Saturday, December 2, 2006

Book: Prefactoring

Prefactoring is an exposition of principles for software design, laid out in the context of the development of a fictional application. I've never been into that particular style of writing about software design; in fact, it was the only thing I didn't like about Martin Fowler's Refactoring, which is the inspiration for both Prefactoring's own fictional case study and its name as well.

When you've got one programming book named after another one, one reasonable idea is to compare the two. Prefactoring's premise is that, instead of fixing your design afterwards -- an extremely terse summary of Refactoring -- you apply what you've learned from that in the past to build it with the right design principles from the get-go. That sounds like good common sense, and it is. Unfortunately, it really only makes sense in the context of a misunderstanding of Refactoring. Refactoring and debugging are different things. It's very common in software for people to use buzzwords and catchphrases as an alternative to thinking, and consequently, in certain organizations, you'll hear "refactoring" used as a synonym for "debugging."

In fact, refactoring is supposed to happen during debugging -- but it's also supposed to happen during the course of development, and in fact this is the preferred time to do it. Refactoring comes from agile development, specifically Extreme Programming, where the basic cycle is to write unit tests, write the simplest code that can possibly satisfy those tests, refactor that code, and then begin again with new unit tests. Refactoring can mean improving things during debugging, but much more importantly, what it really means is streamlining existing code as you refine it. To say that the best thing to learn from refactoring is to get your code right first time is to use the vocabulary of agile development to advocate waterfall development, and this, in fact, is what Prefactoring often seems to do.

Worse still, many of the code examples are in Java, and they don't use Josh Bloch's guidelines from Effective Java or Java Puzzlers. This might be a quibble, but I'd certainly hire or fire based on this quibble, as I think it's very important (and therefore not a quibble at all). Pretty much everything I've done for months has been in Ruby on Rails, so I'm frequently reminded that Java is not popular in every sector of the tech industry -- however, if you are going to write Java, I personally feel that writing Java without observing Bloch's guidelines is careless at best, and borders on outright negligence.

On the other hand, I seem to be kind of eviscerating this book here, and that's not quite fair. I disagree with some of the design principles laid out in this book, but most of them are pretty strong in the common sense department. Also, software development is one of those things where you can be better off after reading a book even if you disagree with it. For instance, just in criticizing this book's attitude towards refactoring, I've had to question my own understanding of it. If you read this book with the right frame of mind, you'll challenge your own ideas and come to new conclusions, and probably become a better developer in the process.

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