AnswerDon't stop with the first DSL abstraction

time to read 5 min | 801 words

The problem as it was stated was of rules that looked like this:

upon bounced_check or refused_credit:
	if customer.TotalPurchases > 10000: # preferred
		call_the cops 

upon new_order:
	if customer.TotalPurchases > 10000: # preferred
		apply_discount 5.precent 

upon order_shipped:
	send_marketing_stuff unless customer.RequestedNoSpam 

I don't like it, and the reason isn't just that we can introduce IsPreferred.

I don't like it because the abstraction facilities here are poor. We have basically introduced events and business rules, maybe with a sprinkling of a domain model, but nothing really meaningful. Such system will die under their own weight in any situation of significant complexity (in other words, in all real world situations).

Let us consider the problem in reverse, shall we? We have various conditions and actions upon which we can act. But the logic is scattered all over the place, making it hard to read, modify, understand and work with. When such a system compose of the lifeblood of the business, the business usually adapts, and starts to talk in the terms of the system. However, they tend to lose the ability to think about things in way that would be more meaningful.

I listened today to a business person trying to explain some concept that he wanted to make. It took him several tries to explain the business problem because he was focused on the technical one. The system has a corrupting affect on it. I call this the Babel Syndrome, the reverse of DDD's ubiquitous language.

Let us see if we can get a high level of meaning out of the above DSL, shall we? First, we restate our problem, instead of dealing with events and conditions for responding the events, we deal with business responses for scenarios. It doesn't sound like much of a difference, but in actuality, there is a big difference between the two.

The most important of those differences is the change from handling the events to handling a business scenario in a given context. In other words, instead of asking what we should do when a check is bounced, we need to ask a totally different question. "When the customer is preferred, what should the response be for bounced check?"

This is anything but a minor change in the the way we think about the language and how we operate on it. Let us see the DSL script, after which we can discuss how it affects us. These are the contents of the file:

upon order_shipped:
	send_marketing_stuff unless customer.RequestedNoSpam

upon bounced_check or refused_credit: 
call_the cops

This will be executed for all orders, like before. Now, let us look at, and what concepts it express.

when customer.TotalPurchases > 10000 # preferred

upon new_order:
	apply_discount 5.precents

upon bounced_check or refused_credit:

And now we are getting to see some of the more interesting parts of the difference. We are now talking in terms of a business scenario. When we have a preferred customer, and something happen, how should we respond?

This change is a well known refactoring: conditional to polymorphism. In other words, we just created the strategy pattern with a DSL. The difference here is that the script have an active role in deciding whatever it can deal with the scenario or not (in other words, chain of responsibility, and the pattern I am going to mention).

When we need to handle some business scenario, we are going to execute all the scripts, with the being the last one to run. If any of the scripts accepted the scenario as valid and has specific action to take, it has the option to do so.

Enough about the implementation, let us go back to the concepts. We can make now talk to the business people in a way that is far more concise and natural. Instead of having to focus on all permutations of a possible event, we can now talking about a specific scenario and how we handle the business event in that context. Not only is this more readable, it is easier by far to actually define such things as what is the meaning of a preferred customer. I can open the DSL and actually read it.

Similar approaches are very useful when you recognize that the code is asking to be given a more explicit shape than just generic rules. Don't let your DSL be whatever you started with. Find and actively extract higher level meanings whenever it is possible.

A deeper examination of this DSL, how to build and use it is likely to compose most of chapter 13, as a real world example of a complex DSL. Who do you think?

Given this approach, how would you design an offer management DSL?

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