The Power of Sample Code

What is wrong with OOP?

In the culture wars between “Object Oriented Programming” and Functional Programming, you will find proponents of OOP that argue that we are doing fine – why should we change? and proponents of FP that lists a litany of inherent problems with what we are doing today and point to the ways FP solves them. After I once was at an Object Bootcamp with Fred George I believe the two main schools of thought are both wrong. All the problems listed by the FP peeps are correct, but they are not inherent in OOP, actually OOP addresses a few of them, but we are as an industry not doing OOP.

I may feel Fred George is the Messiah, but he is not alone in his views. Greg Young has similar concerns.

Inheritance is not the Big Deal

I am old enough to remember Borland C++ ads from the 90s. It focused a lot on inheritance, and reuse through inheritance became the USP for object oriented languages.

As soon as you have written some code though, you realise inheritance is the worst, as it creates undue coupling, making changes very hard to implement.

When Borland made those ads about how Porsche Turbo inherited the Carrera but implemented a big fat rear wing, they had begun their foray into C++ because it offered a way to handle the substantial boilerplate involved in writing a program in Windows. It was relatively straightforward to implement the basics and create a usable abstraction on top of the raw Windows API that made the developer experience much more pleasant.

As visual designers became a thing, they wanted a way to map properties with code, so that UI components (those things implemented as objects we mentioned above) could be manipulated by a developer in design mode. “Property” setters, basically syntactic sugar disguising normal functions, allowed the UI designers to read settings from the object, and replace them with what the developer types in. With this work, Borland and Microsoft were working to catch up with InterfaceBuilder from NeXT Computer (the same thing that lives on today in the Apple MacOS/iOS SDK) that had bolted a different type system on top of C and called it Objective C – but that had a world leading visual designer at the time. Anyway, I think they were in a hurry and didn’t think things through.

Approaches to deal with big programs

In a large codebase, the big problem is achieving low coupling but high cohesion. This means, you want all the code that belongs together to live together but you don’t want to have to make changes in seemingly unrelated code to modify a piece of functionality.

In large problems of old, you could call any subroutine from anywhere else, and many resources were shared, meaning between the time you set a value in a variable and you read from it, some piece of code in between could have modified the value, and you would not be automatically able to know where this access is made and how to prevent it.

In FP, we use modules for scoping, meaning you group functions into modules to aid readability, but the key concept, the Big Idea is immutability. After a value is created, it exists globally, but since they are read-only once created, the drawbacks of global state go away. There is no way to change something that somebody else relies on. You can transform it into a new thing that you need, but the original value hangs around until it’s no longer needed. It is harder to accidentally break other code with changes you are making

The Big Idea in Object oriented development is Encapsulation. You put the data with the code and manipulate abstractions. This means that if you get your abstractions right, you can change or replace these abstractions without needing to make sweeping changes in the codebase.

The original concept of object orientation relied on independent small sub programs that communicated by message passing, implicitly imagining like an “in tray” of messages that the object could process at its own pace and then send a response when the work was completed. However – objects were in C++, Java and C# was implemented as special dynamically allocated structs to which you made function calls, i e they became decidedly more synchronous than they were in Smalltalk or Simula. You would recognise Erlang Processes and Actors as looking more like OG objects. You also see that what made objects useful were that they shared properties we today associate with the term micro services, but on a smaller scale.

So what’s the problem, and what’s up with the title of this blog post?

Java, and C# arguably even more so, took the Big Idea and tossed it out the window. Property Get/Property Set to support novelties like graphical designers and visual components are a clear violation of encapsulation. Why are we letting objects access data that lives in other objects? The need to do that is a huge red flag that your model is incorrect. Both the bible, i.e. Refactoring, by Fowler and the actual Bible condemn this, this feature envy.

But why did these properties survive the nineties and live on into modern day? Why have they made things worse with auto properties?

Sample code

When you learn a new language, or to code in general, the main threshold is getting to the point where you write idiomatic code in that language. I e you use familiar phrases. You indent the code in a certain way, you name things according to a certain standard and you use familiar ways to do things like open a database connection, make a HTTP request et c, that a seasoned programmer would be familiar with. Unfortunately- in C# at least, these antipatterns are canon at this point, so to write properly encapsulated code would maybe cause a casual reviewer to ask WTF and be sceptical.

What is canon comes from the publicly available body of work that a beginner can reasonably access. Meaning, effectively Microsoft sets the bar when they announce features, document them and create samples.

There are some issues here. If you look at a large piece of sample code, you may notice how difficult it is to identify the key concept being demoed as the logging code or error handling bulk up the code in a way that is distracting, so brevity must be allowed to remain a priority, clearly.

At the edges where the code starts interacting with network and storage, this type of organisation isn’t inherently despicable either, so a blanket ban is perhaps not the way forward either.

How do we make it clear to new OO devs that when they fill that empty Models folder their project template creates for them with code they would be better off thinking OO proper?

By that I mean making classes that are extremely small, use value objects, prefer private fields, avoid properties et cetera. My suspicion is that any attempt at conveying this programming style through the medium of sample code in templates or documentation is doomed. The bulk of code necessary to not only prove the concept but to in fact make it part of the vernacular would require a large number of people making quite a lot of good code public do that new learners can assimilate the knowledge.

I think good OO code is scarce. Getting the abstractions right is just too hard, you will have compromises in various places, and all the tools tempt you with ways to stray from the narrow path of righteousness, but with modern refactoring tools you should be able to address some of the issues amd continually strive to make the code better.

Incidentally, with properly sized objects you can unit test without cheating (using internal helper methods, or by using mocks), so there is scope to brighten up the tests as well.