itemId: Long, userId: Long)(userDAO: AccountDAO, itemDAO: ItemDAO): Try[CartItemComposite] = {
  for {
    user <- userDAO.findById(userId).asTry(new Throwable("Failed to find user for id " + userId))
    item <- itemDAO.findById(itemId).asTry(new Throwable("Failed to find item for id " + itemId))
  } yield CartItemComposite(user, item)

But you get the idea. You can check a set of conditions for validity, giving appropriate error feedback at each step along the way instead of losing the error meaning as you would with simple Option[T] monads in a way that looks less than insane.

Don't know if this is a great pattern yet, but, I'm giving it a whirl!