I've been working recently on Puppeteer and migrating it to TypeScript. This has presented the opportunity to do some refactoring and today I want to share a recent refactoring I did to remove passthrough variables.

What is a passthrough variable?

A passthrough variable is a variable that gets passed through multiple method calls before it gets given to the actual place in which it's used.

Normally these happen either because:

  • the object that needs the data is unable to create it
  • the object that creates the data (in the above example, A), used to need it, but now doesn't due to a change in functionality or behaviour.

Whilst we're not specifically talking about React in this post, you see this happen a lot with React props. This is known as "prop drilling" and is also something you should be wary of.

Dealing with passthrough variables

It's important to note that passthrough variables are not always avoidable, and often they are the preferred solution. The fix for passthrough variables can be simple - moving the creation of the value to the place where it's needed is the easiest fix - but if you're constrained often the explicitness of passthrough variables is preferable to any other solution.

Whilst it makes you jump through a hoop or two, the below code is explicit and does tell the full story about what's happening:

class A {
constructor() {
this.value = new SomeValue()
this.b = new B(this.value)
}
}

class B {
constructor(value) {
this.c = new C(value)
}
}

class C {
// somewhere in C we use the value
}

It's definitely not the nicest code you've ever seen but it can be methodically followed. Any solution that creates a method for C to access the variable without the explicitness of passing the values through will introduce some indirection for a developer to follow. For example, if you chose to put the value on the global scope (I do not recommend this, but it's a useful example!), you have to figure where that value comes from:

class C {
doSomething() {
// woah, where does this come from?!!
console.log(globalStuff.value)
}
}

Even a more sophisticated approach like React's Context API still suffers from this problem. Often this is a good trade-off and worth taking but it's still something you have to consider. As always in building software there is no silver bullet!

Fixing the simple case

Thankfully for me the specific case I was tackling in the Puppeteer codebase was easier to deal with; there was no reason to not create the data in the same place that it was needed. This is the best fix; taking code that's spread across three files and moving it into a single file is nearly always an improvement because it's simply less to keep in your head at any given time.

Taking a look at the pull request that made the change you can see that we came out net-negative in terms of lines of code (not always the most useful metric but good here) and we simplified classes in the process. In the case of Puppeteer we had:

  • BrowserContext create a TaskQueue and initialise a Target class, passing the queue instance.
  • The Target class took that TaskQueue instance and passed it into the Page constructor.
  • The Page class made use of the queue instance.

Not only is this very mechanical code to pass all these values through, it's also polluting multiple classes with knowledge that they don't need. The only class above that actually cares about a TaskQueue is Page. But because we create that value in BrowserContext both it and Target now have to know about a task queue and how to pass it around. So not only does this change remove lines of code, but it reduces the amount of classes that have to know about the task queue by 66%!

And if that wasn't enough, BrowserContext has one fewer instance variable, Target has one fewer instance variable and constructor argument, and Page has one fewer constructor argument to. So this one small PR packs in a good punch in terms of reducing the complexity of the code.

Keep an eye out for situations like this; they are often left behind as an accidental by-product of refactorings and they can provide an easy, low risk way to remove some confusion from your codebase.