The Pure Fabrication Tax

Last week, I attended the Maexle event of the C++ user group in Karlsruhe. The Maexle event is basically a programming contest where your program plays the Mia dice game against other programs. You have to implement a simple network protocol to join games, announce rolls and call bluffs. Your program earns points for every game it has participated and not lost. So there is a strong emphasis on starting early and staying in the game, even if your program doesn’t perform the best.

Since it was an event of the C++ user group, the programming language to be used was C++. I’m certainly no C++ hero and knew I couldn’t compete, so I joined the fun with an espionage role and programmed an observing bot that doesn’t play, but gathers data on the players. I chose Java for the task. My observer was online after two minutes, the first real player joined the server after 20 minutes. It turned out to be written in Python. The first real C++ bot was online after 35 minutes, the last one played its first round after two hours.

I listened closely to the problems the teams around me tackled and noticed something strange: Nobody talked about the actual game (Maexle/Mia). Every task was a technical one. Let’s talk about why that’s a problem.

Three Definitions

Before I dive into the subject, I want to define some terms that I’ll use to help you understand my point. It’s entirely possible to look at the story above and see a bunch of engineers having fun with some engineering tasks.

  • First, I value the economics of my customer. In this case, the customer is a lonely server on the LAN that wants to host some games of Maexle for bots. Like, lots of games. Thousands of games. The customer gives points for early market entry, so time to market is an economic factor (or a key performance indicator, some might say). You can roughly say that being online early means you can make bucks longer. The second key performance indicator is uptime. You want to stay in the game as long as you don’t lose all the time. There are some more KPI, but the two I’ve listed should have a major impact in your programming approach – if you value the economics.
  • Second, I don’t care about tools. A programming language is a tool. A compiler is a tool. Your IDE or text editor is a tool. Use your preferred tooling as long as it suits your needs. That means explicitely as long as it doesn’t actively work against your other values like the customer’s economics. This blog post is definitely not about Java or Python being “better” or “better suited” than C++. They aren’t. The first two bots (observer and player) were programmed by participants that had prior experience with the event. It wasn’t the tool that made them fast, it was the absence of rookie errors in the domain and its technical structure.
  • Third, I will explain my point with the concept of “pure fabrication. Pure fabrication is everything that is not specified by the customer, but necessary to fulfill the specification. It’s the code you write because your customer wants to persist some data. He never ordered you to write SQL statements or “open a connection to the database”, maybe he didn’t even know what a database was. Your customer wanted the data stored somehow. The code that enables you to actually program the storage is “pure fabrication” in terms of the domain. Think of it as a scaffolding holding your domain code in place. If you hire a painter to color your house, he will scaffold the walls to reach every spot with ease. You didn’t hire him to set those structures up, they are just necessary for the task. The difference to most of our code is that the painter removes the scaffolding afterwards.

Pure Fabrication vs. Domain

So, if I would have been a customer on the Maexle event, paying for a competitive Maexle bot, I would be very surprised about the actual construction process. Up to two hours into a three-hours event, my programmer would solve apparently hard and important problems, but not my problems. In fact, I wouldn’t even understand the relation between the attempted problems and my required solution. And I would have to have blind faith for more than half my money that something useable will come out of this.

This is the effect of too much pure fabrication in the programming approach. I’m all for solving hard programming problems, but I’m not interested in solving them over and over again. After some iterations, they become solved problems or, essentially, tools. And I don’t care about tools as long as they get their job done. If your domain problem requires a better tool, then we can put the programming problem on our todo list again. Otherwise, we are not valueing our customer’s economics, we are showing off to our peers.

If you program a simple game of Maexle with a heavy emphasis on time to market and even after the initial ramp up aren’t able to reason about your code using language from the domain (like game, dice, roll, bluff, double and, of course, mia), you are staying in pure fabrication land. That’s the level of programming where it matters if you used an integer or freed that memory. That’s when you pay the Pure Fabrication Tax to the fullest. Because your code now does something valueable in the domain, but the distance between your customer’s language and your code’s language is an hindrance. And this distance will demand its tax with every new feature, every change request and every bug.

Bugs are another area where the distance is measureable. If you can’t explain your bugs to the customer, you’ve made them in the pure fabrication part of your code. If you can never explain your bugs, your domain code is hidden between lines and lines of source code with lots of special characters, brackets and magic numbers. Just imagine your hired painter tries to tell you why your house is now pink instead of white or yellow: “It was a small mishap in the way we constructed the scaffolding, we used an E5 steel beam instead of a rail clamp and forgot to perform a hammer check on it”. The last part is totally made up, but I’m sure that’s how we sound for non-programmers.

Exemptions from the Tax?

What solution would I suggest? I don’t think there is a definite solution to the problem. You can’t go full Domain Driven Design on a three-hour Maexle event. By the time you’ve built your fancy Domain Specific Language to write code with the customer besides you, everybody else has gathered their game points and gone home. If you switch to a language that has a string tokenizer in its standard library, you can speed up your programming, but maybe just produce a bigger heap of slightly less low-leveled pure fabrication code.

I don’t want to advocate a solution. My attempt is to highlight the problem: The Pure Fabrication Tax. Given the right (or wrong) amount of extrinsic (or intrinsic) motivation, we are able to produce a mess in just a few hours without really connecting to the domain we produce the mess for. If we didn’t program a Maexle bot that night, but a poker bot or a chat bot, most if not all of the problems and bugs would have been the same. This is not a domain-specific problem. It’s our problem. We probably just like to pay the tax.

What are your thoughts on the Pure Fabrication Tax? Can you see it? Do you have an idea for a solution approach? Leave your comment below!

Disclaimer

And to counter everybody who thinks I’m just bashing the other participants on the event: I was the first one online on the server, with a task that requires virtually no effort and doesn’t even participate directly in the competition, with tools that solved nearly all my pure fabrication problems and still managed to create a program that contained less than five domain terms and was useless for its intended purpose. I said I value the economics of my customer (even if there was none), so I know that I failed hardest on the event. And I had prior knowledge. There was just nobody to compare my mess to.

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