Guilt as a Code Smell

One of the best things about working for Velocity Partners is that I get a chance to do presentations/brown bag seminars for their other clients/prosepective clients. I like to think that as I’m a hands-on developer who actually works with this stuff every day, I have different credibility from the full time trainers/presenters/coaches/pundits.  Note: I don’t want to disparage the full-time trainers that I know and respect, their credibility comes from the fact that they were hands-on coders for a long time, and have more time to do the reading/research/writing that someone working on deadlines may or may not have.

I’m currently putting together a presentation on Refactoring, and how that relates to the other agile tools and techniques (where “agile” simply means “modern development practices that work”). While looking for examples, I’ve been re-reading Martin Fowler’s great Refactoring book.  One thing that struck me was the focus on “getting the inheritance hierarchy right” which, after living in the design patterns (favor composition over inheritance) realm for the last few years, felt kind of odd to me.

Meanwhile, in my “day job” I’ve been working on a well encapsulated, generics-based .NET client for a family of REST-y XML services.  After making one major component, I found that I had to make another major component that does much the same thing. So, I created a new abstract base class and made both my existing component and the new component concrete derived classes of the base class. As I needed functionality for the new class, I generalized it and moved it up to the abstract class (using the protected modifier, of course) so I could use it in the other derived class.

It was working pretty well. I had very little code duplication and ReSharper is particularly good at the “Pull Members Up” refactoring, but I was starting to feel a little guilt about not doing things in a “pattern oriented way”. Sure, you could never use the two concrete components interchangably, so there was a violation of LSP, but I can be cool with that. The abstract class didn’t have any public methods on it, so there’s no danger of someone trying to couple to its publically-exposed interface.

After, I figured out where my guilt was coming from. It’s a coupling/testability problem. As the concrete types are tightly coupled to their base types, I couldn’t ever substitute a different type to handle that functionality. This is particularly important as the base type was all about making external (HTTP) service calls, so it was impossible for me to test any of the types in isolation.

The solution: it’s pretty obvious, but I just moved the functionality of the abstract base class into a service class with an interface. Now my two components (formerly derived classes) just have an instance typed to that interface. I can test all three parts in isolation (Q: How do you test an abstract class in isolation? A: You can’t) and I can re-use the same functionality across additional components in the project, further reducing duplication.

So, what I’m saying is: take your guilt seriously. If you have a bad gut feel about a design, it might very well be bad.  It’s just like any of the code smells in the original Refactoring book. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a problem, but it’s worth looking at.

But, at the same time, I’m not going to beat myself up over my interim design. It was a good, easy stepping stone to a more optimal design. This is the sort of thing that Scott Bain’s new book Emergent Design: The Evolutionary Nature of Professional Software Development is about. I’ve only skimmed it so far (I’m working on a new presentation, after all) but I know Scott, and I know his approach to the subject. From what I’ve read so far, it seems to be the right text for the professional programmer who wants to move beyond “just getting it working” to the level of “getting it working well”.  I wish that I could have read it years ago.

2 thoughts on “Guilt as a Code Smell

  1. Craig Fisher says:

    Re: “Q: How do you test an abstract class in isolation? A: You can’t”

    To test an abstract class in isolation (from other product code) you create a test class that derives from the abstract class. I don’t really see how an abstract class is any less testable just because you need to provide some concrete implementation in test code. Even non-abstract classes commonly have pre-requisites that must be satisfied before they can be tested. Was this just a throw-away comment, or am I missing something – which you can elaborate on in another post? 🙂

  2. […] Abstract Classes In Isolation 28 05 2008 In my post about guilt as a code smell, a comrade pointed out that it’s perfectly possible to test abstract classes in isolation, […]

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