Your coding conventions are hurting you

Your coding conventions are hurting you

If you take a walk in my hometown, and head for the center, you may stumble into a building like this: http://www. eptacom. net/blog/names2.jpg

From a distance, it’s a relatively pompous edifice, but as you get closer, you realize that the columns, the ornaments, everything is fake, carefully painted to look like the real thing. Even shadows have been painted to deceive the eye. Here is another picture from the same neighbor: from this angle, it’s easier to see that everything has just been painted on a flat surface: http://www. eptacom. net/blog/names1.jpg

Curiously enough, as I wander through the architecture and code of many systems and libraries, I sometimes get the same feeling. From a distance, everything is object oriented, extra-cool, modern-flexible-etc, but as you get closer, you realize it’s just a thin veneer over procedural thinking (and don’t even get me started about being “modern”).

Objects,

as they were meant to be
Unlike other disciplines, software development shows little interest for classics. Most people are more attracted by recent works. Who cares about some 20 years old paper when you can play with Node. js? Still, if you never took the time to read The Early History of Smalltalk, I’d urge you to. Besides the chronicles of some of the most interesting times in hw/sw design ever, you’ll get little gems like this: “The basic principal of recursive design is to make the parts have the same power as the whole.” For the first time I thought of the whole as the entire computer and wondered why anyone would want to divide it up into weaker things called data structures and procedures. Why not divide it up into little computers, as time sharing was starting to? But not in dozens. Why not thousands of them, each simulating a useful structure?

That’s brilliant. It’s a vision of objects like little virtual machines, offering specialized services. Objects were meant to be smart. Hide data, expose behavior. It’s more than that: Alan is very explicit about the idea of methods as goals, something you want to happen, unconcerned about how it is going to happen.

Now, I’d be very tempted to write: “unfortunately, most so-called object-oriented code is not written that way”, but I don’t have to :-), because I can just quote Alan, from the same paper: The last thing you wanted any programmer to do is mess with internal state even if presented figuratively. Instead, the objects should be presented as sites of higher level behaviors more appropriate for use as dynamic components. […]It is unfortunate that much of what is called “object-oriented programming” today is simply old style programming with fancier constructs. Many programs are loaded with “assignment-style” operations now done by more expensive attached procedures.

That was 1993. Things haven’t changed much since then, if not for the worse :-). Lot of programmers have learnt the mechanics of objects, and forgot (or ignored) the underlying concepts. As you get closer to their code, you’ll see procedural thinking oozing out. In many cases, you can see that just by looking at class names.

Names are a thinking device
Software development is about discovering and encoding knowledge. Now, humans have relatively few ways to encode knowledge: a fundamental strategy is to name things and concepts. Coming up with a good name is hard, yet programming requires us to devise names for:
– components



Your coding conventions are hurting you