Nov 26, 2012
Software libraries don't have to suck

When I said that libraries suck, I wasn't being precise.1 Libraries do lots of things well. They allow programmers to quickly prototype new ideas. They allow names to have multiple meanings based on context. They speed up incremental recompiles, they allow programs on a system to share code pages in RAM. Back in the desktop era, they were even units of commerce. All this is good.

What's not good is the expectation they all-too-frequently set with their users: go ahead, use me in production without understanding me. This expectation has ill-effects for both producers and consumers. Authors of libraries prematurely freeze their interfaces in a futile effort to spare their consumers inconvenience. Consumers of libraries have gotten trained to think that they can outsource parts of their craft to others, and that waiting for 'upstream' to fill some gap is better than hacking a solution yourself and risking a fork. Both of these are bad ideas.

To library authors

Interfaces aren't made in one big-bang moment. They evolve. You write code for one use case. Then maybe you find it works in another, and another. This organic process requires a lengthy gestation period.2 When we try to shortcut it, we end up with heavily-used interfaces that will never be fixed, even though everyone knows they are bad.

A prematurely frozen library doesn't just force people to live with it. People react to it by wrapping it in a cleaner interface. But then they prematurely freeze the new interface, and it starts accumulating warts and bolt-on features just like the old one. Now you have two interfaces. Was forking the existing interface really so much worse an alternative? How much smaller might each codebase in the world be without all the combinatorial explosion of interfaces wrapping other interfaces?

Just admit up-front that upgrades are non-trivial. This will help you maintain a sense of ownership for your interfaces, and make you more willing to gradually do away with the bad ideas.

More changes to the interface will put more pressure on your development process. Embrace that pressure. Help users engage with the development process. Focus on making it easier for users to learn about the implementation, the process of filing bugs.

Often the hardest part of filing a bug for your users is figuring out where to file it. What part of the stack is broken? No amount of black-box architecture astronomy will fix this problem for them. The only solution is to help them understand their system, at least in broad strokes. Start with your library.

Encourage users to fork you. "I'm not sure this is a good idea; why don't we create a fork as an A/B test?" is much more welcoming than "Your pull request was rejected." Publicize your forks, tell people about them, watch the conversation around them. They might change your mind.

Watch out for the warm fuzzies triggered by the word 'reuse'. A world of reuse is a world of promiscuity, with pieces of code connecting up wantonly with each other. Division of labor is a relationship not to be gotten into lightly. It requires knowing what guarantees you need, and what guarantees the counterparty provides. And you can't know what guarantees you need from a subsystem you don't understand.

There's a prisoner's dilemma here: libraries that over-promise will seem to get popular faster. But hold firm; these fashions are short-term. Build something that people will use long after Cucumber has been replaced with Zucchini.

To library users

Expect less. Know what libraries you rely on most, and take ownership for them. Take the trouble to understand how they work. Start pushing on their authors to make them easier to understand. Be more willing to hack on libraries to solve your own problems, even if it risks creating forks. If your solutions are not easily accepted upstream, don't be afraid to publish them yourselves. Just set expectations appropriately. If a library is too much trouble to understand, seek alternatives. Things you don't understand are the source of all technical debt. Try to build your own, for just the use-cases you care about. You might end up with something much simpler to maintain, something that fits better in your head.

(Thanks to Daniel Gackle; to David Barbour, Ray Dillinger and the rest of Lambda the Ultimate; and to Ross Angle, Evan R Murphy, Mark Katakowski, Zak Wilson, Alan Manuel Gloria and the rest of the Arc forum. All of them disagree with parts of this post, and it is better for it.)

notes

1. And trying to distinguish between 'abstraction' and 'service' turned out to obfuscate more than it clarified, so I'm going to avoid those words.

2. Perhaps we need a different name for immature libraries (which are now the vast majority of all libraries). That allows users to set expectations about the level of churn in the interface, and frees up library writers to correct earlier missteps. Not enough people leave time for gestating interfaces, perhaps in analogy with how not enough people leave enough time for debugging.

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