Fast Feedback

Writing good software is all about getting feedback, quickly. Does it compile? Does it function? Does it build? Does it deploy? Does it do what the customer wanted? Does it actually work? Every step of the way we have feedback loops, to improve the software. The faster these feedback loops are, the faster the software improves.


Don’t you hate waiting for your code to compile? Or, if you use a language from this century: do you remember back in the olden days when you had to wait for the compiler? Until recently, I’d actually forgotten that incremental compilers are a relatively new invention. I remember when JBuilder (my IDE of choice back in those distant times) first introduced me to incremental compilation – it was something of a revelation! You mean, I don’t have to hit compile? It just does it? In the background? Like magic?!

A few years ago I joined a company who had something of a byzantine build process. As was the fashion at the time, they used ant for their build. Unfortunately, nobody had told them that Eclipse could also compile code. So all code was built with ant. Made a change? Run the ant build to build the relevant library (may require guesswork). Copy it (by hand) to the app server. Quickly restart WebSphere (note: not quick). Test. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Die of boredom.

Eventually, I replaced this with an Eclipse workspace that could run the application. No more build step. No more copying things by hand. No more mistakes. No more long delays in getting feedback.

Just recently I started working with C++ again after nearly a decade in byte code / interpreted languages. I’d actually forgotten what it was like to wait for code to compile. I’d got so used to working in Eclipse where you press Go and Things Happen(tm). Now instead I have to wait for a build before I can do anything. Every little change involves minutes of my life waiting for Visual Studio.

Then, if I’m really lucky – it will even compile! Remember when your IDE didn’t give you little red squiggles or highlight broken code? How fast is that feedback loop now? Before I’ve even finished typing the IDE is telling me I’m a moron and suggesting how to fix it. Assuming my code compiles, next I run the gauntlet of linking. Normally that means some godawful error message that googling just gives decade old answers and stack overflow posts that might as well be discussing religion.


I suspect this is why TDD is less common in the C++ world. Not only does the language feel ill-suited to doing TDD (to be honest, it feels ill-suited to writing software at all), but if you have to wait minutes after each change – TDD just doesn’t work.

  • Write a failing test
  • Wait minutes for the compiler to check your work, maybe go for a cuppa
  • Write code to make the test pass
  • Wait minutes for the compiler to check your work, perhaps its lunchtime?
  • Refactor

Actually, scrap the last step – since C++ is basically entirely devoid of automated refactoring tools – just leave whatever mess you’ve created because it’s about as good as it will get.

But with a red, green, refactor cycle that takes approximately 2.6 hours – it would be impossibly slow. No wonder TDD happens less.


I’ve been arguing recently about whether pairing or code review is the best way to improve code quality. I always used to be a huge believer in code review – I’d seen it have a massive impact on code quality and really help the team learn both the code and how to code better.

But now, after spending months pairing day in day out – I think pairing is better in every conceivable way than code review. Why? Because it’s so much more immediate. How many times have you heard feedback from code review getting left because “we don’t have time right now” or “we’ll come back to that just as soon as we’ve got this release out”.

But with pairing, you have your reviewer right there offering feedback, before you’ve even finished writing the line of code. Just like your modern IDE – giving you feedback before you’ve even had chance to get it wrong. And, just like the IDE, if the smart ass sitting next to you thinks he knows better, pass over the keyboard and let him show you.

This is just impossible with code review. The feedback cycle is necessarily much slower and, worse, it’s too easy to ignore. You can add a story to the backlog to fix code review comments. You can’t so easily add a story to the backlog to make the argumentative bloke next to you shut up! (More’s the pity, sometimes)

But either way – whether you get feedback from code review or pairing, the important thing is to get feedback. If you’re not getting feedback: you’re not learning and neither you nor your code are improving.

Pattern oriented programming

Ever since the “Gang of Four” book, everyone and their uncle is an expert in patterns. Software is all about patterns – the trouble is, it seems very little of note has happened in the intervening 20 years.

Why patterns are good

Patterns help because they let us talk about code using a consistent language. Patterns make it easier to read code. Ultimately, reading code is all about being able to reason about it.

If I change this, what’s going to break?

This bug got reported in production, how the hell did it happen?

If I can see the patterns the code implements, it lets me reason about the code more easily, without having to carefully analyse exactly what it does. Without them, I have to carefully understand every single line of code and try and reverse engineer the patterns.

The trouble is, the patterns often get mixed up with the implementation. This makes it hard to discern what the pattern is, and whether it’s actually being followed. Just because a class is called TradeManagerVisitorFactory doesn’t mean I actually know what it does. And when you open up the rats nest, you realise it’s going to take a long time to know what on earth it’s doing.

Patterns Exist

Patterns exist in our code, whether we explicitly call them out or not – there are hundreds, probably thousands of patterns that we’re all familiar with. Wouldn’t it be great if these patterns, at least within a single code base, were consistent? Wouldn’t it be great if we could help keep developers on the straight and narrow so that when they instantiate a second instance of my “singleton” we can break the build because it’s obviously changed something that might break all sorts of assumptions.

If we could start identifying the patterns in our code, and (somehow) separate that from how they’re implemented, we might actually be able to change how certain things are implemented, consistently, mechanically, across an entire enterprise-scale code base. Let me guess, an example would help?

The Builder Pattern

Ok, it’s a really simple pattern – but it makes a nice example. I have a class, that I need to be able to create, so I use the builder pattern. However, really, a builder is a type of object construction pattern. If I start thinking about different ways objects can be instantiated I can quickly come up with a handful of alternatives:

  • A constructor, with a long parameter list
  • A builder, with a lot of setXxx methods
  • A builder, with a lot of withXxx methods, that each return the builder for method chaining
  • A builder with a list of properties for object initialisation (C#)

Now, this means I have four ways of implementing “the builder pattern”. And you know, it makes precisely zero difference, functionality-wise, which I choose. It’s an entirely stylistic choice. However, I probably want it to be consistent across my codebase.

When it boils down to it, my pattern has three elements:

  • The actual pattern – e.g. a builder with method chaining
  • The logic & configuration for the pattern – the list of fields, the types, any type conversions or parsing etc
  • The actual rendering of the first two – this is all we have today: source code

I don’t want to get rid of the last (code generation is great, until you have to, you know, actually use the generated code). This should all work from existing, real code. But maybe we could mark up the code with annotations or attributes to describe what pattern we’re following and how it’s configured. Some of the logic and configuration would have to be inferred – but that’s ok, once we know it’s a builder pattern we can take entire method bodies as “logic”.

Pattern Migration

But you know what would be really awesome? If I could change how the pattern is implemented. Maybe today I’m happy with all my objects being constructed from a long parameter list. But maybe tomorrow I decide to change my mind and use builders and withXxx method names. Wouldn’t it be awesome if I could simply change the global config and have all my code automagically refactored to match? If all my builders are annotated and identified, and all enforced to be written the same way – I can extract the configuration & logic from the implementation and re-render the pattern differently. I could programmatically replace a constructor call with a builder or vice versa.

Ok, the builder is a trivial example that probably isn’t of much use. But how many more patterns are there? Say today I have classes with lots of static methods. Well, really, they’re singletons in disguise. But none of the cool kids create singletons nowadays, they use IoC frameworks like spring to create singleton beans. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could mass-migrate a legacy codebase from static methods, to singletons, to spring beans (and back again when I realise that’s made things worse!)


What about a more complex example – let’s compare spring-mvc and struts. Two frameworks to accomplish basically the same thing – but both with a very different philosophy. The answer isn’t to build a framework to capture the common parts of both – trust me, been there, done that: you get the worst of both worlds.

But, could you describe a pattern (probably several) that struts actions and spring-mvc controllers follow? Ultimately, both spring-mvc and struts let you respond to web requests with some code. Both give you access to the HTTP request and the session. Both give you a way of rendering a view. I wonder if you could describe how to extract the pattern-specific parts of a struts action and a spring-mvc controller? The config comes from different places, how to render views is different, how the view is selected is different, even the number of actions-per-class can be different. But, could you extract all that functionally irrelevant detail and separate the pattern configuration from the underlying source code.

If you could, maybe then you could describe a transformation between the two (sets of) patterns. This would give you a purely mechanical way of migrating a struts application to spring-mvc or vice versa.

Pattern Database

Now, the cost for me to describe, in great detail, all of the patterns for spring-mvc and struts in order to automatically migrate from one to the other is probably more than the effort to just get on and do it by hand. I could probably tackle a bunch with regexes and shell scripts, then hand finish the rest. However, what if we could define these patterns and share them? If there was some kind of open source pattern database? Then, the cost for the community is spread out – the cost for me is minimal.

Could we get to a point where our patterns are documented and codified? Where we can migrate between frameworks and even architectures with a manageable cost? An impossible dream? Or a better way of crafting software?