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Question to consider when designing APIs: Part II

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In the <a href="{app}/view_article.php?id=377">previous article</a>, we listed a lot of questions that you should continuously ask yourself when you're writing code. Even when you think you're not designing anything, you're actually making decisions that will affect either other team members or <i>future versions of you</i>. In particular, we'd like to think about how we can reconcile a development process that involves asking so many questions and taking so many facets into consideration with <abbr title="You Ain't Gonna Need It">YAGNI</abbr>. <h>Designing != Implementing</h> The implication of this principle is, that if you aren't going to <i>need</i> something, then there's no point in even thinking about it. While it's absolutely commendable to adopt a YAGNI attitude, not <i>building</i> something doesn't mean not <i>thinking</i> about it and identifying potential pitfalls. A feature or design concept can be discussed within a time-box. Allocate a fixed, limited amount of time to determine whether the feature or design concept needs to be incorporated, whether it would be nice to incorporate it or possibly to jettison it if it's too much work and isn't really necessary. The overwhelming majority of time wasted on a feature is in the implementation, debugging, testing, documentation and maintenance of it, not in the design. Granted, a long design phase can be a time-sink---especially a "perfect is the enemy of the good" style of design where you're completely blocked from even starting work. With practice, however, you'll learn how to think about a feature or design concept (e.g. extensibility) without letting it ruin your schedule. If you don't try to anticipate future needs at all while designing your API, you may end up preventing that API from being extended in directions that are both logical and could easily have been anticipated. If the API is not extensible, then it will not be used and may have to be rewritten in the future, losing more time at that point rather than up front. This is, however, only a consideration you must make. It's perfectly acceptable to decide that you currently don't care at all and that a feature will have to be rewritten at some point in the future. You can't do this kind of cost-benefit analysis and risk-management if you haven't taken time to identify the costs, benefits or risks. <h>Document your process</h> At Encodo, we encourage the person who's already spent time thinking about this problem to simply document the drawbacks and concessions and possible ideas in an issue-tracker entry that is linked to the current implementation. This allows future users, maintainers or extenders of the API to be aware of the thought process that underlies a feature. It can also help to avoid misunderstandings about what the intended audience and coverage of an API are. The idea is to eliminate <i>assumptions</i>. A lot of time can be wasted when maintenance developers make incorrect assumptions about the intent of code. If you don't have time to do any of this, then you can write a quick note in a task list that you need to more fully document your thoughts on the code you're writing. And you should try to do that soon, while the ideas are still relatively fresh in your mind. If you don't have time to think about what you're doing even to that degree, then you're doing something wrong and need to get organized better. That is, you if you can't think about the code you're writing and don't have time to document your process, even minimally, then you shouldn't be writing that code. Either that, or you implicitly accept that others will have to clean up your mess. And "others" includes future versions of <i>you</i>. (E.g. the you who, six months from now, is muttering, <iq>who <i>wrote</i> this crap?!?</iq>) <h>Be Honest about Hacking</h> As an example, we can consider how we go from a specific feature in the context of a project to thinking about where the functionality could fit in to a suite of products---that may or may not yet exist. And remember, we're only <i>thinking</i> about these things. And we're thinking about them for a limited time---a time-box. You don't want to prevent your project from moving forward, but you also don't want to advance at all costs. Advancing in an unstructured way is called hacking and, while it can lead to a short-term win, it almost always leads to short-to-medium term deficits. You can still write code that is hacked and looks hacked, if that is the highest current priority, but you're not allowed to forget that you did so. You must officially designate what you're doing as a hot-zone of hacking so that the Hazmat team can clean it up later, if needed. A working prototype that is hacked together just so it works for the next demonstration is great as long as you don't think that you can take it into production without doing the design and documentation work that you initially skipped. If you fail to document the deficits that prevent you from taking a prototype to production, then how will you address those deficits? It will cost you much more time and pain to determine the deficits after the fact. Not only that, but unless you do a very good job, it is your users that will most likely be finding deficits---in the form of bugs. If your product is just a hacked mess of spaghetti code with no rhyme or reason, another developer will be faster and produce more reliable code by just starting over. Trying to determine the flaws, drawbacks and hacks through intuition and reverse-engineering is slower and more error-prone than just starting with a clean slate. Developers on such a project will not be able to save time---and money---by building on what you've already made. <h>A note on error-handling</h> Not to be forgotten is a structured approach to error-handling. The more "hacked" the code, the more stringent the error-checking should be. If you haven't had time yet to write or test code sufficiently, then that code shouldn't be making broad decisions about what it thinks are acceptable errors. Fail early, fail often. Don't try to make a hacked mess of code bullet-proof by catching all errors in an undocumented manner. Doing so is deceptive to testers of the product as well as other developers. If you're building a demo, make sure the happy path works and stick to it during the demo. If you do have to break this rule, add the hacks to a demo-specific branch of the code that will be discarded later. <h>Working with a documented project</h> If, however, the developer can look at your code and sees accompanying notes (either in an issue tracker, as TODOs in the code or some other form of documentation), that developer knows where to start fixing the code to bring it to production quality. For example, it's acceptable to configure an application in code as long as you do it in a central place and you document that the intent is to move the configuration to an external source when there's time. If a future developer finds code for support for multiple database connections and tests that are set to ignore with a note/issue that says "extend to support multiple databases", that future developer can decide whether to actually implement the feature or whether to just discard it because it has been deprecated as a requirement. Without documentation or structure or an indication which parts of the code were thought-through and which are considered to be hacked, subsequent developers are forced to make assumptions that may not be accurate. They will either assume that hacked code is OK or that battle-tested code is garbage. If you don't inform other developers of your intent when your're writing the code---best done with documentation, tests and/or a cleanly designed API---then it might be discarded or ignored, wasting even more time and money. If you're on a really tight time-budget and don't have time to document your process correctly, then write a quick note that you think the design is OK or the code is OK, but tell your future self or other developers what they're looking at. It will only take you a few minutes and you'll be glad you did---and so will they.