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The Road to Code
Simplicity Before Generality, Use Before Reuse
by Kevlin Henney
May 9, 2013
Summary
Generality and reusability sound like such good qualities to have in code that is easy to forget not only how hard they are to achieve, but also that without the more modest qualities of simplicity and utility how little value they may hold.

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A common problem in component frameworks, class libraries, foundation services, and other infrastructure code is that many are designed to be general purpose without reference to concrete applications. This leads to a dizzying array of options and possibilities that are often unused, misused, or just not useful. Most developers work on specific systems: the quest for unbounded generality rarely serves them well (if at all). The best route to generality is through understanding known, specific examples and focusing on their essence to find an essential common solution. Simplicity through experience rather than generality through guesswork.

Favoring simplicity before generality acts as a tiebreaker between otherwise equally viable design alternatives. When there are two possible solutions, favor the one that is simpler and based on concrete need rather than the more intricate one that boasts of generality. Of course, it is entirely possible (and more than a little likely) that the simpler solution will turn out to be the more general one in practice. And if that doesn't turn out to be the case, it will be easier to change the simpler solution to what you now know you need than to change the "general" one that turns out not to be quite general enough in the right way.

Although well meant, many things that are designed just to be general purpose often end up satisfying no purpose. Software components should, first and foremost, be designed for use and to fulfill that use well. Effective generality comes from understanding, and understanding leads to simplification. Generalization can allow us to reduce a problem to something more essential, resulting in an approach that embodies regularity across known examples, a regularity that is crisp, concise, and well grounded. However, too often generalization becomes a work item in itself, pulling in the opposite direction, adding to the complexity rather than reducing it. The pursuit of speculative generality often leads to solutions that are not anchored in the reality of actual development. They are based on assumptions that later turn out to be wrong, offer choices that later turn out not to be useful, and accumulate baggage that becomes difficult or impossible to remove, thereby adding to the accidental complexity developers and future architects must face.

Although many architects value generality, it should not be unconditional. People do not on the whole pay for (or need) generality: they tend to have a specific situation, and it is a solution to that specific situation that has value. We can find generality and flexibility in trying to deliver specific solutions, but if we weigh anchor and forget the specifics too soon, we end up adrift in a sea of nebulous possibilities, a world of tricky configuration options, overburdened (not just overloaded) parameter lists, long-winded interfaces, and not-quite-right abstractions. In pursuit of arbitrary flexibility, you can often lose valuable properties — accidental or intended — of alternative, simpler designs.



This article appeared in 97 Things Every Software Architect Should Know and is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0.

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About the Blogger

Kevlin is an independent consultant and trainer based in the UK. His development interests are in patterns, programming, practice and process. He has been a columnist for various magazines and web sites, including Better Software, The Register, Application Development Advisor, Java Report and the C/C++ Users Journal. Kevlin is co-author of A Pattern Language for Distributed Computing and On Patterns and Pattern Languages, two volumes in the Pattern-Oriented Software Architecture series. He is also editor of the 97 Things Every Programmer Should Know site and book.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2013 Kevlin Henney. All rights reserved.

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