Pragmatic Deferral

Software engineering is often about selecting the right trade offs. While deferring feature development is often somewhat straight-forward, based upon a speculation about the return on investment, and generally decided by the customer; marketing; sales; or product people; low-level implementation decisions are typically made by the development team or individual developers and can often prove to be a bit more contentious among teams with a plurality of strong opinions. This is where principles like YAGNI (You’re Aren’t Going to Need It), or the Rule of Three have often been set forth as a guiding heuristic.

While I generally advise the teams I coach to allow the executable specifications (i.e. the tests) to drive emergent design and to defer the introduction of ancillary libraries, frameworks, patterns, and custom infrastructure, until you need it, there is a level of pragmatism that I employee when determining when to introduce such things.

I’ve been a fan of Test-Driven Development for some time now and have practiced it for over a decade. One of the primary benefits of Test-Driven Development is having an objective measure guiding what needs to get built. For example, if the acceptance criteria for a User Story concerns building a new Web API for a company’s custom B2B solution, your specs are going to drive out some sort of HTTP-based API. What the specs won’t dictate, however, are decisions such as whether to use an MVC framework, an IOC container, whether to introduce a fluent validation library or an object mapping library. Should we adhere strictly to principles like YAGNI or the Rule of Three for guidance here? My answer is: it depends.

Deferring software decisions comes with quite a range of consequences. Some decisions, such as whether to select ASP.NET MVC at the outset of a .Net-based Web application, could cause quite a bit of rework if you were to defer such a decision until working with lower-level components started to reveal friction or duplication. Other decisions, such as deferring the introduction of an object mapping library (e.g. Automapper) until the shape of the objects you’re returning actually differ from your entities essentially have only positive consequences. But how do we know?

The YAGNI principle is very similar to the firearm safety rule “The Gun is Always Loaded”. No, the gun isn’t always loaded … but it’s best to treat it like it is. Similarly, “You aren’t going to need it” doesn’t really mean you may not need it, but it’s intended to help you avoid unnecessary work. That is, until it causes more work.

In software engineering, the more you code, the more you’ll have to maintain. The Art of Not Doing Stuff, when correctly applied, can save companies as much or more money than building the right things. While I’m not religious these days, there’s a definition of the term “Hermeneutics” that I heard years ago from a Christian radio personality, Hank Hanegraaff. He would say: “Hermeneutics is the art and science of biblical interpretation”. He would go on to explain, it’s a science because it’s guided by a system of rules, but it’s an art in that you get better at it the more you do it. Having heard that explanation years ago, I have long felt these properties are equally descriptive of software development.

For myself, I take a pragmatic approach to YAGNI in that I make selections for a number of things at the outset of a new project which I’ve recognized, through experience, have resulted in less friction down the road; and I defer choices which I reason to have little to no cost by implementing at the point a given User Story’s acceptance criteria drives the need. For example, I do start off setting up a Web project using ASP.NET MVC. I do set up end-to-end testing infrastructure. I do add an open source DI container and set up convention-based registration. These are things which I’ve found actually cause me more friction if I pretend I’m not going to need them. I don’t want to implement my own IHttpHandler and wait until I see the need for a robust routing and pipeline framework and have to go back and reimplement everything. I don’t want to be hand-rolling factories over and over and have to go back and modify code at the point enough duplication reveals the need for dependency injection, and I don’t want to edit a Startup.cs or other bootstrapper component each time a component has a new dependency. Outside of these few concerns, however, I do typically defer things until needed.

Ultimately, this pragmatism isn’t an exception to the YAGNI rule so much as it is a judicial application of YAGNI within a larger strategy of practicing the art of maximizing the amount of work not done. In short, apply YAGNI when it makes you more agile, not less.

Magical Joy