Leaky Abstractions

12 Sep

As with nearly every issue in Software Engineering worth thinking about, Joel Spolsky has written an article about leaky abstractions that is very relevant to some problems I ran into tonight.

Abstractions do not really simplify our lives as much as they were meant to. […] all abstractions leak, and the only way to deal with the leaks competently is to learn about how the abstractions work and what they are abstracting. So the abstractions save us time working, but they don’t save us time learning […] and all this means that paradoxically, even as we have higher and higher level programming tools with better and better abstractions, becoming a proficient programmer is getting harder and harder

In my case, I was not working with programming tools per se, more of an abstraction of an abstraction built into the Grooveshark framework that is meant to make life as a programmer easier. And normally it does. But in this case, that abstraction was wrapped in a couple more layers of abstraction away from where my code needed the information, and somewhere in there the information was, for lack of a better description, being mangled. The particular form of mangling is actually due to a lower level abstraction at the DB layer, but is not handled in the higher level of abstraction because for most uses it doesn’t matter.

From the level of abstraction where my code was sitting, the information needed in order to un-mangle the data was simply not available. I went through the various layers to find a convenient place to put the un-mangling, but by the time I found a place, everything was so abstract that I couldn’t confidently modify that code and see all potential ramifications, so I just did an end-run around many of the layers of abstraction. This is certainly not ideal, but it works. The point is, an abstraction intended to make life as a programmer slightly easier most of the time, can easily make life as a programmer significantly more difficult on edge cases. Unfortunately, once a code base has been established, most cases are edge cases: feature additions, new products built on top of the old infrastructure, etc., all or most unforeseen, and therefore unaccounted for during the original design process.


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