Practicing boundaries

Code which is loosely-coupled is easier to work with. It’s easy to say, right? I find a lot of software patterns sound really nice, but it can be hard to apply them. And for that, examples always help!

I’ve been trying to pay more attention to this rule recently, and I found a good example yesterday in some code I was writing.

How it started

I’m working on a feature that needs to accept a CSV containing rows of account details, and apply those changes to each account. Even from that simple sentence alone, a pretty obvious boundary emerges:

accept a CSV … and apply changes to each account

If we decouple the CSV handling from the business logic for processing each row, we’re in good shape.

Here’s what I started with (and no, we don’t actually track our users’ favourite tea, but wouldn’t that be nice 😌):

class ImportCsvController < ApplicationController
  def create
    csv = CSV.parse(params[:file][:content], headers: true)
    csv.each do |row|!
class AccountUpdater
  attr_reader :row

  def initialize(row)
    @row = row

  def update!
    account_id = row["Account Id"]
    favourite_tea = row["Favourite Tea"]

      .update!(favourite_tea: favourite_tea)

Here we can see the boundary in action: the controller handles the nitty-gritty of parsing the CSV file, and AccountUpdater just receives some data and updates the account.

But once I had finished and I was looking it over again, I realized I had still broken a boundary. Can you spot it?

The (hidden?) dependency

It might look like AccountUpdater doesn’t have a dependency on the CSV, but it absolutely does:

csv.each do |row|!

In order to provide AccountUpdater with the data it needs, we’re passing in the row that we parsed from the CSV. Since we used CSV.parse with the headers option, we at least get a nice Hash-like object to work with…

{ "Account Id" => "123", "Favourite Tea" => "Assam" }

… however, we’re still leaking knowledge about the format of our CSV into AccountUpdater: it knows about our columns named "Account Id" and "Favourite Tea". We have subtly embedded knowledge about the structure of our user input into a class that should have no business handling user input.

How it’s going

As soon as I realized this, I pulled that knowledge back up into the controller:

csv.each do |row|
    account_id: row["Account Id"],
    favourite_tea: row["Favourite Tea"]
class AccountUpdater
  attr_reader :account_id, :favourite_tea

  def initialize(account_id:, favourite_tea:)
    @account_id = account_id
    @favourite_tea = favourite_tea


Now, we’re using keyword arguments to create a simple boundary between the structure of the CSV data and the data that AccountUpdater needs.

Lessons learned

By taking a closer look at our boundaries, we managed to create an even sharper delineation. Now, our user input is completely decoupled from our business logic, and both classes should be easier to change in the future.