Ruby Advanced Class Methods Readme

Objectives

  1. Build class finders
  2. Build class constructors
  3. Build class operators

Advanced Class Methods

Consider the method .all on the Song class, Song.all. This method acts as a reader for the @@all class variable. This method exposes this piece of data to the rest of our application. Class methods provide an interface for the data held within a class. This data, stored in a class variable, would otherwise be inaccessible outside of the class:

class Song
  attr_accessor :name
  @@all = []

  def initialize(name)
    @name = name
  end

  def self.all
    @@all
  end

end

self.all is a class method for reading the data stored in the class variable@@all. This is a class reader, very similar to an instance reader method that reads an instance property:

tim = Person.new("Tim")
tim.name #=> "Tim"

What else can class methods help us with? What other common class-level functionality can be exposed through class methods?

Class Finders

Imagine a Person class that provides access to all of its instances through Person.all

class Person
  attr_accessor :name
  @@all = []

  def initialize(name)
    @name = name
    @@all << self
  end

  def self.all
    @@all
  end

end

grace_hopper = Person.new("Grace Hopper")
sandi_metz = Person.new("Sandi Metz")

Person.all #=> [#<Person @name="Grace Hopper">,
                #<Person @name="Sandi Metz">]

How might you find a specific person by name given this Person model?

class Person
  attr_accessor :name
  @@all = []

  def initialize(name)
    @name = name
    @@all << self
  end

  def self.all
    @@all
  end

end

Person.new("Grace Hopper")
Person.new("Sandi Metz")

sandi_metz = Person.all.find{|person| person.name == "Sandi Metz"}
sandi_metz #=> #<Person @name="Sandi Metz">

grace_hopper = Person.all.find{|person| person.name == "Grace Hopper"}
grace_hopper #=> #<Person @name="Grace Hopper">

avi_flombaum = Person.all.find{|person| person.name == "Avi Flombaum"}
avi_flombaum #=> nil

Every time your application requires you to find a particular person by name, you will have to use #find, passing in the appropriate block. This stinks! Imagine how unsustainable it will get to write out Person.all.find over and over as your application grows.

There's Gotta Be a Better Way!

Home Video Infomercial GIF


Instead of writing #find every time we want to search for an object, we can encapsulate this logic into a class method, like Person.find_by_name. Instead of writing:

Person.find{|p| p.name == "Grace Hopper"}

every single time we need to search, we can simply teach our Person class how to search by defining a class method:

class Person
  attr_accessor :name
  @@all = []

  def initialize(name)
    @name = name
    @@all << self
  end

  def self.all
    @@all
  end

  def self.find_by_name(name)
    @@all.find{|person| person.name == name}
  end

end

Person.new("Grace Hopper")
Person.new("Sandi Metz")

sandi_metz = Person.find_by_name("Sandi Metz")
sandi_metz #=> #<Person @name="Sandi Metz">

grace_hopper = Person.find_by_name("Grace Hopper")
grace_hopper #=> #<Person @name="Grace Hopper">

avi_flombaum = Person.find_by_name("Avi Flombaum")
avi_flombaum #=> nil

We call class methods like Person.find_by_name 'finders'. Finder class methods are responsible for finding instances based on some property or condition.

Slight Digression on Abstraction:

But we can improve the code above slightly. Code that relies on abstraction is more maintainable and extendable over time. In general, we advance as a species and a civilization when technology provides an abstraction for us to use instead of the literal implementation. When you want light, you don't need to start a fire, you can just flick a light switch. This is an abstraction. We promise. If creating and using abstractions have gotten people this far, we should probably continue embracing that design principle in our code.

Cool Tangent but What Can We Abstract Away Here?

Our current implementation of Person.find_by_name reads the instance data for the class directly out of the class variable @@all. Would this break if we need to rename the @@all variable? What if it makes more sense to call it @@people? Every method that relies on that literal variable name — Person.all, Person.find_by_name, etc. — would break, and we'd have to update all of our methods to read from the new variable:

class Person
  attr_accessor :name
  @@people = [] # changed from @@all

  def initialize(name)
    @name = name
    @@people << self # changed from @@all
  end

  def self.all
    @@people # changed from @@all
  end

  def self.find_by_name(name)
    @@people.find{|person| person.name == name}
    # changed from @@all
  end

end

Variable names are a very low-level abstraction. They are like making light by fire. Methods that read out of a variable provide an abstraction for the literal variable name. Using a reader method is almost always better and more reliable than using the variable.

We already have a method to read @@people, Person.all, so why not use that method in Person.find_by_name? Within a class method, how do we call another class method? What is the scope of the class method? What is self? The class itself. Consider:

class Person
  attr_accessor :name
  @@people = []

  def initialize(name)
    @name = name
    # self in the initialize method is our new instance
    # self.class is Person
    # self.class.all == Person.all
    self.class.all << self
  end

  def self.all
    @@people
  end

  def self.find_by_name(name)
    self.all.find{|person| person.name == name}
  end

end

So what's happening in our #initialize method now? Recall that #initialize is an instance method, so self will refer to an instance, not the entire class. In order to access Person.all, we need to go from the instance, self, to its class by using self.class. So using self.class.all << self is the same as using @@people << self, but we have abstracted away the use of the variable.

If the variable @@people changes names, we only have to update it in one place, the Person.all reader. All code that relies on that method still works. 1 conceptual change -> 1 line-of-code (LOC) change. Nice.

In addition to improving the maintainability of our code, class methods also provide a more readable API for the rest of our application. Consider just one more time the difference in seeing the following two lines littered throughout your code:

Person.all.find{|p| p.name == "Ada Lovelace"}
# literal implementation, no abstraction or encapsulation
# our program would be littered with this

Person.find_by_name("Ada Lovelace")
# abstract implementation with logic entirely encapsulated.

Whenever we use Person.find_by_name the intention of our code is clear. Instead of iterating over an array, our code reads clearly. Instead of describing the implementation of finding a person by name, our code simply says what it is doing, not how. You want to build objects that provide a semantic and obvious API, or interface. Methods that reveal what the object will do, not how it does that. Always hide the how and show the what.

Finders are just one example of a more semantic API for our classes. Let's look at another way class methods can improve the readability of our code.

Custom Class Constructors

Our marketing team has provided us with a list of people in comma-separated values (CSV), a common formatting convention when exporting from spreadsheets. The raw data looks like:

Elon Musk, 45, Tesla/SpaceX
Mark Zuckerberg, 32, Facebook
Martha Stewart, 74, MSL

They tell us that they will often need to upload CSVs of people data. Let's look at how we'd create a person instance from a CSV:

class Person
  attr_accessor :name, :age, :company
end

csv_data = "Elon Musk, 45, Tesla
Mark Zuckerberg, 32, Facebook
Martha Stewart, 74, MSL"

rows = csv_data.split("\n")
people = rows.collect do |row|
  data = row.split(", ")
  name = data[0]
  age = data[1]
  company = data[2]
  person = Person.new
  person.name = name
  person.age = age
  person.company = company
  person
end
people
#=> [
  #<Person @name="Elon Musk"...>,
  #<Person @name="Mark Zuckerberg"...>,
  # ...
# ]

Pretty complex. We don't want to do that throughout our application. In an ideal world, every time we got CSV data we'd just want the Person class to be responsible for parsing it. Could we build something like Person.new_from_csv? Of course! Let's look at how we might implement a custom constructor.

class Person
  attr_accessor :name, :age, :company

  def self.new_from_csv(csv_data)
    rows = csv_data.split("\n")
    people = rows.collect do |row|
      data = row.split(", ")
      name = data[0]
      age = data[1]
      company = data[2]

      person = self.new # This is an important line.
      person.name = name
      person.age = age
      person.company = company
      person
    end
    people
  end
end

csv_data = "Elon Musk, 45, Tesla
Mark Zuckerberg, 32, Facebook
Martha Stewart, 74, MSL"

people = Person.new_from_csv(csv_data)
people #=> [
  #<Person @name="Elon Musk"...>,
  #<Person @name="Mark Zuckerberg"...>,
  # ...
# ]

new_csv_data = "Avi Flombaum, 31, Flatiron School
Payal Kadakia, 30, ClassPass"

people << Person.new_from_csv(new_csv_data)
people.flatten
people #=> [
#<Person @name="Elon Musk"...>,
#<Person @name="Mark Zuckerberg"...>
#<Person @name="Martha Stewart"...>,
#<Person @name="Avi Flombaum"...>,
#<Person @name="Payal Kadakia"...>
# ]

We can see that, when needing to parse multiple sets of CSV data, having a Person.new_from_csv class method greatly simplifies our code. Let's take a closer look at how that class method works:

class Person
  attr_accessor :name, :age, :company

  def self.new_from_csv(csv_data)
    # Split the CSV data into an array of individual rows.
    rows = csv_data.split("\n")
    # For each row, let's collect a Person instance based on the data
    people = rows.collect do |row|
      # Split the row into 3 parts, name, age, company, at the ", "
      data = row.split(", ")
      name = data[0]
      age = data[1]
      company = data[2]

      # Make a new instance
      person = self.new # self refers to the Person class. This is Person.new
      # Set the properties on the person.
      person.name = name
      person.age = age
      person.company = company
      # Return the person to collect
      person
    end
    # Return the array of newly created people.
    people
  end
end

Like in any class method, self refers to the class itself so we can call self.new to piggyback, wrap, or extend the functionality of Person.new. When we call Person.new_from_csv, who is receiving the method call? It's the Person class itself. Therefore, self in this context is Person. We parse the raw data, create an instance, and assign the data to the corresponding instance properties.

Why do this? If we need to be able to create people from CSVs, why not just build that directly into #initialize? Well, the honest answer is because we don't always want to create people from CSV data. Anything we build into initialize will happen always. Another key to writing maintainable code is designing functionality that is closed to modification but open to extension.

Initialize should be closed to modification. It should only handle the most often required and common cases of initializing an object. Anything we add to initialize should be permanent and never modified. If we need more functionality when making an instance, instead of modifying initialize, we can extend it by wrapping it within a custom constructor.

If we ever need to make people from xml or json we can continue to extend the object with custom constructors instead of constantly modifying initialize with complex logic.

Let's look at a somewhat simpler example of a custom constructor that wraps .new. When building objects that can be saved into a class variable @@all, we might not always want to save the newly instantiated instance.

class Person
  @@all = []

  def initialize
    @@all << self
  end
end

With that code, no matter what, person instances will always be saved. We could instead implement a simple .create class method to provide the functionality of instantiating and creating the instance, leaving .new to function as normal.

class Person
  @@all = []

  def self.create
    @@all << self.new
  end
end

Class Operators

Beyond finders and custom constructors that return existing instances or create new instances, class methods can also manipulate class-level data.

A basic case of this might be printing all the people in our application.

class Person
  attr_accessor :name
  @@all = []
  def self.all
    @@all
  end

  def self.create(name)
    person = self.new
    person.name = name
    @@all << person
  end
end

Person.create("Ada Lovelace")
Person.create("Grace Hopper")

# Printing each person
Person.all.each do |person|
  puts "#{person.name}"
end

Even that logic is worth encapsulating within a class method .print_all.

class Person
  attr_accessor :name
  @@all = []
  def self.all
    @@all
  end

  def self.create(name)
    person = self.new
    person.name = name
    @@all << person
  end

  def self.print_all
    self.all.each{|person| puts "#{person.name}"}
  end
end

Person.create("Ada Lovelace")
Person.create("Grace Hopper")

Person.print_all

Way nicer.

Additionally, class methods might provide a global operation on data. Imagine that one of the CSVs we were provided with has people's names in lowercase letters. We want proper capitalization. We can build a class method Person.normalize_names

class Person
  attr_accessor :name
  @@all = []
  def self.all
    @@all
  end

  def initialize(name)
    @name = name
    @@all << self
  end

  def self.normalize_names
    self.all.each do |person|
      person.name = person.name.split(" ").collect{|w| w.capitalize}.join(" ")
    end
  end
end

The logic for actually normalizing a person's name is pretty complex:

person.name.split(" ").collect{|w| w.capitalize}.join(" ")

What we're doing is splitting a name, like "ada lovelace", into an array at the space, " ", which returns ["ada", "lovelace"]. With that array we collect each word into a new array after it has been capitalized, returning ["Ada", "Lovelace"]. We then join the elements in that array with a " " returning the final capitalized name, "Ada Lovelace".

Given how complex normalizing a person's name is, we should actually encapsulate that into the Person instance.

class Person
  attr_accessor :name
  @@all = []
  def self.all
    @@all
  end

  def initialize(name)
    @name = name
    @@all << self
  end

  def normalize_name
    self.name.split(" ").collect{|w| w.capitalize}.join(" ")
  end

  def self.normalize_names
    self.all.each do |person|
      person.name = person.normalize_name
    end
  end
end

With #normalize_name, we've taught a Person instance how to properly convert its name into a capitalized version. The class method that acts on the global data of all people is simplified and delegates the actual normalization to the original instances. This is a common pattern for global class operators.

A final example of this type of global data manipulation might be deleting all the people. We would build a Person.destroy_all class method that will clear out the @@all array.

class Person
  attr_accessor :name
  @@all = []
  def self.all
    @@all
  end

  def initialize(name)
    @name = name
    @@all << self
  end

  def self.destroy_all
    self.all.clear
  end
end

Here our Person.destroy_all method uses the Array#clear method to empty the @@all array through the class reader Person.all.

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