Prologue

So I was working for a company a few years ago. The company had been around for a while, and had a bunch of genuinely intelligent senior developers working for them.

Over the course of several years, inevitably a set of common problems arose. Writing data access code was repetitive and error-prone. Many teams were sharing the same database but using different code, so there were inconsistencies in how similar business data was treated. Each application’s log files where all over the place, and each had their own approach for error handling. Some teams would go off on their own and unnecessarily reinvent the wheel. Moving a developer from one team to another required as much ramp-up time as a new hire. Each team used a different build and versioning strategy, with the most common strategy being “none.” Setting up a test environment with multiple applications took days. Recreating the production environment was virtually impossible. Chaos. Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria.

To address these issues, some of the more senior architects took it up themselves to build a framework that would greatly simplify everyone’s life. By putting in a little design upfront, they could build a framework layer that would solve many of the problems that the developers had been muddling through over the years, while at the same time homogenizing the code base.

Of course, the company had attempted this before. In fact, there were several previous frameworks over the years. But those previous frameworks were not as good as they could be, either because of design flaws, or changes in the way that the company’s applications work, or because they used outdated technology, or because the previous no-longer-with-the-company designers were now generally considered to be idiots. Anyhow, the new architects had learned from these mistakes, and were designing a new framework that would do a much better job of solving the problems. Due to the scope of such a project, it had been a work-in-progress for about a year. Sure, they were still working out some kinks, and it was not completely finalized yet, but this is a technology investment, and some growing pains were to be expected.

Déjà vu

Well, OK, I lied. This wasn’t one company I worked for. It was several different companies, all with the same story. In fact, it’s a little eerie how much you see this exact scenario play out at companies all over the industry.

Some senior developers have identified some recurring pain points for the developers, and they want to do something about it. As the company has grown, more and more developers have come on board, each with less and less experience, and things need to be brought back under control. By providing a framework, you can lay out the boundaries for developers to operating in, which will encourage consistency, will encourage code reuse, and in the end will allow the company to produce higher-quality software in less time with fewer developers, which will require less maintenance cost over time. In other words, it will pursue the single ultimate goal that should be at the center of every design decision, namely that which will advance the overall long-term profitability of the company more than any other option.

It sounds like a brilliant idea. And if it were to be accomplished, it would be great. But the unfortunate truth is that it doesn’t work. Without exception, I have only seen this result in more work for the developers, longer development cycles, more bugs, poorly compromised designs, and (worst of all) excessive, unhealthily conflict between the development teams.

Admit it, you’ve seen it too. Maybe you were even involved.

So What’s The Problem?

So why does this go wrong?

The problem is usually not intent. I don’t want to make it sound like the people involved are morons or that they are have any desire to do harm to their company. In fact, usually they are excellent developers who are trying to do the best they can to solve a problem. I can’t fault them for that. I just think the approach is a little misguided.

And the problem is not the people down in the trenches, pushing back on every change the framework team wants to introduce. No, these people are trying to get a job done. Their marching orders are not to solve the whole company’s crosscutting problems, but to ship their product on time and in budget, and many of them believe, perhaps rightfully so, that the framework keeps them from doing that as efficiently as they could.

Again, the problem is the approach.

The Challenge Of Frameworks

So what is a framework? Generally, people think of a framework as something that helps you get your job done by providing access to new functionality that you didn’t have before. This is usually the selling point, used when convincing a manager or developer that this is all such a great idea, but the reality is that the true nature of a framework lies not in what it helps you to do, but rather in how it limits you.

For example, the Slightly-Almighty, Moderately-Informative, Usually-Reliable Wikipedia says:

A software framework, in computer programming, is an abstraction in which common code providing generic functionality can be selectively overridden or specialized by user code providing specific functionality…

Software frameworks have these distinguishing features that separate them from libraries or normal user applications:

1. inversion of control – In a framework, unlike in libraries or normal user applications, the overall program’s flow of control is not dictated by the caller, but by the framework.[1]

2. default behavior – A framework has a default behavior. This default behavior must actually be some useful behavior and not a series of no-ops.

3. extensibility – A framework can be extended by the user usually by selective overriding or specialized by user code providing specific functionality.

4. non-modifiable framework code – The framework code, in general, is not allowed to be modified. Users can extend the framework, but not modify its code.

 

One of the key points here is that the framework is dictating the application flow, rather than the developer who is using it. This is what the Martin Fowler (who literally wrote the book on refactoring) would describe as a Foundation Framework:

A Foundation Framework is … built prior to any application that are built on top of it. The idea is that you analyze the needs of the various applications that need the framework, then you build the framework. Once the framework is complete you then build applications on top of it. The point is that the framework really needs to have a stable API before you start work on the applications, otherwise changes to the framework will be hard to manage due to their knock-on effects with the applications.

While this sounds reasonable in theory, I’ve always seen this work badly in practice. The problem is that it’s very hard to understand the real needs of the framework. As a result the framework ends up with far more capabilities that are really needed. Often its capabilities don’t really match what that the applications really need.

 

He recommends instead a Harvested Framework:

To build a framework by harvesting, you start by not trying to build a framework, but by building an application. While you build the application you don’t try to develop generic code, but you do work hard to build a well-factored and well designed application.

With one application built you then build another application which has at least some similar needs to the first one. While you do this you pay attention to any duplication between the second and first application. As you find duplication you factor out into a common area, this common area is the proto-framework.

As you develop further applications each one further refines the framework area of the code. During the first couple of applications you’d keep everything in a single code base. After a few rounds of this the framework should begin to stabilize and you can separate out the code bases.

While this sounds harder and less efficient than FoundationFramework it seems to work better in practice.

 

I’m not sure I would even call this a framework, because all of the things that make it work best are the parts that take it further and further from being a conventional “framework”.

So Are All Frameworks Bad?

Sweet suffering succotash, no. In my humble opinion, the .NET Framework is a thing of beauty. Back in my Win32 C++ days, MFC was not perfect, but worked serviceably well for what it was intended for, namely abstracting away the Win32 API. CMS frameworks like DotNetNuke and Drupal and Joomla have been become very popular. Apparently there is a subset of people who don’t hate Flash with a passion, and apparently those people love it. MVC frameworks like Rails and Django have caught on like wildfire, with ASP.NET MVC picking up a lot of momentum as well. Microsoft Azure and Google AppEngine are in the process of changing how we will build scalable cloud-based applications into the next decade.

Have you noticed a pattern here? None of them were built by you or anyone you know. They were not built to solve a business need, they were built to reinvent a platform. They were not built to get everyone using a “Customer” object the same way, they were build to make it easier for you to do whatever you want with whatever data you need. They were not built by 3 architects for 20 developers, they were built by 30 or 300 architects for 20,000 or 200,000 developers or more. They were not designed and built and delivered and completed in a few months, they were talked design and dog-fooded and tested and tweaked and redesigned over years by some of the smartest computer science experts in the business. Any yet, despite all that, most of them still sucked, and the ones we use today are the select few that survived.

The thing is this: you and your internal development team of architects are not going to build the next great framework. You’re not going to build a good one. You’re not even going to build an acceptable one.

And the other thing is this: If a framework is not great, it is awful, counterproductive, and destructive.

Get In Line

By definition, most frameworks try to define a new way for your developers to develop software. The keep you from doing certain things that have been seen as problematic, and require you do things the “right way”, assuming of course that the architects have actually thought through the right way to do things.

The problem is that there are plenty of good ways already, ways that those developers are already trained in and have spend years mastering, and you are not really as clever as you think you are. You can’t think of everything. Even if you could, you can’t design for everything. And even if you could, you shouldn’t. Trying to shoehorn them into an incomplete, shoddy, and unnecessarily restrictive framework will only breed resentment, at which point you are bleeding money that you’ll never see on an expense report. The productivity difference between a happy developer and a disgruntled developer is enormous, and constantly underestimated. You will also alienate and drive away all of your good developers, leaving you only with the not-so-great developers that really don’t have any better options.

Atlas Shrugged

In order to create a framework, you are taking on a massive responsibility. It’s not a case of adding a few features. You are building an entirely new layer of abstraction. In doing so, it is your responsibility to ensure that your framework provides the developer with every possible thing he will need, otherwise he will be stuck. If you create a data access framework, but never quite could figure out how to get BLOBs working, you’re really leaving the developer up a creek when he needs to store BLOBs. Sure, it’s a growth process, and there are always bugs to be fixed and features to be added, but when you are forcing a development team to use this framework, and in the 11th hour they realize it doesn’t have a critical feature that they need, you are introducing more obstacles then you are removing.

But We Have To Create Reusable Code!

No you don’t. Reusable code is bad.

So What?

So do we give up? Maybe. It depends.

So how do you boil the ocean? There are two answers:

1. You don’t. It’s too big of a problem.

2. One pot at a time.

It all depends on your goal.  Is it critical that you actually boil then entire ocean, or do you benefit from every little bit?

Ask yourself, do you REALLY need a framework? Do you REALLY have a problem here that needs to be solved? Do you REALLY think you will save your company time and money by pursuing this? Be honest. Try to be objective. If you find yourself getting the slightest bit excited about the idea of building a framework, recuse yourself from the decision because you are not thinking clearly.

Sure, a well-design framework may save time and money once it is complete, but it may never be complete, and it may never be any good, and the small improvement may not save your company enough to justify the huge expense. As awful as it may seem, the honest answer may be that it is in your company’s best interest to plow ahead with the same busted up junk you’ve had all along. It may not be the most rewarding thing in the world, but you are probably not getting paid to fulfill your dreams, you are getting paid to write the damn code.

So what do we do? Are we doomed to mediocrity? Not necessarily. The other option is to get your head out of the clouds and solve a few small problems at a time. Keep your eye out for redundancies and duplicated code, make note of them, but don’t do anything right away. When you are building a new component, don’t pull your hair out if it slightly resembles some other code, you don’t have to reuse use everything. Once you’ve identified a few low-hanging redundancies, go back and build some small libraries to consolidate that code. Don’t think big picture. Keep it simple. Keep it low-impact. Keep it clean. Put the big guns away. Keep constantly refactoring to make it a little better every day, and before you know it you’ll have system that doesn’t completely suck.

Too much legacy code never gets cleaned up because everyone thinks it is too hard to throw it all out and rewrite it, and no project manager will allow the developers to waste time refactoring code that already works. They are all probably right. A huge refactoring project is probably a waste of money, and it will almost certainly fail. But small, steady, incremental improvements will almost certainly make your world a better place.