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I was working at IBM when I discovered JUnit, Design Patterns, Refactoring and Pragmatic Programmer. These all gave me a bright idea how to deal with a specific problem in my programming group. There is a database group that acts as gatekeeper to the database schema for our product. Since the product has several hundred tables, I can appreciate the desire for conceptual integrity by having a small group of like minded people oversee its design. Unfortunately, for the most part, the database gatekeepers do not criticize design, rather they merely control change. This change control leads to problems on both sides: sometimes I have to wait five business days for the testing group to see changes; sometimes my changes are “lost in the translation” and made incorrectly by one of the gatekeeper’s teammates. This sets the context for my decision to do something radical: develop the database schema last. It is radical because in that organization, the database was — and may well still be1 — the center of the universe.

I built a component entirely decoupled from its persistence mechanism. It was the first time that I wrote code that felt truly object-oriented.2 Using JUnit to test my business logic led me to use a “dummy” persistence mechanism during testing, and I continued to use this dummy persistence mechanism until I had implemented every feature I needed.3 This led me up to approximately three weeks before feature/database schema freeze. As one might expect, this was a period of time during which teams were continually submitting schema changes and during which weekly meetings were used to judge which changes were “in” and which were “out”. These was considerable tension as everyone’s goal was to converge on a final schema. At “freeze minus three weeks” my component was fully built, fully programmer tested, including an entity bean-based implementation of the persistence mechanism. Building this entity bean persistence mechanism led to designing a simple, four-table database schema. I designed the database schema only after all the business features were fully implemented and programmer tested. Since I practised test-driven development, “implemented” implied “programmer tested” in this case. At the third-last meeting [of the Change Control Board] I submitted my request for new database tables. In response to complaints that I was bringing this up “awfully late in the cycle” I stated with supreme confidence, “Yes. To compensate you for this, I relinquish all change requests for the rest of the release. If I feel I need a schema change, I will simply have to deal with it myself somehow.” The database group hesitated, but felt that they had little choice: without the schema I proposed, there was no way to ship my feature set. They agreed.

As I promised, I changed absolutely no part of that database schema. While other groups were scrambling to make last-minute changes, I sat back, relaxed and grinned. Of course, while they were also scrambling to fix defects that the testing group reported, I also sat back, relaxed and grinned. I did have to fix one defect, but that was a misunderstood requirement, rather than an incorrectly-implemented feature. I attribute this success to two main techniques: programmer testing and letting the domain drive the database schema.

Epilogue

This was the second of two experiences from my early programming career that informed my opinions about programmer testing and the role of test doubles. Although I don’t remember doing this work in the now-called Mockist style, it was the first time that I decoupled persistence from the domain model (such as it was) and understood the difference between using test doubles for technology dependencies (JDBC in this case) and using them one level higher in the call stack to separate the Repository abstraction from the rest of the system. It was the first time that I really tried “not mocking types that I didn’t own”. It worked well!

This episode contributed considerably to my advocacy for programmer testing, test doubles, and eventually test-first programming, evolutionary design, and test-driven development. Without it, I would not be writing these words today.

References

Steve Freeman, Nat Pryce, Tim Mackinnon, Joe Walnes, “Mock Roles, Not Types”. The programming episode that I describe here amounted to applying the principles of this paper to my design, using test doubles for the Repository and not the database client library.

Martin Fowler and others, Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code.

The Gang of Four. Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software. The original reference for a description of the Abstract Factory pattern.

Andrew Hunt and Dave Thomas, The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master. Still one of those classics that demands a place on every programmer’s bookshelf.

Steve McConnell, Rapid Development: Taming Wild Software Schedules. The book that includes, among other things, the Change Control Board as one of its “blue-ribbon practices”, McConnell’s version of a “best practice”.


  1. I originally wrote this line in 2003, thinking back to 2000. I don’t think I would change this line at all, even today. On the contrary, the database has become even more of the center of the universe in many (most?) of the codebases I’ve seen in the nearly 20 years since.

  2. I forgive myself for saying something like this, even though I probably meant “modular” and not “object-oriented”. I probably meant “with a non-zero amount of abstraction”, as opposed to the typical open, obsessed-with-details “design” that I’ve seen in myriad codebases since.

  3. We would now recognize this as using test doubles for the Repository layer.

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Design credit: Shashank Mehta