|« December 2013|
I’ve had some success teaching the concept of cohesion using an unusual approach that exploits the word’s etymology. I know that sounds unlikely, but bear with me. In my experience, it seems to register well with people.
Cohesion comes from the same root word that "adhesion" comes from. It’s a word about sticking. When something adheres to something else (when it’s adhesive, in other words) it’s a one-sided, external thing: something (like glue) is sticking one thing to another. Things that are cohesive, on the other hand, naturally stick to each other because they are of like kind, or because they fit so well together. Duct tape adheres to things because it’s sticky, not because it necessarily has anything in common with them. But two lumps of clay will cohere when you put them together, and matched, well-machined parts sometimes seem to cohere because the fit is so precise. Adhesion is one thing sticking to another; cohesion is a mutual relationship, with two things sticking together.
This is also why we refer to a sound line of reasoning, for example, as coherent. The thoughts fit, they go together, they relate to each other. This is exactly the characteristic of a class that makes it coherent: the pieces all seem to be related, they seem to belong together, and it would feel somewhat unnatural (it would result in tight coupling!) to pull them apart. Such a class exhibits cohesion. No glue is required, you don’t have to build extra code to make the pieces fit together; the pieces hang together naturally because they’re closely related. In contrast, sometimes a class will seem to have its fingers in way too many parts of your system. Such a class is adhesive, and that’s not what we’re looking for.
And whereas coherent means things fit well together, we use the word "adherent" to refer to a follower, and there’s a connotation that the follower isn’t necessarily wanted: a hanger-on.
There’s another common word that stems from the same root: "inherent". Something that adheres sticks to something else, and two things that are coherent mutually stick to each other, but something that is inherent isn’t stuck to something so much as it’s embedded: it is an integral part of the other thing, tightly and inextricably bound. Although you don’t hear them very often, the two sister words "inhere" and "inhesion" are real words, as well.
So cohesion/cohesive/coherent occupy the middle territory between the sort of arbitrary, forced relationship of adhesion/adhesive/adherent and the integral, unbreakable relationship of inhesion/inhesive/inherent. That mental picture often helps me make wise decisions when I’m designing and refactoring. I want to build classes that are cohesive, not adhesive.
Michael writes, "For years, in the software industry, we’ve made the assumption that some language features are just too powerful for the typical developer—too prone to misuse." I’ve heard that argument many, many times, from people I strongly respect. And for a long time I believed it. For several years after I became enthusiastic about Ruby, I worked in places where most of the developers were typical, average programmers, and I refrained from really pushing Ruby in those environments because I thought Ruby was too powerful for them.
Then, a few years ago, I spent some time in a role where I was doing architectural reviews of IT projects (mostly Java projects). And one day I came to a shocking realization: there’s no way those projects could have been screwed up any worse if they had been written in Ruby.
What was alarming and depressing about those Java projects I was reviewing was not that they were poorly designed. I expected that; design is, after all, difficult. No, the surprising thing was that somehow, against all odds, the developers had managed to wrestle these monstrous designs over the finish line. The sheer dogged determination it took to do so was impressive and horrifying. I would have given up in despair long before.
The experience taught me a valuable lesson:
Weak developers will move heaven and earth to do the wrong thing. You can’t limit the damage they do by locking up the sharp tools. They’ll just swing the blunt tools harder.
I’ve been working full-time in Ruby now for almost four years. Everything I’ve seen while working on Ruby projects confirms what I realized back then, and it matches what Michael wrote about the ethic of responsibility that a powerful language like Ruby fosters. Ruby isn’t a panacea. The weak developers will wreak havoc in Ruby projects as well. But I think Ruby also makes it more difficult to hide from those mistakes without learning something from them. Yes, many Ruby projects have design weaknesses, but the usual standard is better than what I’ve seen in other languages, not worse.
If you want your team to produce great work and take responsibility for their decisions, give them powerful tools.
It’s absolutely certain that the biggest factor in their early maturity as programmers is that they’re just very smart guys. I’m also sure they started programming at a younger age than I did.
But Alan and I think there’s a third factor: Ruby itself. Ruby helps to teach those good programming skills, and makes them easier to learn. I got the chance later to talk to Koz about it, and he enthusiastically agreed.
The first thing I said in my talk on Saturday was that Rails is like an instructional laboratory for how to build good software. I think that’s the thing I like most about Rails. A big part of that is Ruby itself. Ruby, its libraries, and its documentation are filled with examples of clean, well designed code, and Ruby makes it easier than most other languages to create clean code yourself. The community values and encourages it. Ruby teaches good programming by setting the goal, lowering the barrier, and providing a lot of assistance and encouragement.
I was thrilled last year when Chris Pine’s Learn to Program was published, and now _why has taken up the flag with his brilliant Hackety Hack. We should support efforts that are focused on using Ruby to teach children to program. I think it’s the best way available right now to grow a generation of great programmers.
Tim Bray, as he so often does, nails it.
Being intentionally provocative to knock people out of old assumptions is all well and good … but even though I love Ruby, and am so glad to be working in it now after 11 years of Java, my perspective is more pragmatic.
There is no perfect world. You gain a lot by giving up static typing for dynamic typing, but you also give up some things. It’s six of one, a half-dozen of the other. Or maybe 9 and 3. Whatever. Whether the tradeoff works in your favor depends on a lot of things — the kinds of systems you’re building, the process and practices you use, how well you understand your domain, and other things. And folks like Tom Ball make great points when they point out some of those tradeoffs.
(Furthermore, "static typing" doesn’t necessarily mean "Java-style static typing." It’s just that the industry right now is all wrapped up in static typing done the wrong way, while ignoring static typing done the right way.)
In spite of all that, though, I do agree (mostly) with Neal and Stu. I, too, would rather write Ruby in vi (er … that is, emacs) than Java in IDEA.
If you’re still on the fence about this, or even downright skeptical, here’s my advice. Having been a static typing bigot for a very long time, I know all of the arguments from that side. I used them myself. And what I’ve learned is that you can’t figure this out by thinking about it. There are things about dynamic programming languages — and about how programmers work in those languages, and how systems are designed in those languages — that you don’t really understand until you’ve gained some real experience. It’s the Blub paradox at work. Knowing about the flaws in the language isn’t enough either. What’s important is knowing when they bite you, and how badly, and what you have to do to stay clear of them. Primitive types in Java represent one of that language’s worst flaws, but in my many years of Java programming I was impressed by how rarely they really got in my way. (They did get in my way, but not as much as I expected them to when I first learned Java.)
So just give Ruby (or Groovy, or Python) a try. Find a way to build a system of some reasonable size (a few thousand lines or so) in it. Give yourself time to get over the learning curve of syntax and names, and learn to think in the language. Decide based on experience, not fear or doubt.
Our field is at its worst when we act (when we teach, design, manage, plan, argue) as if we’ve got it all figured out, as if we’ve got it down to a science. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our field is one of creativity, experimentation, guesswork, hunches, and feedback. Above all, feedback.
Nothing blinds us and deafens us to feedback like being convinced we’ve found the one true way.
I started a new Rails project last week. The customer had done an unusually good job of working out the site look-and-feel ahead of time, so my first day on the project I grabbed the HTML mockup of the first page we were going to implement and turned it into a Rails app. It was still static HTML -- there was no code at all in the application, and no database yet -- but the page was being rendered by the new Rails application. I carved the page up into a layout, main template, and appropriate partials, and got ready to start implementing features the next day.
But before I called it a day, I had an idea that seemed promising. I spent about 10 minutes (certainly not more than 15) going through that HTML looking for anything representing a feature that needed to be implemented. That meant links and buttons, plus anything that needed to be generated dynamically. Whenever I found something like that, I added a CSS class to the markup: "unimpl".
Then, using Chris Pederick's Web Developer Toolbar extension in Firefox, it became a simple matter to quickly highlight all of the not-yet-implemented features in the application:
Just use CSS selector syntax in the dialog to select all elements with class "unimpl":
Here's what the result looks like (demonstrated with the Streamlined sample application rather than my current project):
(By the way, those features are really implemented in Streamlined; I just marked that application up as an example.)
This provides a great, easy way of keeping track of things that remain to be done. As I implement those features, I replace static HTML with generated HTML, and I just delete the "unimpl" class as I go. Sometimes I partially implement a large part of the page; in that case, I move "unimpl" from the surrounding element to the individual pieces inside that I haven't completed yet.
This is no substitute for requirements, or an issue tracking system, or anything like that. But it's already proven very convenient as I implement features, trying to decide what's next. It's particularly nice when I have just a few minutes available … maybe not enough time to tackle a big feature, but I can quickly scan to see if there are any small things I could fix.
It takes just a little bit of discipline and consistency on the part of the development team, but it was really easy to annotate that first mockup, and now that the layout and commonly used partials are done, doing subsequent mockups will be even easier.
This morning I became annoyed by the three-click process to highlight those elements using the toolbar (how lazy is that?) so I hacked TextMate Footnotes to add a quick toggle link in the footnotes div at the bottom of the page:
If you're interested in that, let me know. If it's useful to people, I'll polish it up and submit it for inclusion in footnotes.
For a while now I've been using Duane Johnson's TextMate Footnotes plugin with my Rails development. It's been the biggest boost to my productivity since I started using Rails. I kind of assumed that most Rails developers were using it, but apparently it's not as widely known as it should be.
I first learned about footnotes from Geoff Grosenbach, when he interviewed me last year for the Ruby on Rails Podcast. Geoff mentioned that it links lines from a Rails stack trace (displayed in the browser in development mode) so that clicking will open the appropriate file in TextMate, positioned to the correct line. Nice!
But it does more than that. When there is no error and your page renders correctly, the plugin adds "footnotes" to it: a little div at the bottom of the page with useful features for development and diagnosis:
You can show the contents of the current session, current cookies, the parameters passed to the controller, and the last 200 lines of the Rails log. But the most useful things are the links that ask TextMate to open the controller, view, layout, and other important files that Rails used to build that page. (It only does all this when the app is running in development mode, of course.)
If you're doing Rails development on OS X, install it this way:
$ script/plugin install -x http://macromates.com/svn/Bundles/trunk/Bundles/Rails.tmbundle/Support/plugins/footnotes
If you aren't on OS X, I know there are ways to define URL schemes like the "txmt" scheme TextMate defines on OS X. What are you waiting for? Arrange for "txmt:" URLs to open your favorite editor appropriately, install footnotes, modify it (to remove the "only on OS X" code), and have fun!
I’m always interested in the things that other fields can teach us about my own field of programming. My blog on bridge building from a few weeks ago is one example; I also recall when Dave Thomas pointed out some relevant phrases from the U.S. Marine Corps’ document on Warfighting, and of course Dave and Andy learned about the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition from reading about the nursing profession.
Now Greg’s found a delightful example from the world of woodworking. Read Greg's blog, and the short article it links to.
"So in your leisure or in your active moments, if you wish to advance, you must be alert."