Jef Claes

On software and life

25 Aug 2013

Inheritance is like Jenga

These last few days, I have been working on a piece of our codebase that accidentally got very inheritance heavy.

When it comes to inheritance versus composition, there are a few widely accepted rules of thumb out there. While prefer composition over inheritance doesn’t cover the nuances, it’s not terrible advice; composition will statistically often be the better solution. Steve McConnell’s composition defines a ‘has a’- relationship while inheritance defines an ‘is a’-relationship, gives you a more nuanced and simple tool to apply to a scenario. The Liskov substitution principle which states that, if S is a subtype of T, then objects of T may be replaced with objects of type S without any of the desirable properties of that program, is probably the most complete advice.

Inheritance, when applied with the wrong motivations - reuse and such, often leads to fragile monster class hierarchies which are too big to wrap your head around and extremely hard to change.

When I was working on such a monstrous hierarchy, it reminded me of playing Jenga. Some time not that long ago, someone had built this tower from the ground, laying block over block, layer over layer. On the surface it appears to be stable and rigid, but as soon as someone wants to winkle out one block, it becomes obvious one block can bring down the whole structure. The lower the block in the structure, the more layers rest on it, the greater the risk of breaking everything on top. Even if you do succeed in pulling one block out, chances are you had to touch the surrounding blocks to prevent the tower from tumbling over.

Instead of Jenga, I’d prefer a puzzle made of just a few pieces - designed for toddlers. A puzzle is flat, you can see the big picture in one glance, while you can reason about each piece individually as well. As long as the edges of the pieces fit together, you can assemble whatever picture you want.