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Specifize First, Maybe Generalize Later

Why you should focus on solving specific problems with code, rather than inventing work for yourself.

Last updated on January 11, 2022. Created on January 9, 2022.

Language features such as generics and reflection give programmers false confidence that any given problem ought to have a generalized solution. For example, take a feature as transcendental as the function; yes, it can support a parametric hodgepodge soup, but does that mean it necessarily should? No, not unless a situation calls for it. When generalizing solutions, programmers tend not to avoid these common pitfalls:

  • Solving problems that do not (and may never) exist
  • Playing whack-a-mole while making one case work, breaking others
  • Tanking readability and maintainability of the codebase

I have personally witnessed programmers of all experience levels catch generalization fever, myself included. The time and cost involved in premature generalization is almost never scrutinized, because otherwise concerned stakeholders (assuming there are any) are blissfully unaware of it. Thus, it's up to us, programmers, to identify and confront potential wasted effort. While we should expect generalization in libraries and middleware, products and services building upon those things should be solving specific problems.

Let's say you are coding a game. The gameplay is dependent on simulated fluid dynamics, but unfortunately there is no code to be licensed that adequately fulfills the game's requirements, so you would have to code it yourself. This, by the way, is an exceedingly common predicament, because it turns out that the most generalized tools are not general enough. It is also a satisfying reason for pivoting.

Assuming you must build this game based on fluid dynamics, you do at least have enough experience to understand that there should be a fluid dynamics module loosely coupled from the core game logic. In spite of that, your mind starts racing. What if I need the fluid dynamics for a future game? Doubtful, and even if you did, you'll probably rewrite almost everything. What if I sold this code as an asset? Wait, weren't you building a game, not a tool? What if I made this module open-source? Don't get me started.

Generalization increases scope, when we should be searching for any possible reason to decrease it. We do not necessarily need to cut features, but we should always consider simplifying their implementation. Even if you are a corporate programmer cozily alienated from tangible business impact, the more general your code, the more that can go wrong. That may translate to job security for some, but will taint perceptions of others.

In conclusion, I recommend solving specific problems first and foremost. Never generalize without consideration of alternatives. Generalization that substantially increases scope should require a sanity check by peers, and explicit consent from (non-technical) stakeholders.

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