Premature Generalization

I’m sure most developers reading this post will be familiar with the term “premature optimization”. For those who may not be familiar, this refers to the tendency that some developers have to worrying about the performance of their code, usually but not always in terms of execution time, before their code is proven to work correctly in terms of customer requirements. It’s like saying, “Hmm, this function call may take 3 clock cycles to execute but if I inline the code it won’t take any extra clock cycles” before the developer has correctly defined the function to be called. It’s generally considered a poor way to write software. I believe it was probably Joe Armstrong, one of the co-creators of Erlang, who said “Make it right, make it fast, then make it pretty.” Getting the code right always comes before any sort of optimization should be attempted.

Risking the perils that may befall anyone who coins a neologism, I propose another premature condition which developers should try to avoid: premature generalization. I would define premature generalization as being the tendency to assume that what you see or what you want is what every other developer sees and/or wants. It’s the tendency of the novice developer to post messages like “Hey function x isn’t working. What’s wrong?” assuming that the rest of us also have the problem they have and we therefore don’t need any more detail to know what he or she is talking about. It’s also the tendency to assume that because they need to address some particular use case that most developers working in the language will need to address the same use case: “Hey I need library function x to return an error status when I pass it a bad argument but throw an exception when I pass it a good but out of range argument. Can we modify the standard library to do this?” In both cases, I believe they’re prematurely assuming their question is generic and therefore they don’t need to provide details to others.

Although I feel I’m flogging a dead equine I hasten to point out that as software developers we should usually proceed from the assumption that the error we’re seeing is due to something specific to us. We should also proceed from the assumption that any use case we have is likely to be a use case specific to us until we see evidence otherwise. Yes, I am aware of the irony of making generic statements here—but given what I’ve seen over 25+ years of software development I don’t believe that I’m indulging myself in premature generalization.

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