The Transformation Priority Premise

I just read the most brilliant new idea that I’ve seen since I learned TDD and Refactoring ten years ago. Naturally, it comes from the brain of Uncle Bob Martin. It’s called “The Transformation Priority Premise.” I’ll describe it briefly here. But, if you want to really understand it, you should go read Uncle Bob’s blog yourself:

Ok… So, what is the Transformation Priority Premise?

If you are familiar with Test Driven Development, you know the phrase “red, green, refactor.” That phrase encapsulates the process of writing tests before you write the code:

  • Red = Write a failing test and watch it fail.
  • Green = Write just enough code to make the test pass.
  • Refactor = Remove any duplication in the code without changing it’s behavior (all tests should still pass).

And, if you’re familiar with Martin Fowler’s book “Refactoring,” you know that a refactoring is a simple change to the structure of the code that is guaranteed not to change the behavior of the code. These are things like:

  • Introduce Variable – Replaces a constant with a variable.
  • Extract Method – Extracts one of more lines of code from one method into another (new) method.
  • Rename – Renames a variable, method or class.

These changes are so easy to implement that we can actually build tools that do them for us. Visual Studio comes with a handful of built-in refactorings. ReSharper adds significantly to that list.

What Uncle Bob is proposing is that there are similarly simple “Transformations” that change the behavior of a code base. Furthermore, he states that there is an order or priority in which we should apply these transformations – from simple to complex. He proposes the following (admittedly incomplete and probably mis-ordered) list:

  • [] –> nil
  • nil –> constant
  • constant –> constant+
  • constant –> scalar
  • statement –> statements
  • unconditional –> if
  • scalar –> array
  • array –> container
  • statements –> recursion
  • if –> while
  • expression –> function
  • variable –> assignment

Don’t worry if that doesn’t make any sense. I really just blogged it so I’ll have a quick reference. But, what’s cool about them is that they can actually help us pick which tests we should write in what order. For example, if we decide to write a test that requires us to add an if statement to our code, that test requires the “unconditional –> if” transformation. Knowing that, we can try to think of other tests that rely solely on transformations higher up the list.

The ultimate reward is that by writing our tests using transformation priority order, we should not ever get to a point where one test causes us to rewrite an entire method. Furthermore, because these transformations are all relatively simple in and of themselves, smart tools vendors may be able to build support for them directly into tools like ReSharper.

I’ve probably just confused the heck out of you with all this. Suffice to say that Uncle Bob’s posts are excellent. They include source code that he uses to show you how not using the priority order causes pain, and how using the priority order resolves that pain.

What are you waiting for? Go read those posts!

(Oh, and for those of you unfamiliar with Uncle Bob’s work, he references something called a Kata several times. The term comes from martial arts. It refers to a movement that is practiced over and over and over until it becomes second nature. Think “wax on, wax off”. Uncle Bob is a big fan of solving the same problems over and over and over to gain new insights into the potential solutions. And, he’s published several Katas ranging from calculating a bowling score to identifying prime factors of an integer. They’re worth your time, too.)

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