Ruby Accessors Considered Pernicious

One Ruby feature I fell in love with is the ability to define methods like foo and foo= which are used like simple variable accessors. This can be a very powerful abstraction. Yet now I'm convinced that putting logic in these accessors is often the wrong tool for the job.

The entire beauty of such methods is that they appear to be simple accessors, emulating a struct, but they can execute arbitrary logic behind the scenes. This means you can define Tweet#text and it can pretend to have its content on hand, while in reality it's actually making an HTTP request!

The problem is, life isn't that simple. Anything more complex than an actual getter or setter, whether reading the contents of a file, making an HTTP or TCP request, or executing some SQL, has the capacity to fail.

And when these actions fail, we typically have some Plan B that's not just "oh no everyone panic!" (which is exactly what letting the exception get to the top level does). Plus, it's unsightly to wrap simple accessor expressions in begin/rescue/end blocks.

There are also times when an API doesn't make it clear that some expression which looks like a simple accessor actually has the potential to throw custom exceptions of some kind. This is especially true when we learn about an API via pry or some other dynamic introspection tool. So even if we wanted to, we might not even realize that we need to wrap such a statement with a rescue block.

A simple and effective alternative is to execute such actions using explicit, non-accessor methods. Instead of every accessor on Tweet making real HTTP requests, they could really be simple accessors. We could then add two new methods, #save and #load, which could do the HTTP interaction and store fetched data on the object. If we designed our API like this, all of Tweet's methods would benefit from having an obvious and predictable behavior.

Custom accessors are great when dealing with calculated or derivative fields, such as deriving full_name when you already have first_name and last_name, or for various mathematical calculations. We should be kind to our fellow developers and design our APIs to be predictable by restricting our usage of custom accessor-like methods to these trivial cases and leaving the heavy lifting to explicit methods.

Steven Degutis has worked with a variety of programming languages including Ruby, Python, Objective-C, Clojure, C, and Go.