Book review: Clean Architecture by Robert C. Martin

In 2008, a book changed the way software developers around the globe talked (and hopefully) acted about their code. Robert C. Martin’s “Clean Code” was and still is a cornerstone of modern software development. The book itself is remarkably weak in its code examples, but has strong and effective messages on the level of practices and principles. Even today, ten years later, this is the one book that most of my students read and are passionate about. It’s a book that speaks reason to them, albeit with some contortion because of high volume. Robert C. Martin has the tendency to preach 200 percent in order to still get the half-convinced to an acceptable level.

So when a new book from him, called “Clean Architecture”, appeared on the horizon, I was thrilled. Would it be groundbreaking like “Clean Code” or a dud like “The Clean Coder” (sorry, my opinion – this is a personal review, not an academic evaluation)? I’ve read some very good books about software development (like “The Pragmatic Programmer”), fantastic books about programming (“Refactoring” and “Working Effectively With Legacy Code” come to mind) and even some mind-blowing pieces about design and emerging architecture (my first read of “Growing Object-Oriented Software, Guided by Tests” felt like a personal audience with Steve Freeman and Nat Pryce). But all these books dealt with tactics, with the immediacies of software development. Don’t get me wrong! This is the most important part and it helped me tremendously. But there are parts “above” the footwork that needs to be addressed in bigger systems, too.

And there, the literature got thin or stale. Books about software architecture talked about large-scale architectures (so-called “enterprise scale” systems that span from horizon to horizon, like in “Patterns of Enterprise Application Architecture”) or had the taste of dry plywood because it was clear that the findings were from another era and would translate badly into modern software development.

“Clean Architecture” begins with a quick and focused overview over the current programming paradigms and a conclusion that there are no different “eras”. We didn’t get better in designing systems, we just changed the aroma and color of our failures. Future generations will look at our code and architectures as scornful as we looked at the ruins of the systems of our ancestors. And make no mistake – the ruins are still in production today! We cannot place our hope on another new and liberating programming paradigm because there probably won’t be one. We have to make do with what we have.

This is the first six chapters of “Clean Archicture”. The chapters are short and on point and I loved every line of it. It probably isn’t the most comprehensive and balanced description of structured, object-oriented and functional programming, but it provides a narrative that is intuitive and convincing – your mileage may vary, I was hooked.

In the next five chapters, Robert C. Martin reiterates the known SOLID design principles. I rolled my eyes when I glanced the content because I’ve read it like a hundred times in maybe as many books. But I decided to read it once more and I’m glad I did. The principles are known, but the underlying revelation is woven into the text like a good thriller. I hesitate to give away too much, because I really think this book can be spoiled – just like a good thriller. I was sold. Robert C. Martin can explain the same old SOLID to me and I still learn something and have fun.

Then, the part about components. It feels like an intermezzo to an even better thriller, because suddenly there is math and formulas. Its interesting and noteworthy, but if you followed the metrics discussion in the last fifteen years, the excitement of this part will be dampened.

But wait, there is more! Starting with page 133 of 321 (yeah, the Appendix is interesting, but more in the “The Clean Coder” way of things), there is the central question: “What is Architecture?”. There it was again, the thrill that in every line, there could be insights that are worth weeks of thoughts. I read this part in the train from south to north germany and I stared out of the window often, following my own train of thoughts.

Again, no spoilers, but the way the answers are given is so refreshing and the answer itself is so simple that I’m surprised that it took me this long to not come to the same conclusion. Software architecture lost some of its mysticism, but gained a lot of applicability for me. I was spent (in a good way).

And then, on page 200, finally, “The Clean Archicture”. Well, I watched all the trailers on this topic, so my surprise wasn’t really there, but with all the knowledge and insights from the first 200 pages, I could have “invented” the Clean Architecture by myself then and there. It’s more or less the logical next step from the prerequisites. I applaud this masterwork of storytelling, because it doesn’t overwhelm the reader with the genius of the narrator, it drives him to connect the dots himself.

The rest of the book, like the title of part VI, are just “Details”. The central message  – The Dependency Rule, this little spoiler should be allowed – is simple, convincing and deduced from the beginning. I’ve seen the heart of software architecture and it is beautiful.

I even forgive the many typos and grammatical errors (far more than usual) and the bulky appendix for this ride. This book is definitely up there with “Clean Code”. It is accessible, has a clear message and profound effects. And it refrains from preaching most of the time. No need to turn it up to 200 percent when your message is so convincing in itself.

Conclusion: If you are interested in software development with a structure, go grab this book as soon as possible. We’ve waited long enough!

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