Recently I was given some job interview questions to prepare for. I decided to try writing my thoughts on the subjects. I had fun with it so I decided to clean them up a bit and make them blog posts.

Q: “Can you explain what inversion of control or dependency injection is and what benefit it provides?”

Dependency Injection/Inversion Of Control is a concept that came up in the theory around object-oriented programming some years back. The general idea is, you have some procedure in your program that needs to get at some data values, system resources, and other procedures to be able to do its job. When or how you specify all these things are a matter of how you design your code. Given an OO programming language, this procedure is probably a method on some class, so some things may have been specified to the objects’ constructor; others might be given as arguments to the method call. Or they may have been calculated, provided through setter methods, or constructed from other things in the meantime. The constructor is itself a method with parameters, whose job is to give you a new instance of this class, and those parameters can technically be anything or nothing, just like any other method. In between the constructor, other setup of state done beforehand within the class scope, and parameters, eventually the method has everything it needs if it is to work.

You find that in purely Functional Programming circles you rarely hear dependency injection talked about, let alone stressed about, the way it has in OO programming. At a basic level one could say that this because in these languages everything is made out of pure functions, so technically the only way to get things into a function is through its parameters, so you don’t have all these choices to weigh. This might sound like a nightmare if you care much about functions having a lot of parameters. But then that’s what closures are for, which are how FP “does” objects, as it turns out, and out of them you also get currying and monads.

In the early days of object orientation, as its dominance in industry was new, many design principles, patterns, and practices we’ve since come to take for granted were yet to grow. Much of the field was still thinking in Procedural or Structured Programming terms and was still figuring out how to use the tool of OO well. This is normal. I’ve since seen it happen with Actors and Microservices and arguably even Functional Programming, with three-quarters of a century of history behind it, is still lacking in some of this area.

Object Oriented programming languages’ native facility for invoking an object is to call a class constructor. Often there is a special language keyword to do this, such as new. If you need some kind of object, this is supposedly how you get it. If that constructor needs some other objects though, what does it do? It’s not entirely unreasonable to think that that constructor would go off and call other constructors and so people did that sort of thing a lot.

However, this started to lead to some nasty smells. One would find oneself writing constructors that need a whole lot of parameters, even if it’s just so it can pass most of those parameters on to other constructors; writing out the very long calls to those many-parametered constructors, “threading through” parameters from one class to another to another, and probably getting parameters in the wrong order several times and other prosaic human errors that happen when you’re dealing with complicated code. To make matters worse, you ended up with classes and methods that are bound to specific context-dependent things in your application and don’t easily generalize to other circumstances; OO’s promise of reusable code fails to come through. This got especially hairy with the growing popularity of unit testing and test-driven development – you would try to set up a test suite for some class in your code and find that you had to build out a whole hairball of stuff just to set up an instance to test on, and then someone would tell you that if you were doing that then it wasn’t true “unit” testing, and you’d throw up your hands and go back to your old ways.

Eventually some genius remembered that we can pass objects along as parameters too, so we could just build those downstream dependencies ahead of time and pass them in. “Injecting” your dependencies’ dependencies into them, instead of just letting your dependencies build all their own dependencies, this “inversion” of the “control” over dependencies, passed for enough of a mindshift to make it a buzzword.

Indeed, it was considered such a mindshift that people decided they couldn’t handle the responsibility themselves and needed to have frameworks called Dependency Injection “Containers” to do the heavy lifting. It was new’s fault for letting us call it wherever we want; instead we should let this container use reflection and/or big XML configuration files to find all the right things to plug into all the constructors for us so that wherever we wrote methods, whatever they needed could just be there. After all, “dependency resolution” was something of a solved problem in the realm of the installation of software. We had package systems for Linux distros, as well as those to manage library code our projects depend on. They build a data representation of what depends on what, and what other whats those whats depend on, on down to the whats that don’t depend on any other whats, and go and find the right versions of the right things and put them where they’re needed.

DI/IoC Containers caught on widely in the worlds of enterprise Java and C#. This way of handling dependencies within a project had apparent time-saving benefits due to what it lets you avoid thinking about, against the tradeoff that it gives you an incentive to not think about those things. When you write a class you simply stick on the annotation that plugs it into the DI container, and now you don’t have to think much about how to structure dependencies.

In practice, how this often plays out is that if you’re coding in some new functionality and want some dependency the class doesn’t already have in scope, you just add it to the constructor and keep going. Heck, often the IDE will just do it for you with a keyboard shortcut. You don’t care how long that constructor signature gets because you never have to write a call to it anyway. The constructor’s signatures get bigger and bigger and the import lists at the top of the files get longer and longer and your unit tests have to set up more and more mocks but because all this grew a little at a time you’ve stopped noticing it, like the people on Hoarders who are immune to the smell of their own homes. Without applying some design discipline, at the end of the day, this state of affairs is not only hardly better than just cramming a lot of stuff into a global namespace, it’s worse because it fills your code with boilerplate, and your classes lose all cohesion or real meaning beyond being arbitrary bags of dependencies. What’s a separation of concerns?

In Scala’s early days of aiming to be a “better Java”, they tried to improve on this with a scoping feature called implicit that ended up replicating similar problems in the form of a certain crime against humanity called the Cake Pattern. Implicits came to be widely hated, though maybe not always fairly; they ended up being repurposed to build out an FP concept called typeclasses, which sound awesome until you realize they’re kind of just interfaces.

DI/IoC containers continue to be popular, especially in the context of opinionated-architecture application frameworks in popular enterprise platforms/languages, and I’m able to work with them. When it’s up to me, however, I prefer to use basic constructor- or setter-based DI methods in a manner influenced by things like hexagonal/ports-and-adapters or DCI architectures. Even then, messes get made.

Got a programming topic you’d like me to rant on? Send it to hoff2 at HEY dot com.

Chuck Hoffman

Chuck Hoffman
I'm from Iowa. I sling code for a living and get pretty into it. I also do some fun things with experimental music and retro-tech.


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