Mathias Brandewinder on .NET, F#, VSTO and Excel development, and quantitative analysis / machine learning.
12. May 2015 13:50

As much as we people who write code like to talk about code, the biggest challenge in a software project is not code. A project rarely fails because of technology – it usually fails because of miscommunications: the code that is delivered solves a problem (sometimes), but not the right one. One of the reasons we often deliver the wrong solution is that coding involves translating the world of the original problem into a different language. Translating one way is hard enough as it is, but then, rarely are users comfortable with reading and interpreting code – and as a result, confirming whether the code “does the right thing” is hard, and errors go un-noticed.

This is why the idea of Ubiquitous Language, coined by Eric Evans in his Domain Driven Design book, always appealed to me. The further apart the languages of the domain expert and the code are, the more likely it is that something will be lost in translation.

However, achieving this perfect situation, with “a language structured around the domain model and used by all team members to connect all the activities of the team with the software” [source], is hard. I have tried this in the past, mainly through tests. My idea at the time was that tests, especially BDD style, could perhaps provide domain experts with scenarios similar enough to their worldview that they could serve as a basis for an active dialogue. The experience wasn’t particularly successful: it helped some, but in the end, I never got to the point where tests would become a shared, common ground (which doesn’t mean it’s not possible – I just didn’t manage to do it).

Fast forward a bit to today – I just completed a project, and it’s the closest I have ever been to seeing Ubiquitous Language in action. It was one of the most satisfying experiences I had, and F# had a lot to do with why it worked.

The project involved some pretty complex modeling, and only two people – me and the client. The client is definitely a domain expert, and on the very high end of the “computer power user” spectrum: he is very comfortable with SQL, doesn’t write software applications, but has a license to Visual Studio and is not afraid of code.

The fact that F# worked well for me isn’t a surprise – I am the developer in that equation, and I love it, for all the usual technical reasons. It just makes my life writing code easier. The part that was interesting here is that F# worked well for the client, too, and became our basis for communication.

What ended up happening was the following: I created a GitHub private repository, and started coding in a script file, fleshing out a domain model with small, runnable pieces of code illustrating what it was doing. We would have regular Skype meetings, with a screen share so that I could walk him through the code in Visual Studio, and explain the changes I made - and we would discuss. Soon after, he started to run the code himself, and even making small changes here and there, not necessarily the most complicated bits, but more domain-specific parts, such as adjusting parameters and seeing how the results would differ. And soon, I began receiving emails containing specific scenarios he had experimented with, using actual production data, and pointing at possible flaws in my approach, or questions that required clarifications.

So how did F# make a difference? I think it’s a combination of at least 2 things: succinctness, and static typing + scripts. Succinctness, because you can define a domain with very little code, without loosing expressiveness. As a result, the core entities of the domain end up taking a couple of lines at the top of a single file, and it’s easy to get a full picture, without having to navigate around between files and folders, and keep information in your head. As an illustration, here is a snippet of code from the project:

type Window = { Early:DateTime; Target:DateTime; Late:DateTime }

type Trip = {
ID:TripID
Origin:Location
Destination:Location
Pickup:Window
Dropoff:Window
Dwell:TimeSpan }

type Action =
| Pickup of Trip
| Dropoff of Trip
| CompleteRoute of Location

This is concise, and pretty straightforward – no functional programming guru credentials needed. This is readable code, which we can talk about without getting bogged down in extraneous details.

The second ingredient is static typing + scripts. What this creates is a safe environment for experimentation.  You can just change a couple of lines here and there, run the code, and see what happens. And when you break something, the compiler immediately barks at you – just undo or fix it. Give someone a running script, and they can start playing with it, and exploring ideas.

In over 10 years writing code professionally, I never had such a collaborative, fruitful, and productive interaction cycle with a client. Never. This was the best of both worlds – I could focus on the code and the algorithms, and he could immediately use it, try it out, and send me invaluable feedback, based on his domain knowledge. No noise, no UML diagrams, no slides, no ceremony – just write code, and directly communicate around it, making sure nothing was amiss. Which triggered this happy tweet a few weeks back:

We were looking at the code together, and my client spotted a domain modeling mistake, right there. This is priceless.

As a side-note, another thing that is priceless is “F# for Fun and Profit”. Scott Wlaschin has been doing an incredible work with this website. It’s literally a gold mine, and I picked up a lot of ideas there. If you haven’t visited it yet, you probably should.

19. October 2013 10:33

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure to attend Progressive F# Tutorials in NYC. The conference was fantastic – two days of hands-on workshops, great organization by the good folks at SkillsMatter, Rickasaurus and Paul Blasucci, and a great opportunity to exchange with like-minded people, catch up with old friends and make new ones.

As an aside, if you missed NYC, fear not – you can still get tickets for Progressive F# Tutorials in London, coming up October 31 and November 1 in London.

After some discussion with Phil Trelford, we decided it would be a lot of fun to organize a workshop around PacMan. Phil has a long history with game development, and a lot of wisdom to share on the topic. I am a total n00b as far as game programming goes, but I thought PacMan would make a fun theme to hack some AI, so I set to refactor some of Phil’s old code, and transform it into a “coding playground” where people could tinker with how PacMan and the Ghosts behave, and make them smarter.

Long story short, the refactoring exercise turned out to be a bit more involved than what I had initially anticipated. First, games are written in a style which is pretty different from your run-of-the-mill business app, and getting familiar with a code base that didn’t follow a familiar style wasn’t trivial.

So here I am, trying to refactor that unfamiliar and somewhat idiosyncratic code base, and I start hitting stuff like this:

let ghost_starts =
[
"red", (16, 16), (1,0)
"cyan", (14, 16), (1,0)
"pink", (16, 14), (0,-1)
"orange", (18, 16), (-1,0)
]
|> List.map (fun (color,(x, y), v) ->
// some stuff happens here
{ … X = x * 8 - 7; Y = y * 8 - 3; V = v; … }
)


This is where I begin to get nervous. I need to get this done quickly, and factor our functions, but I am really worried to touch any of this. What’s X and Y? Why 8, 7 or 3?

More...

3. March 2013 11:01

Recently, I had a few interesting discussions on F# code readability. One argument I often hear about F# is that by virtue of its succinctness, it increases the signal-to-noise ratio. I certainly found this to be true: when the entire code fits on your screen, and you don’t have to scroll around to figure out what is going on, navigating a code base becomes significantly simpler.

Relatedly, because the F# syntax is so much lighter than C#, some of my coding habits evolved. I stick to the “one public type per file” guideline in C#, and initially did the same in F#. That didn’t last long: declaring a Record Type in F# is a one-liner, and dedicating an entire file to it seems… overkill:

type Person = { FirstName: string; LastName: string; BornOn: DateTime }


As a result, my F# solutions tend to contain less files, and each file is more “self-contained”, usually declaring a couple of types and implementing some operations involving these types in a module. Again, less navigation required: open one file, and the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is right there on your screen.

In my experience, this also makes refactoring tools much less important in F# than C#. The lack of refactoring tools in F# used to be one of my main gripes with using the language. At that point, I don’t really care that much any more, because I don’t really need them that badly. Sure, it would be nice to propagate a rename automatically – but lots of the refactoring tools I commonly use with C# deal with navigating around or moving pieces of code from file to file (extract class, method, etc…), all problems that are minor when your code sits in just a couple of files, and the “what class owns what responsibility” issue vanishes because your functions are at a module level.

Conversely, I have found myself annoyed a few times looking at F# code where succinctness erred on the side of obfuscation. This tendency for terse naming conventions seems to be a cultural heritage from other functional languages, and makes sense to an extent – functional code tends to focus on applying generic transformations to “things”, and not that much on what the “thing” might be.

As an illustration, I have seen often code along these lines:

match list with
| x::xs -> ...


No need to go full on Java on your code, but a bit of naming effort goes a long way in making code intelligible:

match list with


That being said, extreme terseness can be fun, at times – I don’t think I’ll see a C# Game of Life implementation that fits in a Tweet any time soon .

Another readability aspect I found interesting with F# code is that the order of declarations matters, and the order of the files in the project matters as well. This seemingly odd constraint has a good reason – it makes the awesome F# type inference work.

Over time, I actually began to appreciate this not as a constraint, but almost as a feature. One problem I keep running into when I look into a C# code base I am not familiar with is “damn! where should I start?”. There is no clear way to proceed through the code, and I have ended up countless times navigating haphazardly from class to class, hoping to stumble upon a solid starting point.

I don’t really have that problem with F# code bases – essentially, I either start from the first line of the first file, and read forward, or the last line of the last file, working my way back. Either way works; the first one reads like a constructive proof, walking you every step to the ineluctable conclusion, the second one starts with the “high point” of the code base, digging progressively into the nitty-gritty and assumptions that were made to get there.

Someone reacted by saying that I was “just rationalizing”. There is probably some truth in that – but I believe there is something to be said for having a natural reading order in a code base. As a side-note, this is also one of my minor annoyances with GitHub: in the browser, the files from an F# repository are displayed in alphabetical order, which loses the logical project organization.

I might also change my tune when I have to deal with a truly large F# code base, which hasn’t happened to me yet. At that point, I may long for more freedom in organizing my code, and, say, arrange it by topical folders. For the moment, though, this hasn’t been an issue for me!

15. October 2009 18:03

I recently finished reading the Art of Unit Testing, by Roy Osherove (Manning); here are a few thoughts on the book.

# Who to give it too

This is an excellent book for the C# developer with solid foundations in object-oriented design, who has already some exposure to writing unit tests. If you have worked on a decent-scale project, and found yourself thinking “hmmm, I am sure there is a smarter way to write these tests”, you should definitely get that book. Note that while it will be extremely useful to the test-driven development practitioner, this is NOT a book on TDD.More...

10. October 2009 07:36

Much ado on the interwebs has followed Joel’s recent post on the now-infamous Duct Tape Programmer. You have to give it to Joel, he has a talent for writing pieces which get lots of people really worked up – what in some circles is called trolling. Out of curiosity, I looked up Google Trends, and unless some other piece of hot news related to duct tape surfaced on Sept 23rd, you can see with your naked eye the amount of buzz this one single post managed to generate. Impressive.

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