Talk Less, Do More

I’ve been a Java developer for almost 8 years now, I’ve used many frameworks and tools, Spring, Hibernate, EJB’s, Swing, etc. And a few years back, I started to look for a less verbose way to express concepts like business entities, services, workflows and so on. For some time, Model-Driven Architecture (MDA) has been the best answer I could find. But the learning curve and the difficulty to customize transformation patterns for specific setups, like a Flex front-end on a Spring back-end for example, have made me realize that this approach was somewhat limited by its UML foundation.

So I started looking for a better answer, and I thought I had found it with Language-Oriented Programming, the idea to decouple the structure, the syntax and the semantics of a language and ease the creation of Domain-Specific Languages in a very generic way. Unfortunately, as promising as it looks, it’s still in early stages of research and development and I needed a more immediate way to improve my productivity, my ability to do more with less words.

So I came back to something I had totally pushed aside till then: scripting languages. I’ve been “raised” with strongly and statically-typed languages since day 1 of my programming carrier: first Pascal, then Delphi, C++ and Java. And I always thought that scripting languages like PHP, and later Ruby were just tinkerer stuff for lazy hobbyist programmers, that didn’t take into account constraints like maintainability, robustness, readability, performance, etc. All those constraints I faced as a professional consultant. But a few weeks ago, I started to question my certainties and began wandering around PHP, Ruby, Python and others.

PHP, I’m using it at work on You And The World, it’s too hard to debug in a Flex/AMF setup and it’s really too permissive. As for Ruby, I like the ability to design DSLs but the syntax is definitely not intuitive enough for me. So now, I’m trying to learn more about Python, whose syntax seemed more familiar and maturity is reassuring. Everything seemed good until I read this single sentence in the documentation:

[…] classes in Python do not put an absolute barrier between definition and user, but rather rely on the politeness of the user not to “break into the definition.”

Come ooooon! Politeness of the user? You must be kidding right. In a corporate environment, when your code is likely to be reused and shared and refactored? I thought “hey, that’s probably just a provocative way to say that we Java developers tend to overdesign, and I know it’s true… so let’s read on…”. But unfortunately it proved to be much more than just a provocative sentence, since a few lines later:

In fact, nothing in Python makes it possible to enforce data hiding — it is all based upon convention.

OK. It took me a while to accept the argument that static typing can be too much of a cost in terms of verbosity compared to the poor protection it offers in terms of code correctness. But I said “OK, we’ll see how it looks when we come to real code”. But now they want me to forget about encapsulation too! What is the purpose of even writing a class then? What are you describing? A library of functions with a hidden first parameter? Is that it?

I mean, typing might be a unnecessary hurdle when writing unit test becomes much easier, but giving up on the behavior/state balance, the ability to describe what a class can do AND what it looks like, this is too much to ask.

So now what? Am I stuck between two extreme alternatives: either describe everything and waste energy doing it, or describe nothing a pray/ask for politeness?

And then I thought about LOP, and this interesting idea to decouple structure, syntax and semantics. After all, programming languages have entangled those three aspects for decades. And now both mainstream platforms (Java and .Net) are offering a variety of languages running on the same Virtual Machine. Isn’t that a first step in decoupling syntax on one side, structure and semantics on the other side?

Suddenly I’m starting to dream of a new syntax, far less verbose than the one of the Java programming language but with the same rigorous Object-Oriented structure, and the ability to run on all runtimes with different semantics…

What if the following Java code:

{code type=java}
public class TodoItem extends Item implements Synchronizable{
private String title;
public String getTitle(){return title;}
public void setTitle(String t){title=t;}

protected boolean done;

public TodoItem(String title){this.title=title;}

public void check(){done=true;}

Could be rewritten like this:
+ class TodoItem > Item @ Synchronizable
– title
+ <-
return title
+ -> t
title = t


init t
title = t;

+ check
done = true

…or something similar ;o)

The key ideas being:

  • Keep all the key concepts of OOP: encapsulation, inheritance, polymorphism, composition
  • Remove static type declaration: I don’t care that my hammer has a wood or a steel handle, but I need to know it has a handle.
  • Replace long keywords by well-identified signs
  • Replace “{}” and “;” by indentation (Python-like)
  • Add simple property syntax (I love the way ActionScript does it)

In other words, I’m looking for a middle-path alternative between Java and Python, between waste and pray, between overdesign and politeness. Does anyone know of a language that offers that kind of compromise? Does anyone know if it has already been tested but has proven to be a dead-end for some reason?

The End of an Era, the Beginning of a New One

I’m a pure product of the Object-Oriented Programming generation. I’ve experimented several different paradigms when I was in engineering school, including formal programming in B, functional programming in OCaml, logical programming with PROLOG and Eclipse (the programming language, not the IDE). But when I started writing software in high school, it was with TurboPascal and then Delphi. And the main language I’ve been using during my studies was Java.

During all that time, I essentially worked on relatively simple problematics, and my end-of-study project was the first one where I started to look for better ways to handle a more complex environment, namely web applications and web services. The revelation came from AndroMDA, an Open-Source Model-Driven Architecture framework that has been my main specialty and domain of research during the past three years or so. As a professional IT consultant, I’ve used it and promoted it on at least 3 customer projects with rather great success.

But today, I think this time is over. I’ll move on to the next step, my next toy. And if you’ve read my previous entry about the limitations of OOP and its comments, you might guess what it is. I was looking for a better way to tackle today’s software issues and go further in my philosophical goal to make technology useful, and I found it. It’s called Language-Oriented Programming.

If you want to know more about it and wonder why I moved onto this so quickly, here are the articles that hit me as another revelation during the past couple of days:

Now I think I’ll have a much closer look at the practical side of things:

All of my personal projects, including MobiMap, will certainly benefit from this new enlightenment. And I sincerely hope that my day-to-day job will give me the opportunity to work with those concepts…

What’s there after Objects?

As far as I can tell, there has been 3 major “revolutions” in software development since it all started:

  1. From binary to assembly language
  2. From assembly language to procedural languages
  3. From procedural languages to Object-Oriented Programming

Of course I’m not even talking about marginal evolutions like functional programming, scripting or formal programming.

And behind a revolution, there’s always a massive “there’s gotta be a better way” feeling. For assembly language people probably thought, “since we’re working with registers and memory addresses and instructions, let’s have readable forms of these concepts rather than just hexadecimal code, obviously we’re going to be more productive”. And then it was probably the same with procedural vs. OOP: Objects, classes, fields and methods were just closer to the kind concepts we were manipulating at some point and we couldn’t just keep tinkering with old paradigms, even on steroids (read structures and things like that).

Now I’m starting to wonder whether we’ve not come to the same point with OOP. At least I have come to this point myself. Objects, packages, components, whatever the granularity I’m still stuck having to tinker with old stuff to realize higher level tasks at some point. Most of the time, I’m not thinking about adding a field or a method in an object, but instead I want to add a property to an entity in my domain, or expose a business operation via a webservice. That’s the kind of tasks that make my day-to-day work. And still, let’s say I want to add a property to an entity in my domain, then I have to add the corresponding field in a class, write a getter and a setter, update the DDL script for the database, add the mapping to the Hibernate mapping file, add a validation directive somewhere… there’s gotta be a better way.

Now I realize that’s the main reason I love AndroMDA so much: because I can do high-level modifications in my UML models and boom! The generator just takes it over from there and updates the code almost everywhere it needs to be, which improves my productivity by a tremendous factor. Others use other tricks for the very same purpose: some use annotations, others turn to active record implementations. But whatever the trick, I feel more and more like it’s a dead-end, like… there’s gotta be a better way.

The closer the tools I’m using are to the concepts I manipulate, the less work I have to do to implement those concepts, the better it is for the whole project:

  • it reduces the probability for errors
  • it improves time-to-market
  • it frees up some time to focus on the real business at hand
  • it gives me a better sense of achievement
  • it dramatically improves return on investment since basically you’re doing more with less

Tonight I had a very interesting conversation with a very smart guy from the AndroMDA team, and it just appeared to me like magic: AndroMDA is just one way to cope with limitations of the underlying object-oriented paradigms, and we have to start thinking about how we can reach the same goals, but in a more native way. We need a brand new paradigm, a new way to build software closer to what we try to achieve everyday at a higher level.

What do you guys think? Have you heard of anything like that? Because I would be really interested in knowing about it. Otherwise, does anyone have any idea about what could be this new paradigm? And do you feel we need it? I’m really interested in your feedback on that one.