Refactoring to Patterns? No, learn the primitives.

Last night at XPSTL, John Sextro gave a talk on the “Move Embellishment to Decorator” refactoring as described in Joshua Kerievsky’s Refactoring to Patterns book. I greatly enjoyed and benefitted from the original Design Patterns book (from the Gang of Four) which was already old (published 1994) when I heard about it and bought it in 1998. (By the way, when I looked it up on Amazon to put in the link above, Amazon reminded me that: “You purchased this item on February 18, 1998”.)

I enjoyed John’s talk, and I hope he does more of them.  He hit a few rough spots along the way (the usually excellent IntelliJ IDEA IDE failed mysteriously, for example), but worked through it and reached the target of composable decorators. The rough spots led to some interesting diversions also.
I’m not sold on the “refactoring to patterns” idea though; it seems like a distraction from a more important goal: to gain deep experience and understanding of how to use the underlying “primitives” (encapsulation, abstraction, polymorpism, low coupling, high cohesion, etc.). Once you grasp the primitives, the design patterns are useful mainly as a tool for talking about how something works – in other words, write good code, then perhaps notice that it follows one of the “patterns”, if you find that helpful in explaining how the code works.

Several times at XPSTL, we’ve had lengthy conversations about how to choose whether to use “Strategy” or “Command” or “Decorator” or …. I’m not convinced that these conversations are helpful. My answer is that it is silly to look for a list of rules in choosing which pattern to use. Read the patterns, use them to learn good ways to use and combine the primitives. Then do that in your code:

  • Notice that you can benefit from polymorphism, and use it.
  • Notice that you can split a class in to two separately cohesive parts, and do so.
  • Notice that you could get composability by replacing inheritance with aggregation, and so so.

You’ll end up with the right “Pattern” – and you probably won’t care.