Building For Change

Years ago, when working on an early client's PHP app, we referenced database columns by position. So, if we ran a SQL query that returned columns id, first_name, and last_name in that order, we'd pull them out by referencing something like $columns[0] for id, $columns[1] for the first name, and so on.

There are two problems with this approach:

  1. $columns[1] has little semantic meaning, unless you already know what the second column returned was, which it's easy to forget.
  2. It's really easy to update the SQL query later, and completely ruin your app.

The latter issue is the worst. If you modify the query to return id, prefix, first_name, last_name, you just broke all of the positional references. Time to go update every reference to $columns in the app! And even worse if it's some kind of stored procedure that was changed without you knowing. Now the site's just broke.


Most folks don't reference database columns by position anymore because of that type of fragility. But I see folks frequently doing the same thing without realizing it.

Let's say you're building an API client in Rails. You're going to call a User API, get a list of managers, and save them to your database. Example code might look like: < ruby users = 'Manager') users.each do |user_hash| Manager.create(user_hash) end

You've just made the same mistake that we made back in our positional-database PHP days! If your User API starts returning attributes your database doesn't know about, Manager.create will bomb out. A change from outside has caused your app to crash.

Building For Change

Think about how web browsers work. If your browser sees a tag it doesn't know, it doesn't vomit, it's just ignored. Or, <input> tags: if the type is unknown, browsers default down to a text field. When new input types are introduced (like date), your browser either knows about it and shows a fancy datepicker, or it doesn't and you just see a regular text entry field, which still works.

One way we might change our User API example above is to #slice our incoming user_hash:

users = 'Manager')
users.each do |user_hash|
  Manager.create(user_hash.slice(:id, :first_name, :last_name))

This way, if the APi we're working with returns extra data we're not interested, we don't crash!

It's a little harder, though, if the API suddenly stops returning data that you require.

When writing an API, think about how your changes will affect clients. Returning more data than users are expecting is generally fine. But whenever you want to remove data, you need to consider creating a new version of the API, so that users of the current version don't suddenly find themselves without data they were depending on.

It's easy to get yourself into these types of traps if you're not expecting them, but thankfully spotting and avoiding them is also pretty easy. With a little forethought, it's easy to build systems that are robust in the face of unexpected external changes.

This post was inspired by various work conversations, as well as several points raised in Ruby Rogues #172: Extreme Deployment.