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The Trouble with Checked Exceptions
A Conversation with Anders Hejlsberg, Part II
by Bill Venners with Bruce Eckel
August 18, 2003

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Summary
Anders Hejlsberg, the lead C# architect, talks with Bruce Eckel and Bill Venners about versionability and scalability issues with checked exceptions.

Anders Hejlsberg, a distinguished engineer at Microsoft, led the team that designed the C# (pronounced C Sharp) programming language. Hejlsberg first vaulted onto the software world stage in the early eighties by creating a Pascal compiler for MS-DOS and CP/M. A very young company called Borland soon hired Hejlsberg and bought his compiler, which was thereafter marketed as Turbo Pascal. At Borland, Hejlsberg continued to develop Turbo Pascal and eventually led the team that designed Turbo Pascal's replacement: Delphi. In 1996, after 13 years with Borland, Hejlsberg joined Microsoft, where he initially worked as an architect of Visual J++ and the Windows Foundation Classes (WFC). Subsequently, Hejlsberg was chief designer of C# and a key participant in the creation of the .NET framework. Currently, Anders Hejlsberg leads the continued development of the C# programming language.

On July 30, 2003, Bruce Eckel, author of Thinking in C++ and Thinking in Java, and Bill Venners, editor-in-chief of Artima.com, met with Anders Hejlsberg in his office at Microsoft in Redmond, Washington. In this interview, which will be published in multiple installments on Artima.com and on an audio CD-ROM to be released this fall by Bruce Eckel, Anders Hejlsberg discusses many design choices of the C# language and the .NET framework.

Remaining Neutral on Checked Exceptions

Bruce Eckel: C# doesn't have checked exceptions. How did you decide whether or not to put checked exceptions into C#?

Anders Hejlsberg: I see two big issues with checked exceptions: scalability and versionability. I know you've written some about checked exceptions too, and you tend to agree with our line of thinking.

Bruce Eckel: I used to think that checked exceptions were really great.

Anders Hejlsberg: Exactly. Frankly, they look really great up front, and there's nothing wrong with the idea. I completely agree that checked exceptions are a wonderful feature. It's just that particular implementations can be problematic. By implementing checked exceptions the way it's done in Java, for example, I think you just take one set of problems and trade them for another set of problems. In the end it's not clear to me that you actually make life any easier. You just make it different.

Bruce Eckel: Was there a lot of disagreement in the C# design team about checked excpetions?

Anders Hejlsberg: No, I think there was fairly broad agreement in our design group.

C# is basically silent on the checked exceptions issue. Once a better solution is known—and trust me we continue to think about it—we can go back and actually put something in place. I'm a strong believer that if you don't have anything right to say, or anything that moves the art forward, then you'd better just be completely silent and neutral, as opposed to trying to lay out a framework.

If you ask beginning programmers to write a calendar control, they often think to themselves, "Oh, I'm going to write the world's best calendar control! It's going to be polymorphic with respect to the kind of calendar. It will have displayers, and mungers, and this, that, and the other." They need to ship a calendar application in two months. They put all this infrastructure into place in the control, and then spend two days writing a crappy calendar application on top of it. They'll think, "In the next version of the application, I'm going to do so much more."

Once they start thinking about how they're actually going to implement all of these other concretizations of their abstract design, however, it turns out that their design is completely wrong. And now they've painted themself into a corner, and they have to throw the whole thing out. I have seen that over and over. I'm a strong believer in being minimalistic. Unless you actually are going to solve the general problem, don't try and put in place a framework for solving a specific one, because you don't know what that framework should look like.

Bruce Eckel: The Extreme Programmers say, "Do the simplest thing that could possibly work."

Anders Hejlsberg: Yeah, well, Einstein said that, "Do the simplest thing possible, but no simpler." The concern I have about checked exceptions is the handcuffs they put on programmers. You see programmers picking up new APIs that have all these throws clauses, and then you see how convoluted their code gets, and you realize the checked exceptions aren't helping them any. It is sort of these dictatorial API designers telling you how to do your exception handling. They should not be doing that.

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