Why Over-Reusing is Bad

One of the Holy Grails of software development has always been reuse. In the following post I want to focus on reuse of application logic in its different forms. I will not cover reuse on more abstract levels like ideas or patterns. This will be a two part series where I explore this topic from both backend and frontend development perspective.

I believe in the following idea:

It does not matter how fast you can build the first version of your product. It only matters how fast you can change it later.

On the backend the predominant paradigm right now is microservices. I believe that one of the reasons why this approach is so successful is that it gets reuse quite right. Microservices are really good blocks for reuse as they align very well with the idea of splitting big system into multiple smaller bounded contexts. As per the concept of bounded context reusing any parts of the internal logic between different microservices is considered an anti-pattern.

Changing Shared Code is Inherently Hard

But what is so bad about sharing code? Isn't it something good that we should always strive for? Before answering lets take a step back. Why do we want to reuse stuff? Because we want to be able to change fast. Now here comes the paradox — by reusing code that has been already written we are able to save some coding time but everything that is shared inherently becomes itself harder to change. This is so because once our reusable thingy is out there we need to keep all the consumers in mind when changing it. As the number of consumers grows the harder it becomes to juggle between different requirements, nuances of each context. Essentially the risk of reusing the wrong abstraction grows over time. It is just so easy to introduce these tiny additional parameters that enable reusing maybe not all but perhaps something like 80% of the original logic or 60% or 40%.

The Knowledge Cap

Knowledge cap is another thing to keep in mind. As software development is about building knowledge then any piece that is built by someone else means we will have a potential cap in our team's knowledge. This happens even when this someone else is another team in the same organisation. Often this loss of knowledge is quite OK and totally fine - we don't want every team to re-implement their versions of AND/OR gates. However, ideally all the assets that are at the core of what the team is doing should be developed by the team itself.

Frequency of Change

In general we can say that reuse makes more sense for more peripheral/infrastructure things like accessing database or doing http calls. However, if some part of our infrastructure code needs to be changed very frequently then it might still make sense to roll out our own technical solution. Ideally high frequency of change means that it is somehow tied to the unique value proposition of our product and extra implementation effort makes sense anyway. So frequency of change should be at least as important (if not more) factor in deciding whether to reuse vs build ourselves.

Clear Boundaries

In case we need to reuse something then the best thing we can do is to make the boundaries of our code and the reused code as clear as possible. This is the reason why microservices offer superior form of reuse compared to components running in the same process. It requires much more discipline to keep the connection points few and explicit when something resides in the same process as opposed to something that lives on the other side of the network.

So reuse by itself is not bad. However, reuse on the wrong level of granularity or forcefully trying to reuse everything that looks similar at first sight can be much more harmful than duplication. Reuse has a cost as well.