Pattern grammar for the variant problem

For tools to be aware of patterns, the patterns must be formalized, at least partially. At this point I must quote Gregor Hohpe to clarify my thoughts, as I strongly agree with his skipticism:

Typically, when people ask me about “codifying” or “toolifying” patterns my first reaction is one of skepticism. Patterns are meant to be a human-to-human communication mechanism, not a human-to-machine mechanism. After all, I have pointed many people to the fact that a pattern is not just the piece of code in the example section. It’s the context-problem-forces-solution combination that makes patterns so useful.

Patterns link together a problem part to a solution part. This is expressed within the limits a stated context outside of which it is no more applicable. Patterns also emphasize the forces involved, that you must consider to decide how and whether or not to apply the pattern.

Patterns litterature usually describes examples of application of patterns. In your project, you will have to do more work to adapt the pattern solution to your exact need. A pattern solution may be stretched a lot, but the pattern remains as long as humans still recognize its presence. Every different way of applying a pattern is called a pattern variant.

Addressing the variant problem

Formal descriptions of anything human is too restrictive, and this is especially true for patterns which are the product of human analysis, in that they resist simple formalization. However if we focus on sub-parts of patterns, it becomes easier to formalize them, at least for their solution part.

For example a design pattern that uses (in its solution part) some form of inheritance admits several variants. At first, the pattern solution seems to resist against its formalization. However if we now focus on the inheritance part only, we can enumerate every possible alternative for it. For example we can use:

  • interface and classes that implement it
  • abstract class and classes that extend it
  • concrete class provided it is not final (assume we’re in Java), so that it can be extended

Notice that each alternative is a solution to the same problem “How to realize some

Tree structure in volume (Milano International Fair 2009)
Tree structure in volume (Milano International Fair 2009)

form of inheritance”. We can say that each alternative is indeed a pattern, and by the way Mark Grand already described them in Patterns in Java Volume 1. These patterns are easy to formalize, as they can be precisely described in terms of programming language elements.

How can we split a pattern into parts? The idea is to identify the areas that are fragile with respect to the variant problem in the solution part of a pattern, and to consider them as lower-level problems embedded inside the bigger pattern.

In the example before, the problem was to achieve “some form of inheritance”, and we listed three patterns that address this problem.

Provided it can be split into sub-parts (hence into smaller problems), any pattern solution can be formalized by recursively formalizing its sub-parts. If a sub-part cannot be easily made formal, then it can be split again into sub-parts, and so on until each sub-part can.

Given a pattern solution that we want to formalize:

  • If it can be described formally directly, then we are done (terminal)
  • If it cannot be fully described formally, then extract the problematic sub-parts into sub-problems, then find every pattern that addresses each sub-problem, and formalize their solution part

We can then represent a pattern as a tree of smaller patterns, where the solution part of each patter is connected to the problem part of another pattern.

From pattern language to pattern grammar

In the car, some parts can be replaced by other alternate parts that play the same contract (e.g. the wheels)
In the car, some parts can be replaced by other alternate parts that play the same contract (e.g. the wheels)

When the pattern is applied into the code, at each node in the tree there is actually a selection of which variant of the sub pattern to use. As such, each selected pattern represents an atom of decision in the design process.

It then appears that we have a form of grammar for patterns, where there are terminal patterns solutions T (easier to formalize in term of programming language elements), non-terminal parts of patterns solutions N (that cannot be easily formalized but that can formally ask for help to solve their sub-problems), and where the production rules P are nothing but the patterns themselves:

Patterns are production rules that link:
elements of N (the problems) to elements of (N Union T)

Conclusion

I have suggested quickly a way to formalize patterns solutions in spite of their fragility with respect to their variants. This approach identifies patterns as production rules in some grammar over the set of patterns considered.

This perspective is well-suited for tools to work on patterns in real-world projects, where the patterns are indeed applied in many variant forms. The problem of this approach is that every known pattern that is variant-fragile must be reconsidered and have its solution split into a formal part and one or several sub problems to be addressed by specific, lower-level patterns, which themselves must be formalised in the same way.

It is essential that for every problem (“intent”) we can enumerate every pattern that addresses it. Intents can be also classified as a taxonomy, where some intents are specialized versions of more generic intents.

This approach does not claim to formalize the full potential of patterns, it only aims at enabling tools to understand patterns that are already there so that to assist the developers for various tasks.

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Patterns as stored arrangements: toward more efficient tools

In nature, out of every possible arrangement of several elements, only a few arrangements are stable. This is illustrated with atoms combined together, or smaller particles arranged together into atoms, where not every combination is sustainable.

Unstable arrangements tend to move toward stable ones over time. Whenever you observe the elements, you mostly see stable arrangements of them. Because there is only a relatively small number of stable arrangements, a brain can be trained to recognize them, and they can even be named and incorporated into the language.

Better with a brain

The capability to recognize common arrangements of elements is beneficial because it saves a lot of time and thinking. Rather than describing in the details each arrangement each time, it is therefore very economical -cheaper- to describe each stable arrangement once, and then to declare that such arrangement happens in this or that case. Saying: “this is an equilateral triangle” is times more efficient than explaining what it is: “there are 3 lines of the same length, each connected to the two others such as they form a closed path, etc.” It also enables thinking at a higher level.

In software development

Small parts arranged together into bigger (and higher-level functionality) parts
Small parts arranged together into bigger (and higher-level functionality) parts

In software development, the usual elements are classes, interfaces, methods, fields, associations (implementation, delegation, instantiation) and various constraints between them. Given a few of these elements we can form many possible arrangements, however only a relatively small number of them is useful and of interest. This happens because the useless arrangements tend to be quickly replaced by the skill-full developer into other that are more useful. For example, any arrangement of two distinct classes that depend to each other, forming a cycle, is usually not desirable. Patterns authors have been working for almost two decades to inventory as many useful arrangements as they could find, resulting into many books and publications in every domain.

Common and stable arrangements of two to three classes together form the basis for design patterns as in the GoF book, an idea I have experimented in a previous post: systematic combination of subpatterns generates design patterns.

Common stable arrangements of methods, fields and how they relate with each other within one class are simply stereotypes of classes, which we tend to call patterns anyway like the ValueObject pattern in the Domain Driven Design book.

Note that in this discussion we are focusing on arrangements of programming elements in the solution space, not in the problem space, but pattern express intents too.

Harnessing stable arrangements of things: toward more efficient tools

I believe that making explicit the use of predefined common stable arrangements of programming elements, in the coding process, can boost the efficiency of many tools. I also believe that such common and stable arrangements of programming elements have already been identified and are already well-documented in the existing pattern literature.

Rather than configuring tools at the programming element level (class, field, method etc.), if the code is augmented with explicit declarations of the patterns used, the tools can then be configured at the pattern level. For each tool, the idea is to prepare in advance how to configure it for each supported pattern. This preparation must be automated, so that given an occurrence of a known pattern in the code base, the configuration of the tool can be automatically derived from the particular details of the pattern occurrence.

In other words:

tool configuration=
  auto-configuration(pattern, tool) + pattern occurrence

A simple case study

To start with an example, let us consider the pattern Abstract Factory, that defines an Abstract Factory interface and one or more Product interface(s). Then assume that in our code base we have an occurrence of this pattern, where the interface WidgetFactory participates as the Abstract Factory, and the interfaces Window and Button participate as Product. Concrete classes form two families, one Linux family (LinuxWidgetFactory, LinuxWindow, LinuxButton) and one Mac family (MacWidgetFactory, MacWindow, MacButton), where each concrete class participates as ConcreteFactory, ConcreteProduct and ConcreteProduct respectively.

Dependencies restrictions (à la Jdepend + Junit)

The auto-configuration(AbstractFactory pattern, dependency checker tool) could be programmed like the following:

//Given a pattern occurrence from the actual base: occ

//Factory interface knows about the Product interface, not the other way round
For each Product in occ, add constraint (Product, Must not depend upon, AbstractFactory)

//ConcreteProduct must not know about the AbstractFactory
For each ConcreteProduct participant in occ, add constraint (ConcreteProduct, Must not depend upon, AbstractFactory)

//ConcreteProduct must not know about the ConcreteFactory
For each ConcreteProduct participant in occ, add constraint (ConcreteProduct, Must not depend upon, ConcreteFactory)

//Interfaces must not depend upon their implementor
For each abstract participant in occ, add constraint (participant, Must not depend upon, implementor of participant)

I have expanded the auto-configuration script to highlight how we can do more sophisticated configuration as soon as it is supposed to be reused many times, something we would never afford for one-shot configuration. Also in the above script, it is quite obvious that we can extract more powerful primitives to simplify the declaration of the script itself.

I have already presented this idea: toward smarter dependency constraints (patterns to the rescue).

Dependency injection (à la Spring)

The auto-configuration(AbstractFactory pattern, IoC container) could be programmed like the following:

//Given a pattern occurrence from the actual base: occ
//Given the selected family (Mac or Linux) we want to inject: F

//Bind the ConcreteFactory from F to the AbstractFactory interface
For the AbstractFactory participant in occ, and for the ConcreteFactory in occ that belongs to F, bind (ConcreteFactory, AbstractFactory)

//Bind each ConcreteProduct from F to the Product interface
For each ConcreteProduct in occ that belongs to F, bind (ConcreteProduct, corresponding Product)

Again we can see that we can automate the binding of each implementation to its corresponding interface from the single explicit selection of the family F we want to inject. This is a great way to factor out dependency injection to make it more manageable. In particular, the configuration is closer to the way we actually think.

Other tools

The same idea can be applied for many other tools, in particular:

Conclusion

In this post I described how it makes sense to consider overall arrangements of programming elements as higher-level constructs, which I identify with patterns (the solution part of patterns in fact). I emphasize the fact that the useful arrangements are not that numerous, and that many of them are already documented in the pattern literature. Finally I present how such arrangements or patterns, if declared explicitly in the code, can be leveraged to automate tools configuration in a powerful way.

As usual, any feedback is highly welcome.

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How I became enthusiastic about patterns

In my very first job, I  was doing R&D, working on a map-matching algorithm. The goal of this algorithm was to pinpoint a moving car on a vector map, based on the data from various sensors, including a GPS, an electronic compass and the car odometer. Such algorithm was essential for the business of the company, and there was very little literature on the subject.

The R&D challenge

At school I had been taught some C programming, so I started doing the algorithm in plain C code. One special case after another, the code began to grow until it became quite complicated. I had a specially equipped car with a computer and all the gear in it to do real testing on the roads around the office, from the highway to forest road, city streets or even car parks, and this was fun! But situation after situation, I had to make the code more and more complicated. At some point, it became obvious to me that the mode of implementation (plain C code) had become the main obstacle for improving the algorithm. It was becoming increasingly difficult to grow the sophistication in a mess of structured code.

My early mentors

Yes savoir-faire can be found in books (but not only)
Yes savoir-faire can be found in books (but not only)

At the same time I was willing to progress, so I was getting closer to the few very experienced colleagues. Our company was a startup in 2000, and there were many more junior developers than senior ones. At first, I thought UML could help me (it did not indeed) so I started asking questions about UML. When I became more comfortable with UML, a senior colleague told me I should now have a look at design patterns, starting with the Composite. So I took the GoF book on my desk and began to look at it as a reference to get design ideas during the day. I also borrowed the pattern pattern book from Mark Grand and read it in the train.

And then it has been “Wow patterns are a great way of transfering knowledge!”. I remember reading the pattern “Cache” in the book. It was not in itself a very innovative design idea, but I understood that the pattern format was ideal to document just any idea. I hate long explanations in long books, and the pattern format, which tends to be short and structured, is perfect for quick scanning whenever you’re looking for ideas. Even when I didn’t find a pattern for my case, I found it stimulating to read other people ideas.

Enthusiasm and success as a result

I started to apply the State and the Strategy patterns into the map-matching algorithm and this made it much, much simpler. It actually made it so much simpler that we were now able (the team was growing at that time) to go an order of magnitude further in sophistication, while being perfectly in control of the code. The introduction of two simple design patterns had suddenly given a really big advantage to a piece of code essential to the company! This is how I became enthusiastic about patterns.

The reality

I am also enthusiastic about deserts.
I am also enthusiastic about deserts.

What actually happened is that reading and starting to play with patterns just taught me object-oriented programming. Patterns acted like examples of good design, until the underlying principles became natural. Later I discovered the SOLID principles of Robert C. Martin, and recognized the principles behind many design patterns. In my next job experiences I took the habit to look for patterns for whatever problem I was encountering, and to my surprise, I found out that most common problems were already being taken care of in the form of analysis patterns or other kinds of patterns! To give the most obvious example, Martin Fowler “Things that change with time” is really a must-read, which you can apply easily to solve your problem.

Conclusion

This is how I became enthusiastic about pattern, not just design patterns but every kind of patterns, from analysis patterns to domain driven design patterns, enterprise integration patterns, PLoP patterns and many patterns from various authors. I know my enthusiasm is a bit exaggerated, a bit like the souvenir of a first love that cannot be much objective. Fortunately I quickly learnt when not to use patterns, to keep things as possible as they can be, and to do unit testing. By the way the benefits of unit tests also struck me when I started with them, but not as much as patterns, there can be only one first time, and my first first time was with patterns, not unit tests!

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Manipulating things collectively

There is great power in being able to manipulate collective things as one single thing. It gives you simplicity, hence control. You can focus your attention on it and reason about it, even though behind the hood it is made of many parts. The composite thing is kept simple, therefore you can also deal with several of them at a time. This would not be possible if you had to deal with every part they are made of, because it would be overwhelming.

There exists many strategies to deal with collective things as if they were one single thing: statistics, multiple selection, groups, classifications and super-signs.

Statistics

Statistics is probably the most obvious way to deal with collective things, when the things can be expressed as numbers. Historically it has been used with great results in physics, thermodynamics in particular.

It is all about extracting a few macro properties that we can reason on instead of the whole set of data:

  • number of elements
  • mean, deviation, moments, percentiles, etc.
  • regression, clusters
  • total property: total weight, total volume, total price

Multiple selection

Many software applications enable you to select multiple elements at a time in order to apply one operation to each element:

Arman accumulation
Arman accumulation
  • When sending an email, you can select multiple addresses to send to
  • In a word processor, you can select several words, several paragraphs, or even all the document to copy, paste or apply formatting to each element
  • In a spreadsheet, you can select multiple rows or columns to apply operations to, and you can also repeat formula for each row or column

The selected elements can be of the same kind or not. However for multiple selection to be useful, they must share at least something in common: the capability of being copied or pasted, or the fact that they are specific for a particular user.

Functional programming and the three higher order functions map, fold and filter address very well how to apply operations collectively to many elements.

Groups

When multiple selections are often needed, you can create groups. We can consider a group to be a multiple selection made explicit. You create a group and you explicitly add elements to it. Common examples of groups:

  • Mailing lists are named groups of email addresses
  • Vectors in maths

As for multiple selection, the elements in a group must share something in common. For example, they must all have a price. Elements of various kinds can be grouped if they relate to something common, for example  the set of various data (name, address, phone number, preferred colour and date of birth) specific for a user is called a user profile.

A group is extensional. The elements in the group may or may not know they belong to a group.

Java packages are groups, and they are declared within the same file as the elements they refer to. Java classes also group fields and methods under one name.

The Composite pattern suggests to group objects that share the same interface into a Composite that also shares the same interface. The intent is to manipulate the collective set of objects as if it was one single object, i.e. without knowing it is collective.

Classification

You get control over multiple things if you just classify them. Given several flowers, if you classify them into categories, then you can talk about several flowers collectively without having to enumerate each of them: the category is a way to refer to several flowers with just one name.

Classifications enable intensional grouping. This means that groups are defined not by the set of their elements, but by a condition (predicate) to be satisfied. The condition can test for the category of something (is this animal a bird?), or test for its attribute (is this car red?).

Of course abstraction is one particular way to classify.

Java modifiers (private, public, abstract, interface etc.) classify Java elements, and can be used to refer collectively to them, as in “let’s generate the Javadoc for every public elements”.

Super signs

Super-sign
Super-sign

There are elements that exhibit a special property when considered together as a whole. For example, the ink dots on the paper can be seen as letters. Letters next to each other can be seen together as words, which again can be seen together as sentences, and then again up to the novel. Collective arrangements of multiple things that together exhibit a property are called super signs.

This phenomenon is related to emergence, and only exists for a given observer if he can recognize the super sign.

In science in general, we use models to account for the collective behavior of several elements, typically objects with measurable properties, and forces in action.

In a Java program, idioms and patterns can be considered super signs for those who know them.

Conclusion

Manipulating multiple things in a simple way really matters, it is a life saver.

In software development it is paramount because it is a lever you use to manage tons of data with no effort. The art is to find the way you think about collective things that reduces the most your effort.

I already mentioned this topic in previous posts: group together things that go together, don’t make things artificially different, and my definition of abstraction, because abstraction is an essential way to refer to different things in what they share in common.

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Toward smarter dependency constraints (patterns to the rescue)

Low coupling between objects is a key principle to help you win the battle against software entropy. Making sure your dependencies are under control matters. Several tools can enforce dependencies restrictions, such as JDepend. However in a real project with many classes, packages and modules, the real issue is how to decide and configure the allowed and forbidden dependencies. Per class? Per package? Per Module? Based on gut feeling? Is there a theory for that?

Of course, in a layered architecture, the layers specify the dependencies. This is not bad, but I am sure we can do better.

Smarter dependencies

To go further, I suggest expanding our vocabulary of concepts. In OO languages such as Java, everything is a class (or an interface), grouped into packages. Such classification is not really helpful. Fortunately, several books provide ready to use vocabularies in the form of patterns languages (not only design patterns, but patterns in general). Some of these patterns are foundations on which rules to manage dependencies can be proposed.

Disclaimer: the dependencies rules suggested below are hypothesises to be debated and verified against a corpus of actual projects, I would be happy to be given counter-examples and counter arguments.

The child really depend upon the mother
The child really depend upon the mother

Domain Driven Design

The book Domain Driven Design by Eric Evans defines a rich vocabulary of concepts used in every application, and we can leverage that vocabulary to propose some dependencies principles between them:

  • ValueObject never depends upon Entity nor Services
  • Entities should not depend upon Services (maybe not a hard rule)
  • Generic SubDomain should not depend upon Core Domain
  • Core Domain should not depend upon Cohesive Mechanism (the “What” should not depend upon the “How”)
  • Domain Layer should not depend on any infrastructure code
  • Abstract Core module never depends on its specialized or implementation modules

Analysis Patterns

The book Analysis Patterns by Martin Fowler also provides patterns as a richer vocabulary, from which we could propose:

  • Elements from a Knowledge Level should not depend upon elements from the corresponding Operation Level

I did not find that rule written in the book but every example appears to support it. Considering that classes and subclasses in usual OOP are a special case of Knowledge Level built-into the language, this would lead to:

  • Abstraction never depends upon their Implementations

which is similar to the second part of the Dependency inversion principle by Robert C. Martin:

Abstractions should not depend upon details. Details should depend upon abstractions.

Since many analysis patterns in the Analysis Patterns book involve the Knowledge Level pattern, this single dependency rule already applies to many analysis patterns: Party Type Generalizations, Measurement, Observation, Protocol, Associated Observation, Measurement Protocol etc. The pattern Quantity can be seen as a specialized ValueObject (see Domain Driven Design above) hence should also not depend on any Entity nor Service.

Design Patterns

The book Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software by Erich Gamma et al. presents the classic design patterns. These patterns define participants which are named.  In the pattern participant ignorance principle I discussed the concepts of ignorant Vs. dedicated participants within a pattern, and their consequences for dependencies:

  • Ignorant pattern participants should never depend on dedicated participants
  • Pattern participant never depend on the “Client” participant
  • For each ConcreteX participant, the corresponding abstract X never depends on it (Abstraction never depends upon their Implementations)

In practice, this means:

  • In the Adapter pattern, the Adaptee should not depend upon the Adapter, and the Target should depend upon nothing
  • In the Facade pattern, the sub systems should not depend upon the Facade
  • In the Iterator pattern, the Aggregate should not depend upon the Iterator; however every Java collection is a counter example as they contain their own ConcreteIterator.
  • In creational patterns (Abstract Factory, Prototype, Builder etc.), the Product and ConcreteProduct should not depend on the dedicated participant that does the allocation (the Factory etc.)
  • And so on for other patterns, some of which being already discussed in the pattern participant ignorance principle.

In short, if we look at the design patterns as a set of types with inheritance/implementation, invocation/delegation and creation relationships between them, the dependencies should not flow in the reverse direction of the relationships; in other words, using UML arrows, the dependencies should only be allowed in the direction of the arrows.

Addiction to sugar is a kind of dependency
Addiction to sugar is a kind of dependency

Patterns of Enterprise Architecture

In the book Patterns of Enterprise Application Architecture by Martin Fowler, the Separated Interface Pattern proposes a way to manage dependencies by defining the interface between packages in a separate package from its implementation. This is similar to the Dependency inversion principle, as discussed here, which states:

A. High-level modules should not depend upon low-level modules. Both should depend upon abstractions.

By the way this is also very similar to the recommendation in Domain Driven Design:

Abstract Core module never depends on its specialized or implementation modules.

Finally, in the spirit of UML stereotypes that we sometimes put on packages to express their intent:

  • Utils never depends on anything but other Utils

What for?

If we manage to make every use of the above pattern explicit in the source code, for instance using Java annotations or simply Javadoc tags, then it becomes possible for a tool to deduce dependencies constraints and automatically enforce them.

Imagine, just add @pattern ValueObject in your Javadoc comment, and voila! A tool is now able to deduce that if you happen to import anything but basic java.* you must be warned.

Of course the fine tuning of the default behavior can take some time (do we accept that ValueObjects may depend upon low level utils like StringUtils? Probably yes), but the result will at least be stable regardless of the refactorings.

Given the existing variety of patterns over there, I am confident that just any class or interface within a project can be declared as being a participant in at least one pattern, and have therefore its dependency constraints deduced at the same time.

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After Technical Debt, technical Options

In finance, options are powerful tools for traders, and many design practices including design patterns can be seen as options. Options can -perhaps- yield a great benefit for a certain and immediate cost. If this cost is cheap enough it can be quite attractive.

An option to buy a stock is a right to buy the stock at a predefined price (let’s say EUR25) before a given date in the future. Until this date, you can freely exercise the option (i.e. buy the stock at EUR25), or not (do nothing). Of course if it happens that the stock price is greater than EUR25 (let’s say the stock is now EUR35), if you exercise the option you earn money (EUR10), and for that reason the option is worth something (EUR10 here, or even more if we expect the price to go even higher in the future).

In finance, the price of the option is directly linked to the expected benefit it can bring, even though this benefit is not certain. To be more precise, the more the stock price moves up and down, the bigger the option value: this instability of the price is called volatility, and you can think of it like a standard deviation in statistics. Options traders actually trade volatility: the higher the volatility (i.e. the less stable the prices), the more valuable the option.

Many design practices can be seen as options, and some are indeed cheap, almost free options. A free option is something that a reasonable investor cannot refuse to get, since it costs nothing while it can perhaps yields a benefit: this is actually an uncertain version of a “free lunch”. A design practice that would cost nothing is hard to resist, since it yields potential return in exchange for nothing.

In the spirit of the Technical Debt, we will focus on the cost of maintaining the code over time. Any change to the code must be weighted in accordance to the burden it will bring compared to its benefit.

Plenty of options here
Plenty of options here

Technical options in the code

In practice, everything that improves the flexibility of the software is de facto like an option: it creates additional opportunities that we can use or not in the future. Typically, it can enable the designer to change his mind at a later stage at no cost, or to defer a design decision.

The design principle to code against abstractions rather than implementation comes immediately to mind: coding against interfaces is probably the number one technical option. Therefore the question is: given this piece of concrete code, should I introduce an interface and reference the code through the interface, or should I leave it like that? Just like in finance, the answer is: it depends on the upfront cost of the option (adding the extra interface) compared to the anticipated stability of the feature the code is doing (is it likely to change in the future?).

In this case, the upfront cost depends on the tools (with modern IDEs with wizards and refactoring capabilities it is easier to add or even extract an interface automatically), and perhaps on what you like to do or not (if you hate having too many classes then adding an interface will cost you more, subjectively). Some commercial source control systems that are not convenient with widespread refactoring also make the cost of future changes much higher, and as such they encourage building flexibility upfront.

Going further, many design patterns can be considered as options to improve flexibility for a minimal cost. Out of the GoF patterns, the patterns Abstract Factory, Strategy, State, Visitor, Iterator, Bridge and Builder directly plan for easy change of behaviour or extension in the future (typically through additional interfaces as well), and thus are simple yet efficient ways to buy technical options.

Various elements combine together for bigger value added
Various elements combine together for bigger value added

Technical options Vs. YAGNI

Knowing the future is hard, and YAGNI is there to remind us that. If there are practices that cost a little to introduce and that can bring benefits later, and if we are so poor at anticipating change, why not just introduce them later? This is right, in most cases YAGNI applies, unless we can anticipate a need. The funny thing is that while the introduction of interfaces (directly or through the patterns mentioned before) creates opportunities to vary the implementations, it also creates opportunities for other opportunities. The new interface enables the addition of non-intrusive structural patterns that revolve around an existing interface, such as Decorator, Composite, Proxy, Adapter, Null Object, and every combination of them as suggested by the Interpreter pattern. (This introduction of such patterns, by the way, is precisely what most IoC containers, application servers and AOP frameworks do to add functionalities). How these patterns combine together under the common “umbrella” interface is kind of fascinating to me, and it always reminds me about the Network Effect: the more we use an interface, with implementations or opportunistic patterns, the more useful it becomes. I believe that a net of patterns like that can become so useful that it becomes irresistible. You will gonna need it.

Of course there is nothing really new in all that, nothing more than a new metaphor to help explain to managers. Even if they do not know what an option is, I am sure they can understand the concept very quickly.

I have been pushing this approach that I called “Think options, not solutions” in my former team to emphasize that we can build the system even if some of its business behaviours are not completely known yet, as long as we can define their contours and start with an arbitrary solution. The goal is that we are confident we can change it later with no pain. This was justified from a business point of view because we did not know what the market was expecting, for the product (an interest rate swaps multilateral trading facility) was too novel. In that environment, change was definitely not something we feared, rather the opposite: it was stimulating.

Just like traders speculate on volatility using options, developers can speculate on the stability of the business features using (or not) design practices that increase flexibility. The little extra effort to introduce these practices must be weighted by the expectation that it will be useful. And just for the fun, anyone interested in computing the value of a technical option using the Black-Scholes pricing model?

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My definition of abstraction

One thing human are particularly pride of is our ability to use abstraction to solve problems. We in software development all know that “another level of abstraction can solve my problem”. But what do you call abstraction ?

Abstract is the opposite of concrete. Concrete things are simply things, the kind of things a dog can see, bite and eat: me, the bone on the floor, the bee it’s trying to catch on the fly… In my job, concrete things are the formula to compute the price of a fixed income bond, the interest rate risk in a portfolio or the report the manager wants the tool to generate.

When I first work on a thing, this thing is concrete to me. The first bond I am computing the price for is just a simple concrete bond. But the second, different bond is a revelation: while it is different to the first bond, it also has lots in common ! wow ! I can notice it, and especially I’d like to save work from this, as I am a lazy developer. So I gonna use abstraction…

Concretely, I would define abstraction as the mental action of finding the commonalities and the differences between two or more things. The common part of every thing is what I will call the abstract thing, and I will then call each thing with its differences a concrete thing.

So my (very practical) definition of abstraction has to be explicit to be of value to me, so that I can reuse the common part of things. The most obvious example of abstraction is the very notion of class against instances of a class, aka objects: the class represents the common part (the structure) of a group of objects, while each object has its own values that make it different to its mates. What is common between every bond I will be given is that they all share a group of parameters and calculation conventions, thus I will create my pricing software for this abstract bond in order to be able to price every bond by just describing its differences against the common bond.

Young children early develop their abstract skills by playing with things; They soon see the difference between one thing and two things as the notion of numbers, the difference between a red shape and a green same shape as the notion of colour.

As said before, abstraction is very much about classification: given the red square and the green square, we can see they both have a square shape, so we can classify them in the shape = square category. Given another green circle, we can also classify the green square and the green circle in the colour = green category. This way, we have identified two abstract notions, shape and colour, from very concrete things.

As I am -more and more- a lazy developer, my next question is: can my computer abstract things for me ? After all abstraction helps in handling what’s common in things in order to handle this common part only once, and I have identified the very notion of abstraction itself as an abstract notion, maybe in order to reuse it ? (by the way what I am doing at this point in this writing also follows the abstract notion of recursion, talk about abstraction, then talk about the abstraction of abstraction). Some clues: in common spreadsheets, when we enter a number sequence, say 1, 2, 3, the spreadsheet recognizes the arithmetic sequence so that it can guess its next values. I’m tempted to claim it is an abstraction ability already… Not sure in fact. Obviously, it is in AI field (artificial intelligence) that neuronal networks have natural classification abilities, so the answer is yes, software can abstract concepts.

Initially published on Jroller on Monday April 11, 2005

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Analysis: don’t make things artificially different

In any order management systems a quote is not quite different of an order, just a different status of the same entity that is the description of a work to be done (status = POTENTIAL) or done (status = COMPLETED). However I usually find people are tempted to consider they are different concept with no link between them except some similar fields. As if it was easier to consider them different… I don’t think so.

The easiest way to be lazy is simply to write one thing instead of writing two things. Making quote and order two subclasses of the same abstract class is easier, and still enable to use quote-dependent or order-dependent behaviour (i-e methods).

To go further on this idea, and to be more lazy, one can also add virtual capabilities to a concept just to consider it the same as another concept:

  • using the Composite pattern, to make no difference between a whole and a part
  • thinking about things as special-case of other things, e-g a financial Index can be considered as an Instrument even if it is not really tradeable, only for convenience: it can be used as an underlying for derivatives in the same fashion, there is no point to consider it different unless we really need to.

A common way to forget about what things really are and use them as only one common thing is to think of their common business capability, i-e the common use a specific interface: Sellable, Tradeable, Priceable, Product (as something that can be described, quoted and sold)…

Also, sometimes there is even no need to be accurate when some processing does not actually care what things really are, which happens surprinsingly often. In these cases you’d better just use general Java supertypes: Object, Comparable, Serializable… You’ll gain higher reuse and cleaner code.

One last note about the project management point of view: the differences that do matter to split a project into subparts (to allocate work for small teams for instance) are not always the most obvious. Consider a project in an asset management house that deals with several kinds of financial instruments, say Stocks, Bonds, and Derivatives; many project managers will be tempted to split the project into a Stock subproject, a Bond subproject and another Derivatives subproject.

This is a fatal mistake, since from the asset management point of view the difference between all these kinds of instrument is really small. In this case it is very likely to have complete duplication of the code in each project, just because things have been made artificially different. In short, do not split project scope at random, most obvious classifications are, by definition (because a classification is already a successful attempt to extract commonalities), NOT good candidates to split the workload !

Initially published on Jroller on Thursday April 07, 2005

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UML is a too low level language

I recently taught design pattern to 20 of my co-workers in a kind of training session, here are some thoughts I had while preparing this presentation…

In OO you usually end up with many classes, especially when you correctly use design patterns; each class is also generally very simple and rather short. Thus classes are now in OO the equivalent of the “if-then-else-for” instructions in structured programming: low-level language elements.

Unfortunatly, UML is essentially about class-level static description (class diagram), dynamic objects interactions (sequence, object diagram). Even more OO-independent part of UML such as state diagram is still at the class level, as typical implementation using the State pattern (GoF) implies using a class for each state.

What is the higher level above the class-level ? In my opinion, it is the (design) pattern level, for at least three reasons:
– granularity: a design pattern usually deals with more than one class, so it is a natural way to talk about several classes as only one entity;
– patterns language: patterns may be solutions to solve recurrent problems, sure, but they first of all define a common language to talk about the entire solutions in a standard, shared way;
– patterns intent: patterns are always motivated by an explicit intent; this intent is the real high-level need of the developer, whereas the solution that uses classes, methods overriding, methods delegation, methods callbacks… is nothing but the best known way to meet the intent using OO language.

UML support for patterns is quite minimal (dash lined and named bubbles with links to every participant in the pattern), and adds nearly no value compared to simple UML comments. If you know the patterns, and you do if you’re reading this to this line, I’d better tell you “this package contains adapters from the third party financial instruments tree to our custom financial instruments tree” than show you a diagram with 35 classes in a package and 35 classes in another package, 35 interfaces and 35 bubbles showing the pattern Adapter is applied 35 times respectively for each class, class and interface…

In the business design (some say analysis), the same is true. It’s shorter and more accurate to say the model follows the Contract pattern (Fowler), than to show the UML diagram. But on the other side, there is no formal language, visual or textual, other than plain English to describe patterns at their full level. At this level, packages would would be first-class entities, not just boxes that contains classes. Code generation could also go one step further, since if the machine knows about our intent, it could also provide the solution to our intent, maybe by implementing the correct pattern automatically, using the best implementation tradeoff automatically, but now I’m dreaming…

Initially published on Jroller on Tuesday March 15, 2005

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