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Rubberduck Style Guide

As Rubberduck started to beef up its static code analysis capabilities in late 2015, it became evident that writing VBA (or VB6) code with Rubberduck loaded up in the Visual Basic Editor (VBE) would inevitably change not only how we work in VBA, but also how we write our VBA code in the first place.

Rubberduck is essentially providing a bridge between VBA land where people just get in and have a go and the VS land where if you don’t know a great deal about software development, you just waste your time and burn. Rubberduck will put a lot of people on a big learning curve and this will result in a lot of questions.” – AndrewM- commented on Oct 9, 2015

There’s an old issue (#823, still opened as of this writing) about having a coding style guide somewhere, that would enshrine the philosophy behind what Rubberduck is, in a way, trying to make your code-writing be/become; I think that was a great idea and I’m hoping this post captures the essence of it, at least as far as thinking code goes.


About Code Inspections

If you fire up Rubberduck on any legacy VBA project with any significant amount of code, there’s a very high probability that static code analysis generates tons of inspection results, for various mundane little things. Should your goal be to quick-fix all the things and have code that doesn’t spawn any Rubberduck inspection results?

Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is a resounding “no”.

Severity Levels

In Rubberduck each inspection has a configurable “severity level” that defaults to Warning for most inspections (it’s the default-unless-specified-otherwise for all Rubberduck inspections):

  • Error level indicates a potential problem you likely want to pay immediate attention to, because it could be (or cause) a bug. If inspection results rendered in the code pane, these would be red squiggly underlines.
  • Warning level indicates a potential issue you should be aware of.
  • Suggestion level is usually used for various opportunities, not necessarily problems.
  • Hint level is also for various non-problematic opportunities. If inspection results rendered in the code pane, these would be a subtle dotted underline with a hover text.
  • DoNotShow disables the inspection: not only its results won’t show, they won’t even be generated.

By default, Rubberduck is configured to run all (that’s currently over 110, counting the hidden/Easter egg ones) inspections, with a handful of cherry-picked exceptions for inspections that would be flagging the exact opposite situation that another enabled inspection is already flagging – for example we ship implicit ByRef modifier enabled (as a Hint), but redundant ByRef modifier is disabled unless you give it a severity level that’s anything other than DoNotShow. This avoids “fixing” one inspection result only to get a new one flagging the exact opposite, which would be understandably confusing for users that aren’t familiar with static code analysis tooling.

Are inspections somehow imbued with the knowledge of whether you should treat them as errors, warnings, or mere hints and suggestions? Sometimes, yes. Missing Option Explicit should make a clear consensus at Error level. On the flipside, whether an implicit default member call or the use of an empty string literal should be a Warning, a Hint, or shown at all probably depends more on how comfortable or experienced you are with VBA/VB6 as a language, or could be just a personal preference; what matters is that the static code analysis tooling is letting you know something about the code, that the code alone isn’t necessarily saying.

Philosophy

One of the very first inspection to be implemented in Rubberduck was the Option Explicit inspection. Okay, part of it was just because it was a trivial one to implement even before we had an actual parser… but the basic idea was (and still is) that nobody knows everything, and it’s with our combined knowledge that we make a mighty bunch, and that is why static code analysis in Rubberduck explains the reasoning behind each inspection result: there are quite many things Rubberduck warns of, that I had no idea about 10 or 15 years ago. That never stopped me (and won’t stop you either) from writing VBA code that worked perfectly fine (except when it didn’t), but whether we realize and accept it or not… a macro written in VBA code is a set of executable instructions, which makes it a program, which makes the act of writing it programming, which makes us programmers.

Being programmers that write and maintain VBA code does set us apart, mostly because the language isn’t going anywhere and the IDE is becoming more and more severely outdated and under-featured as years pass. Yet if the volume of VBA questions on Stack Overflow means anything, VBA is still very much alive, still very much being learned, and this is where Rubberduck and static code analysis comes in.

When I started learning about .NET and C# over a decade ago, there was this exciting new language feature they called LINQ for Language-INtegrated-Query where you could start querying object collections pretty much literally like you would a database, and it was awesome (still is!). In order to make this possible, the C# compiler and the .NET framework and runtime itself had to undergo some very interesting changes Jon Skeet covers in details, but the point is… the new syntax was a bit off-putting at first, and came with new and important implications (closures, deferred execution), and the company I worked for gave us all a ReSharper license, and that is how and when I discovered that thorough & accurate static code analysis tooling could be a formidable educational tool.

And I want Rubberduck to be like that, to be the companion tool that looks at your code and reveals bits of trivia, hints like “hey did you know this conditional assignment could be simplified?“, or “if that condition was inverted you wouldn’t need this empty block here“.

Maybe we don’t agree about Hungarian Notation, and that’s fine: Rubberduck wants you to be able to find it and rename it if that’s what you want to do, but you can mute that particular inspection anytime. But I believe the tool should tell you what Systems Hungarian notation is when it calls it out, and perhaps it should even explain what Apps Hungarian is and give examples, because Apps Hungarian notation absolutely is useful and meaningful (think o-for-OneBased, or src-for-Source and dst-for-Destination prefixes). But str-for-String, lng-for-Long, o-for-Object is different, in a bad kind of way.

Rubberduck flags obsolete code constructs and keywords, too. Global declarations, On Local Error statements, explicit Call statements, While...Wend loops, all have no reason to exist in brand new, freshly-written VBA code, and quick-fixes can easily turn them into Public declarations, On Error statements, implicit Call statements (without the Call keyword!), and Do While...Loop structures.

Rubberduck wants to push your programming towards objectively, quantitatively better code.

About Code Metrics

Rubberduck could count the number of lines in a procedure, and issue an inspection result when it’s above a certain configurable threshold. In fact, things are slowly falling into place for it to eventually happen. But we wouldn’t want you to just arbitrarily cut a procedure scope at 20 lines because an inspection said so! Rubberduck can measure line count, nesting levels, and cyclomatic complexity. These metrics can be used to identify problematic areas in a code base and methodically split up large complex problems into measurably much smaller and simpler ones.

Line Count simply counts the number of lines. Eventually this would expand into Statements and Comments counts, perhaps with percentages; 10% comments is probably considered a good sign, for example. But no tool is going to tell you that ' increments i is a useless comment, and even the best tools would probably not tell the difference between a huge ' the following chunk of code does XYZ banner comment and an actually valuable comment. Common wisdom is to keep this line count metric down as much as possible, but one should not do this at the expense of readability.

Nesting Levels counts the number of… well, nesting levels. While nesting two For...Next loops to iterate a 2D array (or a Range of cells) down and across is probably reasonable, further nesting is probably better off made implicit through a procedure call. Rule of thumb, it’s always good idea to pull the body of a loop into its own parameterized procedure scope. Arrow-shaped code gets flattened, line count gets lower, and procedures become more specialized and have fewer reasons to fail that way.

Cyclomatic Complexity essentially calculates the number of independent execution paths in a given procedure (wikipedia). A procedure with a cyclomatic complexity above 5 is harder to follow than one with a complexity of 1 or 2, but it’s not uncommon for a “God procedure” with nested loops and conditionals to measure in the high 40s or above.

The code metrics feature will eventually get all the attention it deserves, but as with inspections the general idea is to highlight procedures that could be harder to maintain than necessary, and nudge our users towards:

  • Writing more, smaller, more specialized procedure scopes.
  • Passing parameters between procedures instead of using global variables.
  • Having more, smaller, more cohesive modules.

Navigating the VBE

You may or may not have noticed, but the Visual Basic Editor is nudging you in the exact opposite direction, because…

  • Having fewer, larger, more general-purpose procedures puts you in a scripting mindset.
  • Using globals instead of passing parameters around is perhaps a simpler thing to do.
  • Having fewer, larger, more general-purpose modules makes it simpler to share the code between projects, and arguably easier to find things in the Project Explorer.

If you’re actually writing a small script, you can and probably should absolutely do that.

But if you’re like me then you’ve been pushing VBA to do things it wasn’t really meant to do, and you’re maintaining actual applications that could just as well be written in any other language out there, but you’re doing it in VBA because [your reasons are valid, whatever they are].

And that’s kind of a problem, because the VBE seems to actively not want you to write proper object-oriented code: its navigation tooling indeed makes it very hard to work in a project with many small modules, let alone an OOP project involving explicit interfaces and high abstraction levels.

Rubberduck lifts pretty much all the IDE limitations that hinder treating a VBA project as more than just an automation script. Now you can have a project with 135 class modules, all neatly organized by functionality into folders that can contain any module type, so a UserForm can appear right next to the classes that use it, without needing to resort to any kind of ugly prefixing schemes. You can right-click on an abstract interface (or one of its members) and quickly find all classes that implement it. You get a Find symbol command that lets you quickly navigate to literally anything that has a name, anywhere in the project. Curious about the definition of a procedure, but don’t want to break your flow by navigating to it? Peek definition (currently only in pre-release builds) takes you there without leaving where you’re at.

The Peek Definition command pops a floating panel conveniently showing the source code for the user-defined module or member you’ve selected.
Find all References shows all the places a given identifier is being used, and shows it in context so you can easily locate the specific usage you’re looking for – and then a double-click takes you there.
The Find all Implementations command is incredibly useful in object-oriented projects that leverage polymorphism through abstract interfaces: quickly locate and navigate to any implementation of any interface (class or member).

The VBE’s Project Explorer aims to give you a bird’s eye view of your project, regrouping modules by module type which is great for a small script that can get away with a small number of components, but that makes it very hard to manage larger projects. With Rubberduck’s Code Explorer you get to drill down to member level, and regroup modules by functionality using an entirely customizable folder hierarchy:

The Code Explorer leaves the VBE’s Project Explorer in the dust, fair & square.

These navigational enhancements greatly simplify moving around a project of any size, although some of them might feel a bit overkill in a smaller project, and some of them are only useful in more advanced OOP scenarios. Still, having more than just a text-based search to look for things is very useful.


Guidelines

If there’s one single over-arching principle guiding everything else, it would have to be write code that does what it says, and says what it does. Everything else seems to stem from this. These are warmly recommended guidelines, not dogma.

Naming

  • Use PascalCase if you like. Use camelCase if you like. Consistency is what you want to shoot for, and in a case-insensitive language that only stores a single version of any identifier name it’s much easier and simpler to just use PascalCase everywhere and move on to more interesting things, like tabs vs spaces.
  • Avoid _ underscores in identifier names, especially in procedure/member names.
    • Causes compile errors with Implements.
  • Use meaningful names that can be pronounced.
  • Avoid disemvoweling (arbitrarily stripping vowels) and Systems Hungarian prefixing schemes.
  • A series of variables with a numeric suffix is a missed opportunity to use an array.
  • A good identifier name is descriptive enough that it doesn’t need an explainer comment.
  • Use a descriptive name that begins with a verb for Sub and Function procedures.
  • Use a descriptive name (a noun) for Property procedures and modules.
  • For object properties, consider naming them after the object type they’re returning, like Excel.Worksheet.Range returns a Range object, or like ADODB.Recordset.Fields returns a Fields object.
  • Appropriately name everything the code must interact with: if a rounded rectangle shape is attached to a DoSomething macro, the default “Rounded Rectangle 1” name should be changed to “DoSomethingButton” or something that tells us about its purpose. This includes all controls on a UserForm designer, too. CommandButton12 is useless; SearchButton is much better. Consider also naming the controls that don’t necessarily interact with code, too: future code might, and the author of that future code will appreciate that the bottom panel is named BottomPanel and not Label34.

Renaming

Naming is hard enough, renaming things should be easy. With Rubberduck’s Rename refactoring (Ctrl+Shift+R) you can safely rename any identifier once, and all references to that identifier automatically get updated. Without a refactoring tool, renaming a form control can only be done from the Properties toolwindow (F4), and doing this instantly breaks any event handlers for it; renaming a variable by hand can be tedious, and renaming a single-letter variable like a or i with a local-scope find/replace (Ctrl+H) can get funny if the scope has any comments. Rubberduck knows the exact location of every reference to every identifier in your project, so if you have a module with two procedures that each declare a localThing, when you rename the local variable localThing in the first procedure, you’re not going to be affecting the localThing in the other procedure. But if you rename CommandButton1 to OkButton, then CommandButton1_Click() becomes OkButton_Click().

Parameters & Arguments

  • Prefer passing values as parameters instead of bumping the scope of a variable to module-level, or instead of declaring global variables.
  • Pass parameters ByVal whenever possible.
    • Arrays and User-Defined Type structures cannot and should not be passed by value.
    • Objects are never passed anywhere no matter the modifier: it’s only ever (ByVal: a copy of) a pointer that gets passed around – and most of the time the intent of the author is to pass that pointer by value. A pointer is simply a 32-bit or 64-bit integer value, depending on the bitness of the process; passing that pointer ByRef (explicitly or not) leaves more opportunities for programming errors.
  • Use an explicit ByRef modifier whenever passing parameters by reference.
  • Consider specifying an out prefix to name ByRef return parameters.
    • Consider using named arguments for out-prefixed ByRef return parameters.

Comments

  • Use the single quote ' character to denote a comment.
  • Avoid line-continuing comments; use single quotes at position 1 of each line instead.
  • Consider having a @ModuleDescription annotation at the top of each module.
  • Consider having a @Description annotation for each Public member of a module.
  • Remove comments that describe what an instruction does, replace with comments that explain why an instruction needs to do what it does.
  • Remove comments that summarize what a block of code does; replace with a call to a new procedure with a nice descriptive name.
  • Avoid cluttering a module with banner comments that state the obvious. We know they’re variables, or properties, or public methods: no need for a huge green comment banner to tell us.
  • Avoid cluttering a procedure scope with banner comments that split up the different responsibilities of a procedure: the procedure is doing too many things, split it up and appropriately name the new procedure instead.

Variables

  • Declare all variables, always. Option Explicit should be enabled at all times.
  • Declare an explicit data type, always. If you mean As Variant, make it say As Variant.
  • Consider using a Variant to pass arrays between scopes, instead of typed arrays (e.g. String()).
    • Pluralize these identifier names: it signals a plurality of elements/items much more elegantly than Pirate Notation (arr*) does.
  • Avoid Public fields in class modules; encapsulate them with a Property instead.
  • Consider using a backing user-defined Private Type structure for the backing fields of class properties; doing so eliminates the need for a prefixing scheme, lets a property be named exactly as per its corresponding backing field, and cleans up the locals toolwindow by grouping the fields under a single module variable.
  • Limit the scope of variables as much as possible. Prefer passing parameters and keeping the value in local scope over promoting the variable to a larger scope.
  • Declare variables where you’re using them, as you need them. You should never need to scroll anywhere to see the declaration of a variable you’re looking at.

Late Binding

Late binding has precious little to do with CreateObject and whether or not a library is referenced. In fact, late binding happens implicitly rather easily, and way too often. Strive to remain in early-bound realm all the time: when the compiler / IntelliSense doesn’t know what you’re doing, you’re on your own, and even Option Explicit can’t save you from a typo (and error 438).

  • Avoid making a member call against Object or Variant. If a compile-time type exists that’s usable with that object, a local variable of that data type should be assigned (Set) the Object reference and the member call made early-bound against this local variable.
    • Taking an object presenting one interface and assigning it to another data type is called “casting”.
  • Of course explicit late binding is OK (As Object, no library reference, create objects with CreateObject instead of the New operator). Late binding is very useful and has many legitimate uses, but generally not when the object type is accessible at compile-time through a library reference.
  • Avoid the dictionary-access (aka “bang”) operator !, it is late-bound by definition, and makes what’s actually a string literal read like a member name, and any member call chained to it is inevitably late-bound too. Rubberduck can parse and resolve these, but they’re much harder to process than standard method calls.

Explicitness

  • Use explicit modifiers everywhere (Public/Private, ByRef/ByVal).
  • Declare an explicit data type, even (especially!) if it’s Variant.
  • Avoid implicit qualifiers for all member calls: in Excel watch for implicit ActiveSheet references, implicit ActiveWorkbook references, implicit containing worksheet references, and implicit containing workbook references, as they are an extremely frequent source of bugs.
  • Invoke parameterless default members explicitly.
    • Note: some object models define a hidden default member (e.g. Range.[_Default]) that redirects to another member depending on its parameterization. In such cases it’s best to invoke that member directly; for example use Range.Value as appropriate, but the hidden [_Default] member is better off not being invoked at all, for both readability and performance reasons.
  • Invoke parameterized default members implicitly when they are indexers that get a particular item in an object collection, for example the Item property of a Collection. Invoking them explicitly doesn’t hurt, but could be considered rather verbose.
  • Call is not a keyword that needs to be in your program’s vocabulary when you use expressive, descriptive procedure names that imply an action taking place.
  • Consider explicitly qualifying standard module member calls with the project (and module) name, including for standard and referenced libraries, especially in VBA projects that reference multiple object models.

Structured Programming (Procedural)

  • One macro/script per module. Do have it in a module rather than a worksheet’s code-behind.
  • Public procedure first, followed by parameterized Private procedures, in decreasing abstraction level order such that the top reads like a summary and the bottom like boring, small but specific operations.
    • You know it’s done right when you introduce a second macro/module and get to pull the small, low-abstraction, specific operations into Public members of a utility module, and reuse them.
  • Don’t Repeat Yourself (DRY).
  • Consider passing the relevant state to another procedure when entering a block of code. Code is simpler and easier to follow when the body of a loop or a conditional block is pulled into its own scope.
  • Avoid using error handling to control the flow of execution: the best error handling is no error handling at all, because assumptions are checked and things are validated. For example instead of opening a file from a parameter value, first verify that the file exists instead of handling a file not found error… but still handle errors, for any exceptional situations that might occur while accessing the file.
  • When it’s not possible to avoid error handling, consider extracting a Boolean function that swallows the expected error and returns False on failure, to simplify the logic.
  • Handle errors around all file and network I/O.
  • Never trust user inputs to be valid or formatted as expected.

Object Oriented Programming

In VBA/VB6 we get to go further than mere scripting and apply Object-Oriented Programming principles, probably more relevantly so in VB6 and larger VBA projects. For many years it has been drilled into our heads that VBA/VB6 cannot do “real” OOP because it doesn’t support inheritance. The truth is that there is much, much more to OOP than inheritance, and if you want to learn and apply OOP principles in your VBA/VB6 code, you absolutely can, and you absolutely should, and Rubberduck will absolutely help you do that.

  • Adhere to standard OOP best practices, they are general, language-agnostic concepts that couldn’t care less about the capabilities of VBA/VB6:
    • Single Responsibility Principle – each abstraction should be responsible for one thing.
    • Open/Closed Principle – write code that doesn’t need to change unless the purpose of the abstraction itself needs to change.
    • Liskov Substitution Principle – code should run the exact same execution paths regardless of the concrete implementation of a given abstraction.
    • Interface Segregation Principle – keep interfaces small and specialized, avoid a design that constantly needs new members to be added to an interface.
    • Dependency Inversion Principle – depend on abstractions, not concrete implementations.
  • Leverage composition where inheritance would be needed.
  • You cannot have parameterized constructors, but you still can leverage property injection in factory methods to inject instance-level dependencies.
  • Leverage method injection to inject method-level dependencies.
  • Avoid New-ing dependencies in-place, it couples a class with another, which hinders testability; inject the dependencies instead.
    • Use the New keyword in your composition root, as close as possible to an entry point.
    • The Workbook_Open event handler (Excel) is a possible entry point.
    • Macros (Sub procedures invoked from outside the code) are also valid entry points.
    • Let go of the idea that a module must control every last one of its dependencies: let something else deal with creating or dereferencing these objects.
  • Inject an abstract factory when a dependency cannot or should not be created at the composition root, for example if you needed to connect to a database and wish to keep the connection object as short-lived and tightly-scoped as possible.
  • Keep the default instance of a class stateless as much as possible. Actively protect/guard against accidental misuse by throwing a run-time error as necessary.
  • Use standard modules instead of a utility class with a @PredeclaredId, that never gets explicitly instantiated or used as an actual object.

User Interfaces

UI code is inherently object-oriented, and thus a UserForm should be treated as the object it wants to be. The responsibilities of a user interface are simple: display and collect data to/from the user, and/or offer a way to execute commands (which typically consume or otherwise manipulate the data).

  • Avoid working directly with the form’s default instance. New it up instead.
  • Form module / code-behind should be strictly concerned with presentation concerns.
    • Do implement UI logic in form’s code-behind, e.g. enable this control when this command says it can be executed, or show this label when the model isn’t valid, etc.
  • Consider creating a model class to encapsulate the form’s state/data.
    • Expose a read/write property for each editable field on the form.
    • Expose a read-only property for data needed by the controls (e.g. the items of a ListBox).
    • Controls’ Change handlers manipulate the model properties.
    • Expose additional methods and properties as needed for data/input validation.
      • Consider having an IsValid property that returns True when all required values are supplied and valid, False otherwise; use this property to enable or disable the form’s Accept button.
  • Avoid implementing any kind of side-effecting logic in a CommandButton‘s Click handler. A CommandButton should invoke a command, right?
    • In procedural code the command might be a Public Sub procedure in a standard module named after the form, e.g. a SomeDialogCommands module for a SomeDialog form.
    • In OOP the command might be a property-injected instance of a DoSomethingCommand class; the Click handler invokes the command’s Execute method and could pass the model as a parameter.
  • Consider implementing a presenter object that is responsible for owning and displaying the form instance; the Model-View-Presenter UI pattern is well documented, and like everything OOP, its concepts aren’t specific to any language or platform.

Caveat: Microsoft Access Data-Bound UI

VBA projects hosted in Microsoft Access can absolutely use UserForm modules too, but without Rubberduck you need to hunt down the IDE command for it because it’s hidden. Instead, in Access you mostly create Access Forms, which (being document modules owned by the host application) have much more in common with a Worksheet module in Excel than with a UserForm.

The paradigm is different in an Access form, because of data bindings: a data-bound form is inherently coupled with the underlying database storage, and any effort to decouple the UI from the database is working directly against everything Access is trying to make easier for you.

Treating an Access form the way one would treat a worksheet UI in Excel puts you in a bit of a different mindset. Imagine the Battleship worksheet UI implemented as an Access form: the game would be updating game state records in the underlying database, and instead of having code to pull the game state into the UI there would only need to be code to re-query the game state, and the data bindings would take care of updating the actual UI – and then the game could easily become multi-player, with two clients connecting to the database and sharing the same game state.

This is very fundamentally different than how one would go about getting the data into the controls without such data bindings. Binding the UI directly to a data source is perfectly fine when that data source happens to be running in the very same process your VBA code is hosted in: Access’ Rapid Application Development (RAD) approach is perfectly valid in this context, and its global objects and global state make a nice beginner-friendly API to accomplish quite a lot, even with only a minimal understanding of the programming language (and probably a bit of Access-SQL).

If we’re talking about unbound MS-Access forms, then it’s probably worth exploring Model-View-Presenter and Model-View-Controller architectures regardless: in such exploratory OOP scenarios the above recommendations can all hold.

UI Design

I’m not going to pretend to be a guru of UI design, but over the years I’ve come to find myself consistently incorporating the same elements in my modal forms, and it has worked very well for me so here we go turning that into general guidelines.

  • TopPanel is a Label control with a white background that is docked at the top and tall enough to comfortably fit short instructions.
  • BottomPanel is also a Label control, with a dark gray background, docked at the bottom and no more than 32 pixels in height.
  • DialogTitle is another Label control with a bold font, overlapping the TopPanel control.
  • DialogInstructions is another Label control overlapping the TopPanel control.
  • DialogIcon is an Image control for a 16×16 or 24×24 .bmp icon aligned left, at the same Top coordinate as the DialogTitle control.
  • OkButton, CancelButton, CloseButton, ApplyButton would be CommandButton controls overlapping the BottomPanel control, right-aligned.

The actual client area content layout isn’t exactly free-for-all, and I doubt it’s possible to come up with a set of “rules” that can apply universally, but we can try, yeah?

  • Identify each field with a label; align all fields to make it look like an implicit grid.
  • Seek visual balance; ensure a relatively constant margin on all sides of the client area, space things out but not too much. Use Frame controls to group ComboBox options.
  • Avoid making a complex form with too many responsibilities and, inevitably, too many controls. Beyond a certain complexity level, consider making separate forms instead of tabs.
  • Use Segoe UI for a more modern font than MS Sans Serif.
  • Do not bold all the labels.
  • Have a ToolTip string for the label of every field the user must interact with. If a field is required or demands a particular format/pattern, indicate it.
  • Consider toggling the visibility of a 16×16 icon next to (or even inside, right-aligned) input fields, to clearly indicate any data validation errors (have a tooltip string on the image control with the validation error message, e.g. “this field is required”, or “value cannot be greater than 100”).
  • Name. All. The. Things.
  • Use background colors in input controls only to strongly signal something to the user, like a validation error that must be corrected in order to move on. Dark red text over a light pink background makes a very strong statement.
  • Keep a consistent color scheme/palette and style across all of your application’s UI components.

This pretty much concludes the “guidelines” section (although I’ll quite probably be adding more to it), but since discussing unit testing and testability lines up with everything above…

Unit Testing

A unit test is a small, simple procedure that is responsible for 3 things:

  1. Arrange dependencies and set expectations.
  2. Act, by invoking the method or function under test.
  3. Assert that the expected result matches the actual one.

When a unit test runs, Rubberduck tracks Assert.Xxxx method calls and their outcome; if a single Assert call fails, the test fails. Such automated tests are very useful to document the requirements of a particular model class, or the behavior of a given utility function with multiple optional parameters. With enough coverage, tests can actively prevent regression bugs from being inadvertently introduced as the code is maintained and modified: if a tweak breaks a test, you know exactly what functionality you broke, and if all tests are green you know the code is still going to behave as intended.

Have a test module per unit/class you’re testing, and consider naming the test methods following a MethodUnderTest_GivenAbcThenXyz, where MethodUnderTest is the name of the method you’re testing, Abc is a particular condition, and Xyz is the outcome. For tests that expect an error, consider following a MethodUnderTest_GivenAbc_Throws naming pattern. Rubberduck will not warn about underscores in test method names, and these underscores are safe because Rubberduck test modules are standard modules, and unit test naming recommendations usually heavily favor being descriptive over being concise.

What to test?

You want to test each object’s public interface, and treat an object’s private members as implementation details. You do NOT want to test implementation details. For example if a class’ default interface only exposes a handful of Property Get members and a Create factory method that performs property-injection and a handful of properties, then there should be tests that validate that each of the parameters of the Create method correspond to an injected property. If one of the parameters isn’t allowed to be Nothing, then there should be a guard clause in the Create method for it, and a unit test that ensures a specific error is being raised when the Create method is invoked with Nothing for that parameter.

Below is one such simple example, where we have 2 properties and a method; note how tests for the private InjectDependencies function would be redundant if the public Create function is already covered – the InjectDependencies function is an implementation detail of the Create function:

'@PredeclaredId
Option Explicit
Implements IClass1
Private Type TState
    SomeValue As String
    SomeDependency As Object
End Type
Private This As TState
Public Function Create(ByVal SomeValue As String, ByVal SomeDependency As Object) As IClass1
    If SomeValue = vbNullString Then Err.Raise 5
    If SomeDependency Is Nothing Then Err.Raise 5
    Dim Result As Class1
    Set Result = New Class1
    InjectProperties Result, SomeValue, SomeDependency
    Set Create = Result
End Function
Private Sub InjectProperties(ByVal Instance As Class1, ByVal SomeValue As String, ByVal SomeDependency As Object)
    Instance.SomeValue = SomeValue
    Set Instance.SomeDependency = SomeDependency
End Sub
Public Property Get SomeValue() As String
    SomeValue = This.SomeValue
End Property
Public Property Let SomeValue(ByVal RHS As String)
    This.SomeValue = RHS
End Property
Public Property Get SomeDependency() As Object
    SomeDependency = This.SomeDependency
End Property
Public Property Set SomeDependency(ByVal RHS As Object)
    Set This.SomeDependency = RHS
End Property
Private Property Get IClass1_SomeValue() As String
    IClass1_SomeValue = This.SomeValue
End Property
Private Property Get IClass1_SomeDependency() As Object
    IClass1_SomeDependency = This.SomeDependency
End Property

Note: the property injection mechanism doesn’t need a Property Get member on the Class1 interface, however not exposing a Property Get member for a property that has a Property Let (and/or Property Set) procedure, would leave the property as write-only on the Class1 interface. Write-only properties would be flagged as a design smell, so there’s a conundrum here: either we expose a Property Get that nothing is calling (except unit tests, perhaps), or we expose a write-only property (with a comment that explains its property injection purpose). There is no right or wrong, only a consistent design matters.

If we were to write unit tests for this class, we would need at least:

  • One test that invokes Class1.Create with an "" empty string for the first argument and fails if error 5 isn’t raised by the procedure call.
  • One test that invokes Class1.Create with Nothing for the second argument and fails if error 5 isn’t raised by the procedure call.
  • One test that invokes Class1.Create with valid arguments and fails if the returned object is Nothing.
  • One test that invokes Class1.Create with valid arguments and fails if the Class1.SomeValue property doesn’t return the value of the first argument.
  • One test that invokes Class1.Create with valid arguments and fails if the Class1.SomeDependency property doesn’t return the very same object reference as was passed for the second argument.
  • One test that invokes Class1.Create with valid arguments and fails if the IClass1.SomeValue property doesn’t return the same value as Class1.SomeValue does.
  • One test that invokes Class1.Create with valid arguments and fails if the IClass1.SomeDependency property doesn’t return the same object reference as Class1.SomeDependency does.

Obviously that’s just a simplified example, but it does perfectly illustrate the notion that the answer to “what to test?” is simply “every single execution path”… of every public member (private members are implementation details that are invoked from the public members; if they specifically need tests, then they deserve to be their own concern-addressing class module).

What is testable?

Without the Property Get members of Class1 and/or IClass1, we wouldn’t be able to test that the Create method is property-injecting SomeValue and SomeDependency, because the object’s internal state is encapsulated (as it should be). Therefore, there’s an implicit assumption that a Property Get member for a property-injected dependency is returning the encapsulated value or reference, and nothing more: by writing tests that rely on that assumption, we are documenting it.

Now SomeDependency might be an instance of another class, and that class might have its own encapsulated state, dependencies, and testable logic. A more meaty Class1 module might have a method that invokes SomeDependency.DoSomething, and the tests for that method would have to be able to assert that SomeDependency.DoSomething has been invoked once.

If Class1 wasn’t property-injecting SomeDependency (for example if SomeDependency was being New‘d it up instead), we would not be able to write such a test, because the outcome of the test might be dependent on a method being called against that dependency.

A simple example would be Class1 newing up a FileSystemObject to iterate the files of a given folder. In such a case, FileSystemObject is a dependency, and if Class1.DoSomething is newing it up directly then every time Class1.DoSomething is called, it’s going to try and iterate the files of a given folder, because that’s what a FileSystemObject does, it hits the file system. And that’s slow. I/O (file, network, …and user) is dependent on so many things that can go wrong for so many reasons, having it interfere with tests is something you want to avoid.

The way to avoid having user, network, and file inputs and outputs interfere with the tests of any method, is to completely let go of the “need” for a method to control any of its dependencies. The method doesn’t need to create a new instance of a FileSystemObject; what it really needs is actually a much simpler any object that’s capable of returning a list of files or file names in a given folder.

So instead of this:

Public Sub DoSomething(ByVal Path As String)
    With CreateObjet("Scripting.FileSystemObject")
        ' gets the Path folder...
        ' iterates all files...
        ' ...
    End With
End Sub

We would do this:

Public Sub DoSomething(ByVal Path As String, ByVal FileProvider As IFileProvider)
    Dim Files As Variant
    Files = FileProvider.GetFiles(Path)
    ' iterates all files...
    ' ...
End Sub

Where IFileProvider would be an interface/class module that might look like this:

Option Explicit
'@Interface
'@Description "Returns an array containing the file names under the specified folder."
Public Function GetFiles(ByVal Path As String) As Variant
End Function

That interface might very well be implemented in a class module named FileProvider that uses a FileSystemObject to return the promised array.

It could also be implemented in another class module, named TestFileProvider, that uses a ParamArray parameter so that unit tests can take control of the IFileProvider dependency and inject (here by method injection) a TestFileProvider instance. The DoSomething method doesn’t need to know where the file names came from, only that it can expect an array of existing, valid file names from IFileProvider.GetFiles(String). If the DoSomething method indeed doesn’t care where the files came from, then it’s adhering to pretty much all OOP design principles, and now a test can be written that fails if DoSomething is doing something wrong – as opposed to a test that might fail if some network drive happens to be dismounted, or works locally when working from home but only with a VPN.

The hard part is obviously identifying the dependencies in the first place. If you’re refactoring a procedural VBA macro, you must determine what the inputs and outputs are, what objects hold the state that’s being altered, and devise a way to abstract them away and inject these dependencies from the calling code – whether that caller is the original entry point macro procedure, or a new unit test.

Mocking

In the above example, the TestFileProvider implementation of the IFileProvider dependency is essentially a test stub: you actually write a separate implementation for the sole purpose of being able to run the code with fake dependencies that don’t incur any file, network, or user I/O. Reusing these stubs in “test” macros that wire up the UI by injecting the test stubs instead of the actual implementations, should result in the application running normally… without hitting any file system or network.

With mocks, you don’t need to write a “test” implementation. Instead, you configure an object provided by a mocking framework to behave as the method/test needs, and the framework implements the mocked interface with an object that can be injected, that verifiably behaves as configured.

Sounds like magic? A lot of it actually is, from a VBA/VB6 standpoint. Many tests in Rubberduck leverage a very popular mocking framework called Moq. What we’re going to be releasing as an experimental feature is not only a COM-visible wrapper around Moq. The fun part is that the Moq methods we need to use are generic methods that take lambda expressions as parameters, so our wrapper needs to expose an API VBA code can use, and then “translate” it into member calls into the Moq API, but because they’re generic methods and the mocked interface is a COM object, we essentially build a .NET type on the fly to match the mocked VBA/COM interface, so that’s what Moq actually mocks: a .NET interface type Rubberduck makes up at run-time from any COM object. Moq uses Castle Windsor under the hood to spawn instances of proxy types – made-up actual objects that actually implement one or more interfaces. Castle Windsor is excellent at what it does; we use CW to automate dependency injection in Rubberduck (a technique dubbed Inversion of Control, where a single container object is responsible for creating all instances of all objects in the application in the composition root; that’s what’s going on while Rubberduck’s splash screen is being displayed).

There is a problem though: CW seems to be caching types with the reasonable but still implicit assumption that the type isn’t going to change at run-time. In our case however, this means mocking a VBA interface once and then modifying that interface (e.g. adding, removing, or reordering members, or changing a member signature in any way) and re-running the test would still be mocking the old interface, as long as the host process lives. This isn’t a problem for mocking a Range or a Worksheet dependency, but VBA user code is being punished here.

Verifiable Invocations

Going back to the IFileProvider example, the GetFiles method could be configured to return a hard-coded array of bogus test strings, and a test could be made to turn green when IFileProvider.GetFiles is invoked with the same specific Path parameter value that was given to Class1.DoSomething. If you were stubbing IFileProvider, you would perhaps increment a counter every time IFileProvider_GetFiles is invoked, and expose that counter with a property that the test could Assert is equal to an expected value. With Moq, you can make a test fail by invoking a Verify method on the mock itself, that verifies whether the specified method was invoked as configured.

A best practice with mocking would be to only setup the minimal amount of members to make the test work, because of the performance overhead: if a mocked interface has 5 methods and 3 properties but the method under test only needs 2 of these methods and 1 of these properties, then it should only setup these. Verification makes mocking a very valuable tool to test behavior that relies on side-effects and state changes.

The best part is that because VBA is COM, then everything is an interface, so if you don’t have an IFileProvider interface but you’re still passing a FileProvider object as a dependency, then you can mock the FileProvider directly and don’t need to introduce any extra “just-for-testing” IFileProvider interface if you don’t already have one.


I’m going to stop here and just publish, otherwise I’ll be editing this post forever. So much is missing…

Introducing Rubberduck 2.5.2

Version 2.5.1 was released August 22, 2020. Since then, the installer was downloaded over 11,600 times; we are now 420 commits and 650 modified files later, and the time has come to deliver all that work into a convenient little installer package and move on to the next dev/release cycle.

What’s New?

If you’ve kept up with latest pre-release builds (especially in the last few weeks), nothing much. If you’ve been patiently waiting for the next release, you’re in for a treat!

The first thing you’ll probably notice is the shiny new splash screen design:

It’s the same old yellow splash made with Paint.NET, with a tiled reflection distortion effect against the background, a semi-transparent white bottom panel, and a finer font. Do you like it?

Fixed Bugs

50-some issues labelled “bug” were closed between 2020-08-22 and mid-April 2021, many of them thanks to flicking the switch on leveraging our internal ITypeLib API for user code – thanks to earlier invaluable contributions from the amazing Wayne Phillips (vbWatchdog, twinBASIC), Rubberduck is now able to tap into the actual in-memory COM type library compiled from the VBA code and, eventually, fill the remaining the gaps in Rubberduck’s understanding of the code: Rubberduck now understands enough to be able to tell that ThisWorkbook has a _Workbook subtype, and that Sheet1 has a _Worksheet subtype, …and that’s enough to identify the ThisWorkbook module at long last, and as a result Rubberduck’s ImplicitActiveSheetReference and ImplicitActiveWorkbookReference inspections get to work exactly as intended, and the door is now opened for so many interesting things…

New Inspections

A Rubberduck release wouldn’t be a Rubberduck release without at least a handful of new inspections. The IllegalAnnotation inspection is being replaced by InvalidAnnotation, UnrecognizedAnnotation, and together with the new AnnotationInIncompatibleComponentType inspection they allow Rubberduck to better convey exactly what’s wrong with a given “illegal” annotation comment.

Annotation in Incompatible Component Type

Some annotations cannot be used in certain types of modules. For example, attribute-related annotations cannot be used in document modules (because Rubberduck cannot import back the modified modules), and a @TestModule annotation is only meaningful in a standard module.

Note that the @Description, @ModuleDescription and @VariableDescription annotations do work in document modules now, because Rubberduck is now reading docstrings off annotations rather than hidden attributes.

Implicit Containing Workbook Reference

Code in the ThisWorkbook module (Excel) referring to members of the Workbook class, have an implicit Me qualifier. This makes an unqualified Worksheets(1) retrieval in ThisWorkbook refer to ThisWorkbook.Worksheets(1), but an identical statement in any other module would be (implicitly) referring to ActiveWorkbook. By qualifying such member calls with Me, the intent is clarified.

Implicit Containing Worksheet Reference

Code in a worksheet module (Excel) referring to members of the Worksheet class, have an implicit Me qualifier. This makes an unqualified Range member call in the Sheet2 module refer to Sheet2, but an identical statement in any other module would be (implicitly) referring to ActiveSheet. By qualifying such member calls with Me, the intent is clarified.

Invalid Annotation

Flags unbound annotations; that is, annotation comments that were correctly parsed as Rubberduck annotations but that could not be associated with a target element. This would happen when a module annotation is used in local scope, or a member annotation at module level. This inspection only flags annotation comments that parsed as Rubberduck annotations.

Misleading ByRef Parameter

The RHS/Value parameter of a Property Let procedure is always passed by value. As such, an explicit ByRef modifier on such a parameter definition is misleading. From MS-VBAL (VBA language specifications) section 5.3.1.7 Property Declarations:

§ If the <value-param> of a <property-LHS-declaration> does not have a <parameter-mechanism> element or has a <parameter-mechanism> consisting of the keyword ByRef, it has the same meaning as if it instead had a <parameter-mechanism> element consisting of the keyword ByVal.
§ The <value-param> of a <property-LHS-declaration> always has the runtime semantics of a ByVal parameter.

Unrecognized Annotation

This inspection flags comments that parsed like a Rubberduck annotation, but aren’t recognized or supported. It picks up typos in Rubberduck annotations, and annotation-like comments that aren’t Rubberduck annotations but parse as such. Splicing this specific scenario from other invalid annotations is particularly useful when you want to mute inspection results for non-Rubberduck annotations while still validating the supported ones.


New Quick Fixes

This release also introduces a handful of new quick-fixes:

AnnotateEntryPoint

This fix is now available for ProcedureNotUsed inspection results in standard and document modules; it simply annotates a member with the new @EntryPoint annotation which specifically instructs ProcedureNotUsed to ignore that member. Use this quick-fix for UDFs and macro procedures that are attached to document objects and don’t need an Excel hotkey. If your project is hosted in an Excel workbook, macros annotated with @ExcelHotkey are also considered as entry points now.

DeclareAsExplicitType

VariableTypeNotDeclared inspection results could always be “fixed” by making the declared type an explicit Variant; this new quick-fix makes Rubberduck infer the declared type from usage where possible, which is objectively awesome.

QualifyWithMe

This new quick-fix is available for the new implicit containing workbook/worksheet reference inspections, making the reference to the containing module explicit.

Introduce Get Accessor

The Write-Only Property inspection gets a new quick-fix with this release; this iteration does not try to infer the backing field, so further manual edits are needed, but it’s a start.


New UI Language: Italian

Thanks to a timely contribution by @PhilCattivocaratere, we are thrilled to announce that this release introduces Italian as a UI language:

Every single UI string in Rubberduck comes from a localized resource file. Translating all the resources for a new language can take 3-5 hours, and then it’s only a matter of keeping the translations up-to-date by creating a small pull request when new resource strings are added for new features.

In a nutshell

Here’s a quick summary of the most significant pull requests and commits merged this cycle:

  • Encapsulate Field enhancements
  • We are now leveraging our internal ITypeLib API
  • We are now building Rubberduck with the latest version of Visual Studio 2019
  • Precompiler directives now parse correctly with line continuations
  • Internal CodeBuilder API honors indenter settings when generating code
  • Fixed a number of issues with name conflict validation
  • Test methods now support a @TestIgnore annotation to ignore a test
  • Specific projects can now be ignored by the parser
  • Users no longer need to accept the GPLv3 as if it were an End User License Agreement (EULA)
  • Custom templates extensions is changing from .rdt to .template
  • Implicit Variant inspection quick-fix will now infer the best type from usage instead of just making the variable an explicit Variant
  • For...Next loop variables no longer trigger a variable not used inspection
  • Implicit Public Member inspection will now flag Enum types and Type structures
  • Branch “master” was renamed to “main”
  • New Property Group indenter settings
  • Arrays declared with ReDim now correctly resolve the declared type
  • @Description, @VariableDescription, and @ModuleDescription can now be used in document modules (cannot be synchronized)
    • Documentation strings are now read from annotations when missing from attributes
  • Start menu link to website now uses https
  • Fixed context menu positioning
  • New @EntryPoint annotation marks a standard or document module member as invoked from outside the code; as such the Procedure Not Used inspection will no longer flags members annotated with @EntryPoint or @ExcelHotkey (Excel only).
  • Several other opportunistic fixes left & right, improved overall stability.
  • Shiny new splash screen; debug builds now indicate “debug” instead of a meaningless local build number (build version# is controlled by the AppVeyor CI build server; local builds are all .0).
  • Expand/collapse all in Code Explorer
  • Rubberduck CommandBar label will now show the corresponding parameter declaration for a selected argument, and Find all References will now include arguments at call sites for parameter declarations (previous versions would only count named arguments).
  • Find Symbol navigation tool works again.
  • Find all References search results will now highlight the target reference in its context.
  • Added Italian UI resources.

Possible (Silent) Crash on Exit

I haven’t personally experienced it in a long time in Excel, but Rubberduck may run into issues tearing down, sometimes causing an AccessViolationException when it unloads, which can either crash the host process or leave it hanging as a ghosted process that will interfere with reloading: verify that the host process (e.g. ACCESS.EXE) has shut down completely using Task Manager when you close everything, and make sure to kill any such ghosted processes before loading Rubberduck in a new process.

Sounds familiar? If you’ve been following the project all along, you probably remember similar behavior in earlier releases – at one point during this development cycle we thought the problem was finally under control, but the cure was worse than the disease and there was a chance that the host document / project gets completely corrupted and impossible to open in the VBE: because we think it’s much better to sometimes crash on teardown than to corrupt our users’ host documents forever, we have reverted that “fix” and will have to come up with something else.


What’s Next?

Lots of good stuff, including a new peek definition command to the code pane, Code Explorer, and the VBE’s own Project Explorer‘s context menus – the feature was developed too late to make the cut for this release, but will be available in 2.5.2.x pre-release builds very soon:

Peek Definition commands pop a panel that shows you the syntax-highlighted source code for a type or member. The pop-up panel can then be dragged around to keep it in sight while editing.

In the Unit Testing department, a mocking framework is about to debut as an experimental feature with a number of technical limitations.

I’m going to be turning my attention towards code path analysis this cycle; this internal API is needed to implement the more advanced inspection ideas, and an Extract Method refactoring needs it too.

To be continued…

Constructors in twinBASIC

If you haven’t tried it already, download VSCode and get the twinBASIC extension, and be part of the next stage of the Visual Basic revolution. When it goes live (it’s still in preview, and vigorously maintained), twinBASIC will compile 100% VB6/VBA compatible code and completely redefine how VB6 and VBA solutions will be maintained and extended in the foreseeable future.

Among the many mind-blowing language-level enhancements twinBASIC brings to the table, are actual constructors – something Visual Basic developers that haven’t made the leap to VB.NET have only been able to simulate with factory methods.

Object Construction As We Know It

When we create a new instance of a class in VBA like this:

Dim thing As Something
Set thing = New Something

Several things appear to happen all at once, but in reality there’s a very specific sequence of events that unfolds when this Set assignment instruction is evaluated:

  • The right-hand side of the assignment is evaluated first; it’s a <new-expression>, so we’re spawning a New instance of the Something class.
  • As the object gets created and before the New operation returns to the caller, the Class_Initialize handler inside the Something class is invoked.
  • When the Class_Initialize handler returns, the New operation is completed and yields an object reference pointing to the new object.
  • The object reference gets copied to the thing variable, and member calls are now legal against it.

Classes in VBA/VB6 don’t really have a constructor – there’s this Class_Initialize handler where it’s appropriate to initialize private instance state, but it’s essentially a callback invoked from the actual “base class” constructor which is for a COM object and thus, without any parameters.

Default Instances & Factory Methods

Classes in VBA/VB6 have a hidden VB_PredeclaredId attribute that is False by default, but that can be set to True (either manually, or using Rubberduck’s @PredeclaredId annotation). Document modules like ThisWorkbook and Sheet1, but also UserForm modules, have that hidden attribute set to True.

Given a VB_PredeclaredId = True attribute, the runtime automatically creates an instance of the class that is named after the class itself, so the global UserForm1 identifier refers to the default instance of the UserForm1 class when it’s used as an object, and refers to the UserForm1 class type when it’s used as a type.

If you handle Class_Initialize in a class that has VB_PredeclaredId set to True, you’ll notice the handler is invoked the first time the class name is used as an object in code, i.e. just before the first reference to it. And if you handle Class_Terminate too, you’ll find the default instance gets destroyed as soon as it’s no longer needed (i.e. when nothing in-scope references it anymore).

We could treat default instances like global objects – that’s what they are. But globals and OOP don’t quite go hand-in-hand, for many reasons; there’s something icky about having magical implicit global objects spawned from the language runtime itself. However, if we treat this default instance as we would a type, then we can consider the members of a class’ default interface as members that belong to the type, and then we can define an explicit, separate interface that the class can implement to expose its actual intended instance functionality.

In many languages, members that belong to a type (rather than an instance of that type) are called “static”. In C# the static keyword is used for this, but in VBA/VB6 the Static keyword has a different meaning and there isn’t really anything “static” in Visual Basic. In .NET type-level members are identified with the Shared keyword, which was reserved in VB6 but never implemented. twinBASIC might end up changing that.

So by treating the default instance of a VBA/VB6 class as we would a static class (i.e. keeping the default instance stateless, that is, we don’t allow it to hold any state/variables), we can still adhere to OOP principles while leveraging language features that let us simulate static behavior, chiefly so by exposing factory methods that effectively simulate parameterized constructors – here for our Something example class module, with an added SomeProperty value being property-injected:

'@PredeclaredId
Option Explicit
Implements ISomething
Private mValue As Long

Public Function Create(ByVal Value As Long) As ISomething
    Dim Result As Something
    Set Result = New Something
    Result.SomeProperty = Value
    Set Create = Result
End Function

Public Property Let SomeProperty(ByVal RHS As Long)
    mValue = RHS
End Property

Private Property Get ISomething_SomeProperty() As Long
    ISomething_SomeProperty = mValue
End Property

The ISomething interface is only exposing SomeProperty with a Property Get accessor, which makes it read-only. That’s great when the code is written against ISomething, but then several things feel wrong:

  • We must expose Property Let (or Property Set) mutators on the class’ default interface to support the property-injection that happens in the factory method.
  • Rubberduck will (appropriately) flag the write-only properties and suggest to also expose a Property Get accessor, because it makes no sense to be able to write to a property when we can’t read back the value we just wrote.
  • Properties visible on the default interface look like mutable state that is accessible from the default instance. If nothing is done to actively prevent it, the default instance can easily become stateful… and then we’re looking at dreadful global state living in some class.
  • In order to have a clean interface without the Create member (and without the Property Let mutator), we must implement an explicit, non-default interface to expose the members we intend the calling code to work with.

Actual Constructors

With twinBASIC we get actual constructors, that can be parameterized (for classes we’re not making visible to COM clients, like VBA or VB6). A constructor is a special procedure named New (like the operator) whose sole purpose is to initialize the state of an object, so that the client code creating the object receives a fully-initialized object: the very same purpose as a default instance factory method.

We don’t need default instance factory methods in twinBASIC because we get to define actual constructors. This has several interesting and snowballing implications we’ll go over in a moment, but first we need to establish certain things about what constructors should and generally shouldn’t do.

  • DO take a constructor parameter for instance state that should be initialized by the caller.
  • DO initialize private instance fields from constructor parameters.
  • DO invoke any private initialization procedures that must be invoked for the object instance to be valid when the constructor returns.
  • DO validate all parameters and raise a run-time error given any invalid parameter value.
  • AVOID doing any kind of non-initialization work in a constructor.
  • AVOID invoking any procedure that performs non-initialization work from a constructor.
  • AVOID raising run-time errors in a constructor (other than from guard clauses validating parameter values).

For example, a DbConnection class might take a ConnectionString constructor parameter; the constructor stores the ConnectionString as instance-level state into a private field, then returns. Another method invoked by the consumer of the object invokes an Open method that reads the ConnectionString and proceeds to open the database connection. The DbConnection constructor could open the connection itself and that would probably be convenient for a lot of use cases… but it also couples constructing a DbConnection object with the action of connecting to a database. Problem is, when most people read this instruction:

Dim db As DbConnection = New DbConnection(connString)

…they expect to have simply instantiated a new DbConnection object – nothing less, nothing more. If merely creating an instance of an object can raise a run-time error because some network cable is unplugged, we’re looking at the consequences of having a badly side-effecting constructor.

Inline initialization notice the initial assignment is on the same line as the declaration? This syntax is legal in VB.NET, and twinBASIC adopted it as well. In VBA/VB6, we must separate the declaration (Dim) from the instruction performing the instantiation and assignment.

When we create a New object, we expect a new object to get created, and we expect that to be a very boring thing: it wouldn’t even occur to us that there’s the slightest chance anything could possibly go wrong with just spawning a new instance of a class.

That is why constructors should adhere as much as possible to the KISS principle: Keep It Stupid Simple. If something more complicated than creating objects and setting their properties happens in a constructor, consider refactoring it so that the actual work is triggered after the object is constructed.

Implications

The constructor is operating on the instance that’s in the process of being created. This makes them much simpler to reason about and to implement than, say, a Create factory method on the default interface of the class, because now we have access to the internal state of the object we’re constructing.

The implication of this, is that we no longer need to expose any Property Let mutators to property-inject the parameter values; instead we can now do constructor injection and directly assign the private fields, without needing to pollute the class’ default interface with members we don’t need.

Since we’re no longer polluting the class’ default interface with members we don’t need, we don’t have to extract an explicit interface to hide them anymore. And since constructors are invoked using the New operator, there’s no need to have a predeclared default instance of the class for a Create method to be accessible to the calling code.

Let’s see how tremendously twinBASIC constructors change everything, by contrasting a simple scenario in Classic VB with the same identical scenario in twinBASIC.

Simulating Constructors in Classic VB (VBA/VB6)

Here’s an example of how I’d write a class named Example, simulating a parameterized constructor:

'@PredeclaredId
Option Explicit
Implements IExample

Private Type TState
    Value1 As Long
    Value2 As String
End Type

Private This As TState

Public Function Create(ByVal Value1 As Long, ByVal Value2 As String) As IExample
    Dim Result As Example
    Set Result = New Example
    Result.Value1 = Value1
    Result.Value2 = Value2
    Set Create = Result
End Function

Public Property Get Value1() As Long
    Value1 = This.Value1
End Property
Public Property Let Value1(ByVal RHS As Long)
    This.Value1 = RHS
End Property

Public Property Get Value2() As String
    This.Value2 = RHS
End Property
Public Property Let Value2(ByVal RHS As String)
    This.Value2 = RHS
End Property

Private Property Get IExample_Value1() As Long
    IExample_Value1 = This.Value1
End Property

Private Property Get IExample_Value2() As String
    IExample_Value2 = This.Value2
End Property

Where IExample is another class module that only exposes Public Property Get Value1() As Long and Public Property Get Value2() As String. The calling code might look like this:

Dim x As IExample
Set x = Example.Create(42, "Test")
Debug.Print x.Value1, x.Value2

The x variable could legally be cast to an Example, and then x.Value = 10 would be legal too. But we code against abstract interfaces so we get IExample.Value1 and IExample.Value2 as get-only properties, and that’s the standard pattern I’ve now been using for several years in classic VB, to perform dependency injection and initialize objects with properties before they’re returned to the code that consumes them.

It works pretty nicely, with relatively few caveats (like casting to concrete /default interface being allowed, or Example.Value1 = 42 making the default instance stateful unless we actively guard against it) but it’s robust enough and makes a rather clean API that’s very suitable for OOP and testable code.

Are we in the default instance? Using the Is operator together with Me, we can test whether Me Is Example and determine whether we’re currently in the default instance of the Example class. So adding If Me Is Example Then Err.Raise 5 could raise a run-time error as a guard clause in the Property Let members, effectively protecting against misuse of the class/design.

Rubberduck has tooling that makes writing most of this code pretty much entirely automatic, but at the end of the day it’s still quite a lot of code – and the only reason we need it is because we can’t parameterize an actual constructor.

What if we could though?

Constructors in twinBASIC

The legacy-VB example above should compile just fine and work identically in twinBASIC, but the language offers new opportunities and it would be silly to ignore them. Now a twinBASIC executable doesn’t necessarily have the same concerns as a twinBASIC ActiveX DLL; in a standalone .exe project we can do anything we want, but if we’re making a library that’s intended to be used by legacy VB code we have to keep our intended COM-based client in mind.

COM clients (like VBA) don’t support parameterized constructors, so public/exposed classes (with VB_Exposed attribute set to True) should define a parameterless constructor. Either the legacy way, with a Class_Initialize handler:

Private Sub Class_Initialize()
End Sub

Or the twinBASIC way with an explicit, parameterless constructor:

Public Sub New()
End Sub

Similar to VB.NET, a constructor in twinBASIC is a Sub procedure named New in a class module. Ideally you want your constructor near the top of the module, as the first member of the class. Not for any technical reason really, but instinctively that’s where you expect a constructor to be.

A class’ parameterless constructor is dubbed a default constructor, because if no constructor is specified for a class, then an implicit one necessarily exists. If a class defines a parameterized constructor, it is understood as a class that requires the constructor arguments, and there is no implicit default/parameterless constructor then: a COM client could not create a new instance of such a class.

In twinBASIC, I’d write the above Example clas like this – note the absence of an IExample interface:

Class Example

    Private Type TState
        Value1 As Long
        Value2 As String
    End Type

    Private This As TState

    Public Sub New(ByVal Value1 As Long, ByVal Value2 As String)
        This.Value1 = Value1
        This.Value2 = Value2
    End Sub

    Public Property Get Value1() As Long
        Return This.Value1
    End Property

    Public Property Get Value2() As String
        Return This.Value2
    End Property

End Class

The calling code would now look like this:

Dim x As Example = New Example(42, "Test")
Debug.Print x.Value1, x.Value2

And it would have the exact same compile-time restrictions as the code written against the read-only IExample VBA/VB6 interface, only now thanks to parameterized construction we get to constructor-inject values and make the default interface of the Example class read-only, as we intended all along.

With twinBASIC we can still implement interfaces, but here an IExample get-only interface would be redundant. In a sense that brings most useful interfaces in twinBASIC closer to “pure” abstract interfaces, the kind that gets implemented by multiple classes: it would be suspicious to see a Thing class implement an IThing interface, for example, whereas in VBA/VB6 IThing would be an interface to work with a Thing instance when Thing is only used as a type as in myThing = Thing.Create(42).

Constructor Injection

In VBA/VB6 with factory methods we can achieve property injection – that is, using properties to “inject” dependencies into a class instance: the factory method invokes Property Let/Set procedures to do this. An example of property injection is how we set an ADODB.Connection‘s ConnectionString after instantiating the Connection object.

Dim Conn As Connection
Set Conn = New Connection
Conn.ConnectionString = "..."
Conn.Open

That works, but then it’s not ideal because it induces temporal coupling in the client code: the caller must remember to set the ConnectionString property before they invoke the Open method.

In VBA/VB6 we can also do method injection by taking dependencies in as Sub or Function parameters. To stick with the ConnectionString example, method injection would be the Open method taking the connection string as a parameter:

Dim Conn As Connection
Set Conn = New Connection
Conn.Open "..."

That’s much better: it’s now impossible for the calling code to “forget” to supply a connection string. The Property Let ConnectionString member becomes somewhat of a wart, and should be removed.

Now method injection is great for something like a connection string and nothing needs it other than an Open method. If many members of a class seem to need the same parameters, there’s a good chance we can remove that parameter from all these members by promoting the dependency to instance level. In VBA/VB6 that would have to be through property injection. Say you have a class and many of its members require a Connection parameter: ask yourself whether it would make sense for that Connection to be a dependency of the class rather than a dependency of each one of its methods.

With twinBASIC we can now do constructor injection, and create objects that are valid as soon as they come into existence:

Dim Conn As Connection = New Connection("...")
Conn.Open

If a Connection class takes a ByVal ConnectionString As String constructor argument, then the constructor can store that string in Private instance state, and we only need to expose a ConnectionString property (which would be get-only) if we have a reason to do so. The object is immediately usable, and there’s no temporal coupling anymore.

Eventually, twinBASIC could support ReadOnly modifiers for instance fields, that could enforce and guarantee immutability: the role of a constructor then boils down to assigning all the ReadOnly private instance fields.

By writing classes that take their instance-level dependencies as constructor arguments, we throw consumers of these classes into a pit of success where doing things wrong is much harder than doing them correctly – and that is the single best reason to leverage constructors when we can.

Globals and Ambient Context

Most of the time, we don’t need any global variables. State can usually be neatly encapsulated in an object, and a reference to this object can easily be passed as an argument to any procedure scope that needs it. But global scope is neither a necessary evil, nor necessarily evil. Like many things in programming, it’s a tool, and like many other tools, misusing it can cause pain.

The VBA code and host Excel workbook accompanying this article can be found on GitHub.


What is Global Scope?

When we declare a variable inside a procedure, we call it a “local variable” in reference to its scope being local to the procedure. “Module variables” are accessible within any procedure scope within the module they’re declared in. Public members of private modules (and Friend members of public modules) are only accessible within the project they live in, and Public members of public modules are global and can be accessed from other projects.

The different scopes of VBA: Global, project, module, and local.

Because in VBA class modules are private by default, and a public class is only PublicNotCreatable (as in, a referencing project cannot create a New instance of a class, factory methods must be provided), and also because “actually global” is in reality slightly more complicated than that (the VB_GlobalNamespace attribute is always going to be False for a VBA class), for the sake of simplicity when I talk about “global scope” and “globals” in this article, I’m treating global and project scopes as one and the same – but it’s important to know the difference, especially more so in scenarios where a VBA/Excel add-in/library is being referenced by other VBA projects, where a tidy public API is handy.

Keywords
Rubberduck recommends using the Dim keyword only in local scope, and to use the Private keyword to declare module-level variables. It also recommends using Public over Global, because nothing is really “global” in VBA and that makes the deprecated keyword potentially confusing. The Global keyword really means Public in VBA, and should be avoided.

Picture the VBA runtime executing some macro procedure and some variable needs to be incremented by 1. Scope determines whether that variable identifier is referring to a local, module, or global declaration. Accessibility is how we use code to restrict scope, using keywords like Private, Public, or Friend: if the variable identifier exists in a public module but is declared with the Private keyword, then it’s inaccessible and not in scope for the procedure we’re in.

So in search for the variable’s declaration we look for a local scope declaration by that name. If there isn’t any, we look for a module scope declaration for that name. Not there? We look at everything we can see in project scope. If we still haven’t found it then, we look for the declaration in the referenced libraries and projects, in priority order (so, the VBA standard library, then the host application’s own object model library, then everything else).

That’s scoping. Scopes and accessibility are closely related, but they’re different things. Think of accessibility as a tool to shape your private and public interfaces and APIs, keeping in mind that in VBA all module members are implicitly Public unless their declaration states otherwise.


Globals and Testability

Global variables are very useful: having a piece of data that is accessible from anywhere in the code does have its advantages. Used wisely, globals can very elegantly address cross-cutting concerns. Instead of having every method responsible for its own logging, or instead of passing a Logger instance to every method, each scope can access a single global Logger object (or invoke the same Log utility procedure), and there really isn’t any problem with that, …until you realize that your unit tests are all needlessly writing logs to some file under C:\Dev\VBA because the global logger is doing its job whether or not the code invoking it is being executed from a test runner… and this is making tests run code that isn’t related to these tests’ purpose: if there’s a bug in the logger code, it’s a test about the logger code that should be failing, not every single other test that couldn’t care less for the logging functionality.

From a testability standpoint, code with global dependencies can be difficult, if not impossible to test. In the case of a global Logger dependency, the logger’s interface would need to expose some kind of “kill switch” that tests can invoke to disable logging… but then modifying an otherwise perfectly good interface for the sake of making the object aware of whether it’s being invoked from a test or not, isn’t ideal at all (we’ll see why in a bit).

This Logger is a good example of a legitimate global service, but it’s “user code” that could always be pragmatically modified to accommodate testing. What about code that depends on global-scope services that aren’t “user code”?

Treating the Excel Object Model as a Dependency

Imagine needing to write tests for user-defined functions (UDF) that store a number of values in a global Dictionary and then schedule a macro that then runs (asynchronously!) and sends these values over to some web API that returns data that then ends up on the worksheet, underneath the calling UDF; the functions have dependencies on Application.Caller and Application.OnTime: we don’t own the Application global object, and we can’t modify its code to accommodate testing – what then?

Writing tests for a UDF is normally trivial: the function takes inputs, computes a result, and then returns it. Tests can supply various inputs and run the function through all kinds of cases and assert that it handles them correctly, by simply comparing its return value with what’s expected, and exceptional edge cases can have tests asserting that the expected error is thrown.

Writing tests for a side-effecting UDF that temporarily stores data in global scope is a lot more challenging, for many reasons. Remember, unit tests:

  • Should reliably produce the same outcome regardless of any external factors;
  • Should be fast, and not involve any I/O or network activity;
  • Should be able to be executed individually or in any given order without affecting outcome;
  • Should be able to be executed concurrently (at least in theory – VBA won’t run concurrent code).

With state shared between the tests, we have to be careful to correctly setup and clean-up that state before & after each test, so that each test gets a fresh canvas in a controlled environment… and then we can live with VBA unit tests that would likely break if executed concurrently, because VBA can’t run them concurrently anyway.


Testing Untestable Things

Back to this not-so-crazy UDF scenario with the Application.OnTime hack: it wouldn’t be acceptable for a test to literally wait for Excel to decide it’s time to invoke a macro, not any more than a test should be sending any actual HTTP requests (although that would be very a good way to actually be testing an API’s rate limits and get acquainted with throttling, I guess), let alone parse and process an actual HTTP response.

Such a user-defined function involves too many moving parts soldered together to be testable: making the code testable involves making the parts moving parts again, and yes it involves a proverbial blowtorch and lots of proverbial sparks flying everywhere.

Refactoring code to make it testable is a lot of fun, but the first step is, ideally, to fully grasp what’s going on and why.

If you aren’t familiar with using Application.OnTime in user-defined functions (only indirectly, because Application.OnTime calls, like run-time errors and many other members in the Excel object model, get “swallowed” when Excel is evaluating a UDF), it’s a pretty cool process that goes like this:

The calling cell contains the UDF’s return value just before the macro gets asynchronously invoked and produces its own output.

So if a UDF stored its arguments as key/value pairs in a global-scope dictionary, if all goes well and according to plan, the macro that runs a moment later gets to consume this data.

By storing the Application.Caller cell object reference in global scope, the side-effecting macro gets to know where to put its results table. There’s always the possibility that a second UDF overwrites this global state during the split-second between the moment a first UDF writes it and the moment the scheduled asynchronous read of this global state actually happens: it’s important to keep in mind that Ambient Context does not inherently address this particular problem; the state is still global and mutable from anywhere in the code, and there is never any guarantee that any scope will run to completion before the VBA runtime decides it’s an asynchronous callback’s turn to run.

The Application.Caller member isn’t going to return a Range reference when it’s not a worksheet cell invoking the function, we can’t afford to wait for Application.OnTime, and we’d like to avoid actually invoking any Win32 API functions during a test. That UDF simply isn’t testable as-is.

The solution is to introduce an abstraction to wrap the Application members we need, and make the side-effecting UDFs depend on that abstraction instead of invoking Application members directly.

AbstractionThe untestable code might look something like this:

Public Function SideEffectingUDF(ByVal FirstParameter As String, ByVal SecondParameter As Long) As Variant
    Set SomeGlobalRange = Application.Caller.Offset(RowOffset:=1)
    With SomeGlobalDictionary
        .Clear
        .Add "FirstParameter", FirstParameter
        .Add "SecondParameter", SecondParameter
    End With
    ScheduleMacro
End Function

Where ScheduleMacro involves a Win32 API call to schedule the execution of an Execute procedure that handles the Application.OnTime scheduling of the actual side-effecting procedure.

We want to be able to write a test that invokes this SideEffectingUDF function, and determines whether Application.Caller was invoked: Application.Caller is a dependency here, and for the test to be able to fulfill its purpose we must find a way to inject the dependencies so they can be controlled by the test, from outside the function.

Note how narrow such a test would be: it asserts that the UDF gets the Application.Caller reference, nothing more. Other tests would be similarly narrow, but for other things, and we don’t want a failing Application.Caller member call to interfere with these other tests by throwing error 91 before the test gets to do its thing. Whether or not we need to know if a UDF does or does not invoke Application.Caller, we still need a way to abstract the dependency away, to stub it.

You may be thinking “oh that’s easy” and be tempted go down this path:

Public Function SideEffectingUDF(ByVal FirstParameter As String, ByVal SecondParameter As Long) As Variant
    If TypeOf Application.Caller Is Excel.Range Then
        ' caller is a worksheet cell
        Set ThatGlobalCell = Application.Caller.Offset(RowOffset:=1)
        With ThatGlobalDictionary
            .Clear
            .Add "FirstParameter", FirstParameter
            .Add "SecondParameter", SecondParameter
        End With
        ScheduleMacro "SideEffectingMacro"
    Else
        ' caller is a unit test
        Set ThatGlobalCell = Sheet1.Cells(1, 1) ' tests can read as "Application.Caller was invoked"
        With ThatGlobalDictionary
            .Clear
            .Add "FirstParameter", FirstParameter
            .Add "SecondParameter", SecondParameter
        End With
        SideEffectingUDF = True ' tests can read this as "macro was scheduled"
    End If
End Function

While it does solve the problem of avoiding to involve Application.Caller and actually scheduling the macro in tests, there are several reasons why this is a terrible idea:

  • Function now has a higher Cyclomatic Complexity metric by virtue of now needing more execution paths to accomplish the same thing: the code is objectively and measurably more complex now, on top of being repetitive (copying & pasting any code is usually a sign something is off!).
  • Tests are no longer executing the same code as normal execution does, which means tests are now testing code that only exists because there are tests: the normal execution path remains untested, and that makes the tests worthless busy-work.
  • Tests now need to be making assumptions about how the function is implemented, which effectively casts the code into concrete instead of making it simpler & safer to modify.
  • Dependencies should be abstractions, and code should be working with these abstractions without regards to their actual implementation: code that acts differently when the runtime type of an abstraction is X vs when it’s Y, violates the Liskov Substitution Principle, the “L” of “SOLID” that essentially states that all implementations of a given abstraction should be treated the same.

The killer is the second bullet: if the sole purpose of a test is to determine whether Application.Caller was invoked, and the UDF says “oh we’re in a test, here yeah everything is all right, see”, then a UDF that does nothing but returning True would pass that test, and that is why the test is useless, as is the code duplication.

When we write a test whose purpose is to determine whether the Application.Caller dependency was invoked, the test should FAIL when it isn’t, otherwise that test is just as good as a deleted one.

Now picture the UDF looking like this instead:

Public Function SideEffectingUDF(ByVal FirstParameter As String, ByVal SecondParameter As Long) As Variant
    With AppContext.Current
        Set .Target = .Caller.Offset(RowOffset:=1)
        .Property("FirstParameter") = FirstParameter
        .Property("SecondParameter") = SecondParameter
        .ScheduleMacro
    End With
End Function

The UDF now only has one dependency, AppContext.Current, which is global state by virtue of being accessible from the default instance of the AppContext class; we’re tightly coupled with the AppContext class, but only because we specifically want to access global state in a controlled manner, and the rest of the function is working against the IAppContext abstraction. The state that was formerly a Range and a Dictionary globally-scoped declaration is now properly encapsulated in an object, and the “current” AppContext is coming into existence from outside the UDF scope (but still from within our own code), which is exactly what we want: now unit tests get to inject a TestContext instead of manipulating global state.

So how do we get there?


Implementation

The basic idea is to pull our dependencies from global scope, encapsulate them in a class module, …and then making an instance of that class an “ambient context” that’s still globally accessible, but that introduces the necessary abstraction needed to make that UDF fully testable.

We want to leverage the default instance of the AppContext class, so we’re going to need an AppContext class with a @PredeclaredId annotation and a Current property getter that returns some IAppContext instance. If you’re familiar with factory methods this will feel a bit like something you’ve already seen:

'@PredeclaredId
Option Explicit
Implements IAppContext
Private Type TState
    Factory As IAppContextFactory
    Current As IAppContext
    '...    
End Type
Private This As TState
'@Description "Gets the current (or default) context."
Public Property Get Current() As IAppContext
    Errors.GuardNonDefaultInstance Me, AppContext, TypeName(Me)
    
    If This.Current Is Nothing Then
        Set This.Current = This.Factory.Create
        Errors.GuardNullReference This.Factory, TypeName(Me), "IAppContextFactory.Create returned Nothing."
    End If
    
    Set Current = This.Current
End Property
Private Property Get IsDefaultInstance() As Boolean
    IsDefaultInstance = Me Is AppContext
End Property
Private Sub Class_Initialize()
    If IsDefaultInstance Then
        'must initialize context with sensible defaults:
        Set This.Factory = New AppContextFactory
        Set This.TimerProvider = New TimerProvider
    Else
        Set This.Properties = New Scripting.Dictionary
        'we want all instances to have the same provider instance:
        Set This.TimerProvider = AppContext.TimerProvider
    End If
End Sub

We don’t normally want Property Get procedures to be side-effecting, but with an Ambient Context what we want is to yield a cached instance of the context class, so when no instance already exists, the getter caches the created object so it’s readily available next time, making it accessible from anywhere in the project (aka “global”).

Abstract Factory

The default instance of the AppContext class does not know what the actual runtime type of the Current context is, and this polymorphism is the cornerstone making it all work: the Current property getter is responsible for caching the new context instance, but not for actually creating it. That’s the job of an abstract factory (the IAppContextFactory dependency) that we conveniently initialize to a concrete factory type that creates instances of… the AppContext class.

Why involve an abstract factory to create an instance of the class we’re in, you might ask? Because that’s only the default implementation, and with ability to Set the Factory reference from outside the class, tests can inject a different factory implementation, say, this one named TestContextFactory:

'@Folder "Tests.Stubs"
'@ModuleDescription "A factory that creates TestContext instances."
Option Explicit
Implements IAppContextFactory
Private Function IAppContextFactory_Create() As IAppContext
    Set IAppContextFactory_Create = New TestContext
End Function

Meanwhile the actual UDFs would be using this AppContextFactory implementation by default:

'@Folder "AmbientContext"
'@ModuleDescription "A factory that creates AppContext instances."
Option Explicit
Implements IAppContextFactory
Private Function IAppContextFactory_Create() As IAppContext
    Set IAppContextFactory_Create = New AppContext
End Function

The AppContext.Current property will happily cache an instance of any class whatsoever, as long as it implements the IAppContext interface. The abstract factory pattern allows us to spawn an instance of a class at run-time, of which we don’t necessarily know the actual “concrete” type at compile-time.

In other words just by reading the UDF code, there is no way to tell whether AppContext.Current is going to be an AppContext or a TestContext instance, and that is exactly what we want.

What this abstraction achieves, is the decoupling that is necessary for a test to be able to inject a TestContextFactory and take control of everything UDFs can do with an IAppContext object.

Context State

We know the context needs to wrap Application.Caller and Application.OnTime functionality. We know we need a Target cell, we need some Properties in an encapsulated Scripting.Dictionary. If we crammed all that into a single interface, we would get a somewhat crowded IAppContext interface that doesn’t quite adhere to the Interface Segregation Principle and Open/Closed Principle guidelines.

By abstracting away the macro-scheduling functionality into its own IAppTimer interface, and making that interface an abstract dependency of the context class, we can stub that abstract dependency and write tests for the logic of the context class itself. Without this extra step, the context can be stubbed to test the code that uses it, but the macro-scheduling bits would remain untestable.

Treating IAppTimer as a dependency of the context makes the IAppContext interface look like this:

'@Folder "AmbientContext.Abstract"
'@ModuleDescription "Encapsulates the data and macro invocation mechanism for a side-effecting UDF."
'@Interface
Option Explicit
'@Description "Gets the cell that invoked the currently-running user-defined function (UDF), if applicable; Nothing otherwise."
Public Property Get Caller() As Range
End Property
'@Description "Gets or sets the target reference cell that the side-effecting macro shall use."
Public Property Get Target() As Range
End Property
Public Property Set Target(ByVal Value As Range)
End Property
'@Description "Gets or sets a named value representing data passed between the UDF and the side-effecting macro."
Public Property Get Property(ByVal Name As String) As Variant
End Property
Public Property Let Property(ByVal Name As String, ByVal Value As Variant)
End Property
'@Description "Gets an array of all property names."
Public Property Get Properties() As Variant
End Property
'@Description "Gets or sets the IAppTimer dependency."
Public Property Get Timer() As IAppTimer
End Property
Public Property Set Timer(ByVal Value As IAppTimer)
End Property
'@Description "Clears all held state."
Public Sub Clear()
End Sub

Note that we’re not exposing the dictionary itself: rather we expose an indexed property to get/set the key/values, then by exposing the dictionary keys, the calling code gets to do everything it needs to do, without ever directly interacting with a Scripting.Dictionary, a bit as if the AppContext class were a custom collection.

Now, there’s something special about the IAppTimer dependency: we absolutely cannot have each context instance spawn timers willy-nilly, because a leaking Win32 timer is a nice way to send Excel up in flames. Yet, we need each context instance to be able to access the same IAppTimer reference.

A good way to solve this is by introducing a Provider mechanism. The interface looks like this:

'@ModuleDescription "A service that ensures all clients get the same IAppTimer instance."
'@Interface
Option Explicit
'@Description "Gets an IAppTimer instance."
Public Property Get Timer() As IAppTimer
End Property

What I’m calling a “provider” here is exactly the same mechanism that provides the IAppContext instance (a Property Get procedure that gets a cached object or creates the object and caches it), except no abstract factory needs to get involved here. The class also makes a very convenient place to put the name of the Win32 callback macro procedure:

Option Explicit
Implements ITimerProvider
Private Const MacroName As String = "Execute"
Private Property Get ITimerProvider_Timer() As IAppTimer
    Static Instance As AppTimer
    If Instance Is Nothing Then
        Set Instance = New AppTimer
        Instance.MacroName = MacroName
    End If
    Set ITimerProvider_Timer = Instance
End Property

TimerProvider the only object that creates a New AppTimer: as a result, every AppContext instance created from this factory is going to use the same IAppTimer reference, and if we need to write tests for AppContext we can inject a TestTimerProvider that returns a TestTimer.

Note that the “provider” mechanism is an implementation detail of AppContext: the TestContext doesn’t need this, because it just initializes itself with a TestTimer, while AppContext initializes itself with a TimerProvider that gets the IAppTimer instance. Being an implementation detail, there’s no ITimerProvider dependency on the abstract interface.


The Tests

The previously-untestable user-defined functions now look like this:

Public Function TestUDF(ByVal SomeParameter As Double) As Boolean
    On Error GoTo CleanFail
    
    With AppContext.Current
        
        Set .Target = .Caller.Offset(RowOffset:=1)
        .Property("Test1") = 42
        .Property("Test2") = 4.25 * SomeParameter
        .Timer.ExecuteMacroAsync
        
    End With
    
    TestUDF = True
CleanExit:
    Exit Function
CleanFail:
    TestUDF = False
    Resume CleanExit
    Resume
End Function

The code isn’t very far off from the original, but now we can write a test that passes when a UDF invokes the Caller member; when the UDF is invoked from a worksheet cell, IAppContext.Caller returns the Range reference returned by Application.Caller; when the exact same code is invoked from a test, IAppContext.Caller returns a bogus/test cell reference.

Similarly, when a UDF invokes IAppTimer.ExecuteMacroAsync, a Win32 API call schedules the execution of a callback macro that itself invokes Application.OnTime to schedule the execution of a side-effecting macro that can consume the state and alter the target range and worksheet; when the exact same code is invoked from a test, IAppTimer.ExecuteMacroAsync simply notes that it was invoked, …and does nothing else.

This test passes when IAppTimer.ExecuteMacroAsync is invoked from a UDF, and would fail if the UDF didn’t invoke it:

'@TestMethod("Infrastructure")
Private Sub TestUDF_SchedulesMacro()
    'inject the test factory:
    Set AppContext.Factory = New TestContextFactory
    
    'get the test context:
    Dim Context As TestContext
    Set Context = AppContext.Current
    
    'test factory already stubbed the timer:
    Dim StubTimer As TestTimer
    Set StubTimer = AppContext.Current.Timer
    
    'run the UDF:
    Dim Result As Boolean
    Result = Functions.TestUDF(0)
    
    'Assert that the UDF has invoked IAppContext.ScheduleMacro once:
    Const Expected As Long = 1
    Assert.AreEqual Expected, StubTimer.ExecuteMacroAsyncInvokes, "IAppTimer.ExecuteMacroAsync was invoked " & StubTimer.ExecuteMacroAsyncInvokes & " times; expected " & Expected
End Sub

Cohesion

Ambient Context is a fantastic tool to address cross-cutting concerns and leverage global scope in a way that does not hinder testing. It’s also useful for storing state and dependencies that would otherwise be held in global scope, when passing that state and dependencies as normal parameters isn’t possible.

That makes it a somewhat dangerous pattern: one must keep in mind that the state is still global, and globals that don’t need to be global, should not be global. By defining an explicit interface for the context (like IAppContext), we not only end up with neat abstractions: we also make it harder for the context interface to grow new members and for the class to become an over-engineered Globals.bas module.

Interfaces shouldn’t be designed to change. In .NET the IDisposable interface only mandates a parameterless Dispose method; IEquatable is all about an Equals method. A factory interface shouldn’t need more than a carefully parameterized Create method that only takes arguments that can’t be dependencies of the factory instance: we want to avoid modifying existing interfaces as much as possible, and since none of us can really predict the future… the best way to do that is to keep interfaces as slim as possible. Cohesion is what we’re after: a module that is cohesive will feel like everything is exactly where it should be.

If the members of a module don’t feel like they’re a cohesive and complete group of closely related methods, there’s a greater chance that more members need to be added in the future – and you will want to avoid that. Of course the “and complete” part can mean a few growing pains, but in general naming things is a great way to avoid the pitfalls of treating the context as some “state bag” where we just lazily stuff state without thinking it through. In that sense AppContext is probably one of the worst possible names for this: perhaps a FunctionContext that only exposes the Caller member would be a cleaner approach?

In the real world, ambient context is for things like System.Threading.Thread.CurrentThread in .NET: it’s very specialized, with a very specific purpose, and we don’t see it very often. Authorization mechanisms might use it too.

In VBA-land, I’ve never once needed to implement it until I came upon this side-effecting UDF scenario needing unit tests; macros are definitely much simpler to refactor for testability!

WorksheetFunction and Errors

Using Excel worksheet functions taps into the native calculation engine: using Excel’s very own MATCH function instead of writing a lookup loop or otherwise reinventing that wheel every time makes a lot of sense if your project is hosted in Excel in the first place, or if you’re otherwise referencing the Excel type library.

You may have seen it look like this:

Dim result As Variant
result = Application.WorksheetFunction.Match(...)

Or like this:

Dim result As Variant
result = Application.Match(...)

You’ve tested both, confirmed they both work, and might be using them interchangeably in code, and all is well… until it isn’t anymore and you’re facing a cryptic run-time error:

The canned default message for error 1004 is a meaningless “Application-defined or object-defined error”. The message you get for a worksheet function that raises this error is arguably even more confusing: “unable to get the {function name} property of the WorksheetFunction class”.

What could this nonsense possibly mean? First, we need to understand that we’re looking at a templated error message where “property” has to have been mistakenly made part of the templated string – because we’re really looking at a function member here, but even reading the message with the correct kind of member makes no sense… until we read it as simply “the worksheet function returned a worksheet error value“: if we typed that exact same invocation in an actual worksheet cell formula, Excel’s own error-handling would do the same, and the cell would contain an #N/A error:

When MATCH or VLOOKUP fails in a cell, that cell’s error value propagates to any caller/cell that references it. When you invoke these functions from VBA code, it’s into your VBA code that these errors propagate now.

Given bad arguments or a failed lookup, Application.WorksheetFunction.Match and Application.Match will behave very differently. Let us understand why and how. Note I’m going to be using a VLookup function here, but Index or Match wouldn’t be any different, and everything here holds true for any other worksheet function, from the simplest Sum to the most obscure financial function nobody ever used.

The two forms are not interchangeable, and it’s important to understand the difference!

Early Bound: Errors are Raised

When you invoke WorksheetFunction members, errors are raised as VBA run-time errors. This means a failed lookup can be caught with an On Error statement, as would any other run-time error.

  On Error GoTo LookupFailed
  Debug.Print Application.WorksheetFunction.VLookup(...)
  Exit Sub
LookupFailed:
  Debug.Print "..."
  Resume Next

When you type these member calls, you know you’re typing early-bound code because IntelliSense (its ancestor, anyway) is listing that member in an inline dropdown:

VLookup is a member of the object returned by the WorksheetFunction property of the Application object.

The implication is that the function is assumed to “just work”: if using that same function with these same parameter values in an actual worksheet formula results in a #REF!, #VALUE!, #N/A, #NAME?, or any other Variant/Error value… then the early-bound WorksheetFunction equivalent raises run-time error 1004.

This VBA-like behavior is very useful when any failure of the worksheet function needs to be treated as a run-time error, for example when we are expecting the function to succeed every time and it failing would be a bug: throwing an error puts us on an early path to recovery.

Sometimes though, we don’t know what to expect, and a worksheet function returning an error is just one of the possible outcomes – using error handling in such cases would amount to using error handling for control flow, and that is a design smell: we should be using runtime errors for exceptional things that we’re not expecting. When a worksheet function can fail as part of normal execution, we have other options.

Late Bound: Errors are Values

When you invoke worksheet functions using late-bound member calls against an Excel.Application object, when a function fails, it returns an error code.

Dim result As Variant
result = Application.VLookup(...)

It’s important to understand that the Variant type means nothing in particular until it gets a subtype at runtime; result is a Variant/Empty until the assignment succeeds – when it does result might be a Variant/Double if the value is numeric; if the lookup failed, instead of raising a run-time error result will now be a Variant/Error value.

Operations Involving Variant/Error: Removing Assumptions

Because a failed late-bound WorksheetFunction returns an error value, it’s easy to forget the data type of the result might not be convertible to the declared type, so the first opportunity for things to go wrong materializes if we simply assume a non-error result by declaring a non-Variant data type for the variable that is being assigned with the function’s result:

Dim result As Long 'assumes a successful lookup...
result = Application.VLookup(...) 'runtime error 13 when lookup fails!

So we soon start systematically assigning these results to a Variant:

Dim result As Variant
result = Application.VLookup(...)

…only to find that all we did was moving the type mismatch error further down, here:

If result > 0 Then 'runtime error 13 when result is Variant/Error!

The first thing we should do with a Variant, is to remove any assumptions about its content. The VBA.Information.IsError function returns True given a Variant/Error, and we must use it to correctly remove assumptions about what’s in this result variable:

Dim result As Variant
result = Application.VLookup(...)
If IsError(result) Then
    'lookup failed

Else
    'lookup succeeded

End If

Inside the lookup failed conditional block, result is a Variant/Error value that can only be compared against another Variant/Error value – involving result in an operation with any other runtime type will throw a type mismatch error.

Using the VBA.Conversion.CVErr function, we can convert a Long integer into a Variant/Error value; the Excel object model library includes named constants for each type of worksheet error, so we can use them with the CVErr function to refine our knowledge of what’s in result, if we need anything more detailed than “something went wrong”:

Dim result As Variant
result = Application.VLookup(...)
If IsError(result) Then
    'lookup failed
    Select Case result
        Case CVErr(xlErrNA)
            'result is a #N/A error: value wasn't found in the lookup range

        Case CVErr(xlErrRef)
            'result is a #REF! error: is the lookup range badly defined?

        Case Else
            'result is another type of error value

    End Select

Else
    'lookup succeeded

End If

By systematically treating the result of a late-bound Application.{WorksheetFunction} call as a potential Variant/Error value, we avoid assuming success and handle a bad result without exposing our “happy path” to type mismatch errors; we then use If...Else...Then standard control flow statements to branch execution differently depending on the outcome, using standard On Error statements / error handling for the exceptional situations that could arise beyond these worksheet errors we’re already accounting for.


Other Variant/Error Pitfalls

The IsError function isn’t just useful to determine whether a late-bound WorksheetFunction call returned a usable value or not. The function returns True given any Variant/Error value, which makes it the perfect tool to identify worksheet cells that contain values that aren’t usable either.

Dim cell As Range
Set cell = Sheet1.Range("A1")
If cell.Value > 42 Then 'assumes cell.Value can be compared to 42!
    '...
End If

VBA code often assumes cells contain valid values, and whenever that assumption is broken, a type mismatch error occurs. Unless the cell value was written by the same VBA code, it’s never really safe to assume a worksheet cell contains what the code expects it to contain. Using the IsError function we remove such assumptions and make the code more resilient:

Dim cell As Range
Set cell = Sheet1.Range("A1")
If Not IsError(cell.Value) Then
    If cell.Value > 42 Then
        '...
    End If
Else
    MsgBox cell.Address(External:=True) & " contains an unexpected value."
End If

A Variant/Error value can spell trouble in many other ways. Sometimes it’s an implicit conversion to String that causes the type mismatch:

Dim cell As Range
Set cell = Sheet1.Range("A1")
MsgBox cell.Value 'assumes cell.Value can be converted to a String!

Implicit conversions can be hard to spot, but if your code is blowing up with a type mismatch error involving the value of a worksheet cell, or a value returned by a worksheet function, then that’s where you need to look.

Synchronizing your VBA project with files in a folder

Sync Project commands in the Code Explorer context menu.

VBA code being embedded in a host document might be very practical for certain aspects of both development and deployment, but let’s face it, it also makes using source control (e.g. git, SVN, mercurial, etc.) with VBA projects rather frustrating. As a developer, committing source code to a repository is usually a very simple task, because the code files live in the file system, and git can track changes and additions. With VBA, we commit the code that’s exported on the file system, the host document may contain different code, and merging remote changes implies exporting your code again, working out any merge conflicts with the exported code, then re-importing the merged changes into the host document.

Which wouldn’t be so bad… if the VBE had a nice way of exporting more than one single file at a time, and if importing files had an option to replace modules when they already exist… instead of importing the module with a “1” suffix as if that were something anyone ever needed to do!

Did You Know?
The VBE’s “Import File…” command doesn’t make it very obvious, but it does support importing multiple files at once. Simply select multiple files when prompted for what file to import!
Another little known feature of the VBE (one of the few Rubberduck hasn’t enhanced yet) is that its Project Explorer toolwindow is a drag-and-drop destination that can accept files you dragged from the Windows Explorer (⊞+E).

Rubberduck’s Export Project… command prompts for a folder, and then proceeds to export all modules there – overwriting any existing files in that folder. By default, the hotkey for that command is Ctrl+Shift+E, but it can be reconfigured to any key combination you like.

The context menu of Rubberduck’s Code Explorer toolwindow has a Sync Project sub-menu that offers two commands:

  • Update Components from Files…
  • Replace Contents from Files…

Rubberduck in general needs more documentation, but exactly what these “Sync Project” commands do is something that goes well beyond just using Rubberduck and they really deserve all the attention they can get, since they exist to facilitate an actual development workflow that looks something like this:

Import source files; make code changes; export source files; commit, push, pull, merge; rinse & repeat!

Update Components

This command prompts for source code files to import into your project.

  • If the project already contains a module with the same name as one of the imported files, the module is considered the same, and replaced with the imported version.
  • If the project does not already contain the imported modules, they’re simply added to the project.
  • If the project contains modules with different names than the imported files, these modules remain in the project.

Replace Contents

This command also prompts for source code files to import into your project, but the selected files will replace everything in the current project. Because this command is potentially destructive, a confirmation is required.

  • The entire project becomes the selected files.
  • If the project contained (non-document) modules before, they are removed before the import is performed.

We have a number of open issues (here, here, and here) about getting the “export project” command to take the @Folder annotations into account, and transpose the virtual folder hierarchy into an actual folder hierarchy on the file system, which would play nicely with version control and would help better organize a VBA repository.

From Macros to Objects: The Command Pattern

In procedural code, a macro might be implemented in some Public Sub DoSomething procedure that proceeds to do whatever it is that it needs do, usually by dereferencing a number of library-defined objects and invoking their members in a top-to-bottom sequence of executable instructions. Clean, nicely written and well-modularized procedural code would have that be a small, high-abstraction public procedure at the top of some SomethingMacro standard module, with increasingly lower-abstraction private procedures underneath.

Looking only at scope names (the private procedures might be Function, and they would likely take parameters), the module for a MakeSalesReport macro might roughly look something like this:

Like “making coffee”, the phrase “make the sales report” is abstracting away quite a lot of smaller sub-steps.

Breaking down a problem into smaller and simpler steps and sub-steps is how we begin to achieve separation of concerns: maybe one of these sub-steps is going to require prompting the user for a filename – if that’s implemented in a separate PromptFileName function that’s only responsible for prompting the user for a filename, then it’s much easier to later (as needed) reuse that function by pulling it into its own, say, Files module, and making it Public.

If programming is a lot like writing a story, then procedures have to be the verbs we use to express the actions carried by our code. The smaller a procedure, the less it can do; the fewer things a procedure does, the easier it is to give it a name that accurately, precisely describes what it does.

Public Sub DoSomething()
    'do stuff:
    '...
    
    'get the filename:
    Dim FileName As String
    FileName = ...

    'do more stuff:
    '...

End Sub

Any chunk of code that can be isolated inside a procedure scope and described with a comment that essentially says “this chunk of code reticulates splines” (whatever that is – maybe it’s “get the filename:”, or a much less subtle “======= GET FILENAME =======”), is a chunk of code that could be extracted into its own ReticulateSplines named procedure scope, and then doing this replaces a comment that says “this chunk of code reticulates splines” and the entire code block that goes with it, with a higher-abstraction single procedure call that plainly says ReticulateSplines: by properly naming the things we abstract away, we can make our code expressive and [for the most part] self-explanatory.

Option Explicit

Public Sub DoSomething()
    DoStuff
    
    Dim FileName As String
    FileName = ...

    DoMoreStuff FileName

End Sub

Private Sub DoStuff()
'...
End Sub

Private Sub DoMoreStuff(ByVal FileName As String)
'...
End Sub

And that’s glorious already.

With object-oriented programming (OOP), we get to further increase the abstraction level, such a Public Sub DoSomething macro procedure might belong to some Macros or EntryPoints standard module, painting an abstract broad-brush big picture… with all the spline-reticulating gory details in Private procedures of a separate class module.

Like procedures in procedural code, classes in OOP become another building block to tell our story: with class modules we get to use nouns: procedures do things, objects are things. So we could have a SomeMacro class that encapsulates everything “do something” needs to do, and when we need a DoSomethingElse macro we can implement it in its own dedicated class module too, leaving the Macros module (or EntryPoints, or whatever… just not Module1!) a high-abstraction, broad-brush picture of what’s going on.

This boils down to 1) create the dependencies of the macro class module we want to create; 2) create and initialize the “macro” object, and 3) invoke a Run method to, well, run the macro.

A standard module doing that, might look like this:

Option Explicit
Private Const ConnectionString As String = "..."

Public Sub DoSomething()
    ' create the dependencies...
    Dim DbService As IDbService
    Set DbService = SomeDbService.Create(ConnectionString)

    ' create the macro object, pass/inject the dependencies;
    ' we know SomeMacro needs a Worksheet and an IDbService
    ' because its Create factory method takes them as parameter:
    With SomeMacro.Create(Sheet1, DbService)
        .Run ' runs the macro
    End With
End Sub

Public Sub DoSomethingElse()
    'we could have another macro here...
    '..if that other macro is in another class...
    '...does it have a .Run method?
End Sub

This does effectively roughly demonstrate Dependency Injection and Inversion of Control in VBA (glossing over the required predeclared ID hidden attributes here), but in the context of this article, the point of interest is the .Run member call: if we make an object that encapsulates the notion of running a macro, it makes sense for that object to have a Run method. However if we don’t formalize this concept with an interface, we could have a SomeMacro.Run, then we could have AnotherMacro.Execute, and why not SomeOtherMacro.DoSomething: nothing is structuring things and telling the compiler and future maintainers “see this class is a macro and it has a method that runs it”, so while it’s nice that we’ve nicely cleaned up the Macros module by moving most of the code into class modules, it’s still chaos out there – unless there’s a way to get all macros to agree on exactly how we run them.

How do we tell the compiler “this class is a macro and it has a method that runs it”?

Interfaces and the Implements keyword, of course!

We can do this by adding a new class module (call it IMacro – I’m really not a prefix guy, but abstract interfaces in COM traditionally have that I prefix, and the tradition carried into C# and .NET, so here we are – if this were Java I would have just called it Macro; it’s all just conventions), and then adding a Run method with an empty body – this class shall remain abstract, and the implementation(s) shall be provided by other class modules:

'@ModuleDescription "Represents an executable macro."
'@Interface
Option Explicit

'@Description "Runs the macro."
Public Sub Run()
End Sub

The implementation(s) would be class modules with Implements IMacro and a Private Sub IMacro_Run procedure that invokes a Run procedure which… would break down into smaller, lower-abstraction private procedures underneath, and would delegate the more specialized work to more specialized objects (which would thus become that class’ dependencies). Sounds familiar?

Yep. You’re looking at your standard procedural macro, with the only difference being that instead of a standard module it’s now inside a class module that Implements IMacro.

Is this… a command pattern (macro in a class module)? Turns out, it pretty much actually is!

Of course, that’s not the whole story. But yes, it’s indeed a command pattern, however minimal – in design pattern abstraction terminology:

  • the caller is the Public Sub DoSomething macro procedure
  • the command is the IMacro interface
  • the concrete command is the SomeMacro class (implements IMacro)
  • the SomeDbService dependency would be a receiver, I think

What makes a “macro in a classs module” a command pattern, is the IMacro interface and how it abstracts the notion of “running a macro”. It represents the abstract concept of “something that can run”, and this right there, is the command pattern in a nutshell.

Let’s dig a little deeper though, because VBA can do much more than just macros, and commands are everywhere in software.

Divide & Conquer

Say we’re writing a user interface that can add, delete, and update records in a table. We might have a form featuring a ListBox control, and then CommandButton controls to create a new record, delete the selected one(s), and modify an existing one.

In a clean design without the command pattern, code might be written and organized with a “divide & conquer” attitude, and would look something like this (lower-abstraction details omitted, they’re not the point):

Option Explicit

'...

Public Property Get Model() As SomeModel
    'gets an object holding the data needed for this form.
End Property

Private Sub CreateNewItem()
    With New ItemEditorForm ' new form instance
        .Show 
        If .Cancelled Then Exit Sub
        AddToSource .Model ' implies the form has a Model As Something property.
    End With
End Sub

Private Sub AddToSource(ByVal Thing As Something)
    Model.AddThing Thing ' the Something class needs an AddThing method for this.
End Sub

Private Sub RemoveFromSource(ByVal Thing As Something)
    Model.RemoveThing Thing ' the Something class needs a RemoveThing method for this.
End Sub

Private Sub DeleteSelectedItems()
    Dim i As Long
    For i = Me.ItemsBox.ListCount - 1 To 0 Step -1 ' assumes an ItemsBox listbox
        If Me.ItemsBox.Selected(i) Then ' does not assume single-item selections
            Dim Item As Something
            ' assumes a ListSource collection of Something objects
            Set Item = ListSource(Me.ItemsBox.ListIndex)
            If Not Item Is Nothing Then
                RemoveFromSource Item  ' <~ do this work at a lower abstraction level
            End If
        End If
    Next
End Sub

Private Sub EditSelectedItem()
    Dim Item As Something
    Set Item = ListSource(Me.ItemsBox.ListIndex)
    If Item Is Nothing Then Exit Sub

    With New ItemEditorForm ' pop a modal with fields for an item...
        Set .Model = Item ' <~ this item. (assumes a Model As Something property)
        .Show
        If .Cancelled Then Exit Sub
        UpdateSourceItem .Model ' <~ do this work at a lower abstraction level
    End With
End Sub

Private Sub CreateButton_Click()
    CreateNewItem ' <~ do this work at a lower abstraction level
End Sub

Private Sub DeleteButton_Click()
    DeleteSelectedItems ' <~ do this work at a lower abstraction level
End Sub

Private Sub EditButton_Click()
    EditSelectedItem ' <~ do this work at a lower abstraction level
End Sub


'...

By factoring each button action into its own dedicated procedure, we get to name things and clearly split things up by functionality. The job of a Click handler becomes to fork execution elsewhere, so they [often] become simple one-liners invoking a private method, painting a broad-brush picture of what’s going on.

We could just as well implement the functionality in the body of the Click handler, but I personally find extracting these private methods worthwhile, because they make it easier to restructure things later (you can cut/move the entire scope), versus leaving that code in event handlers where the refactoring is more tedious. Event handlers are entry points in a way, enough so that having them at a high abstraction level feels exactly right for me.

Now what if we wanted the EditButton to only be enabled when only one item is selected, and then make the DeleteButton only enabled when at least one item is selected? We would have to start handling the ItemsBox.Change event, and would need additional code that might look like this:

Private Sub SetButtonsEnabledState()
    Me.EditButton.Enabled = (Model.SelectedItems.Count = 1)
    Me.DeleteButton.Enabled = (Model.SelectedItems.Count > 0)
    '...
End Sub

Private Sub ItemsBox_Change()
    SetModelSelectedItems
    SetButtonsEnabledState
End Sub

Imagine a form with many more controls – each with their own “is enabled” rules and a Change event handler procedure: boilerplate… boilerplate code everywhere!

Each command button has its own associated actions implemented in its own set of procedures, and that creates a lot of noise and reduces the signal when we’re reading the code, and that’s a clear sign the abstraction level needs to go up a bit.

Abstraction Levels
Think of the steps involved in making a cup of coffee, in maybe 3-5 steps. Think of a descriptive verb for each step, then think of how each step could be broken down into another 3-5 steps, and then use descriptive names for these steps, too. The names at the top level are necessarily going to be more abstract than those in the lower level(s): that’s what abstraction levels refers to. Now imagine doing all that in one giant procedure scope and you can see the benefits of balancing abstraction and indirection in programming 🙂

Moving that boilerplate to Public procedures in standard modules would “work” to clean up the form module… but then it would also pretty much defeat the purpose of encapsulating things into objects… and then when (not if) one such procedure needs any state, then that state soon becomes global state, and that is absolutely not something we want to have to resort to.

Command & Conquer

Using the command pattern (even without MVVM command bindings), a CreateButton_Click handler would still be responsible for kicking the “create a new item” logic into action… but now that logic would be living in some ICommand implementation, encapsulating its dependencies and state (and thus moving these outside of the form’s code-behind but not into global scope now).

The MVVM infrastructure defines an ICommand interface that looks like this:

'@Folder MVVM.Infrastructure.Abstract
'@ModuleDescription "An object that represents an executable command."
'@Interface
'@Exposed
Option Explicit

'@Description "Returns True if the command is enabled given the provided binding context (ViewModel)."
Public Function CanExecute(ByVal Context As Object) As Boolean
End Function

'@Description "Executes the command given the provided binding context (ViewModel)."
Public Sub Execute(ByVal Context As Object)
End Sub

'@Description "Gets a user-friendly description of the command."
Public Property Get Description() As String
End Property

This makes a command as an abstraction that has:

  • A user-friendly description of what the command does.
  • A function that takes a context object and returns a Boolean value that indicates whether the command can currently be executed.
  • An Execute procedure that takes a context object and, well, executes the command.

The mysterious Context parameter is an object that encapsulates the state, the data we’re working with. In MVVM that would be the ViewModel instance.

MVVM command bindings use the Description property to set the ControlToolTip string of a binding’s target CommandButton object, and automatically invokes the CanExecute method as property bindings update, which automatically enables or disables the bound command button control: the command pattern works very, very well with Model-View-ViewModel, but nothing says we cannot use the command pattern without it.

So let’s strip the interface of its Description property, leaving only the CanExecute and Execute methods:

'@Folder CommandPattern.Example
'@ModuleDescription "An object that represents an executable command."
'@Interface
'@Exposed
Option Explicit

'@Description "Returns True if the command is enabled given the provided context."
Public Function CanExecute(ByVal Context As Object) As Boolean
End Function

'@Description "Executes the command given the provided context."
Public Sub Execute(ByVal Context As Object)
End Sub

We’re still going to need a Click handler in the code-behind for each CommandButton on a form, but now that we have an ICommand abstraction to code against, we can already go back to the Divide & Conquer form’s code-behind and watch it melt:

Private CreateNewItem As ICommand
Private DeletedSelectedItems As ICommand
Private EditSelectedItem As ICommand

Public Property Get Model() As Object
    'gets an object holding the data needed for this form
End Property

Private Sub CreateButton_Click()
    CreateNewItem.Execute Me.Model
End Sub

Private Sub DeleteButton_Click()
    DeleteSelectedItems.Execute Me.Model
End Sub

Private Sub EditButton_Click()
    EditSelectedItem.Execute Me.Model
End Sub

That of course is again just simplified illustrative code, but the lower-abstraction implementation details that were omitted for brevity in the “divide & conquer” code no longer need to find a place to call home, and no longer even need to be omitted either: that lower-abstraction code is simply gone from the code-behind now, and lives in a handful of distinct objects that implement the ICommand interface, such that the only thing a button’s Click handler needs to do now is to invoke a high-abstraction method that does whatever it needs to do.

At a glance, such a one-liner CreateNewItem.Execute instruction looks very similar to another one-liner CreateNewItem instruction (both involve a procedure call against an object – but only one of them is a command); the difference is that now the form is [blissfully] unaware of how that activity is going to happen, and a maintainer looking for the code that creates a new item will find it in a CreateNewItemCommand class, instead of somewhere in the middle of other specialized procedure scopes all in the same module.

Embracing Changes

Code changes, code evolves, it’s inevitable: code lives. When we code against abstractions, we reduce the code’s resistance to change. You want your code to embrace changes, you want it to welcome changes and extensions.

By coding against an ICommand interface, the only thing we commit to is that clicking a button will do something; we don’t know what and we don’t even need to care, and that’s what not resisting change means: we aren’t saying “run procedure X in module Y” anymore, we’re saying “run X implemented by any class whatsoever“. The actual code that runs the command is bound at run-time and doesn’t even need to exist for the code to compile, and the form is still fully-functional given no-op stub “commands” – we just need to get more abstract about what “to be functional” means for a form (meaning, if we click a button and ICommand.Execute is invoked, then we’re good – that’s all we need the form to do here).

The hypothetical example code above implies a separate CreateItemCommand class; it might look something like this:

Option Explicit
Implements ICommand

Private Function ICommand_CanExecute(ByVal Context As Object) As Boolean
    ICommand_CanExecute = True
End Function

Private Sub ICommand_Execute(ByVal Context As Object)
    With New ItemEditorForm
        .Show
        If .Cancelled Then Exit Sub
        AddToSource .Model, Context
    End With
End Sub

Private Sub AddToSource(ByVal Thing As Something, ByVal Context As Object)
    Context.AddThing Thing
End Sub

Note that this is again really just moving private methods from one place into their own class, so AddToSource would be the same code as before, only now the “source” collection that needs an item added to, would live in the Context object, which we’re accessing late-bound here for simplicity’s sake, but a command implementation that works with a particular specific type of Context object should validate that, and cast the parameter into a local variable declared with the appropriate type, so as to avoid such unnecessary late binding, like this:

Private Sub DoSomething(ByVal Context As Object)
    Debug.Assert TypeOf Context Is Class1
    Dim LocalContext As Class1
    Set LocalContext = Context '<~ type mismatch here if the assert fails
    'carry on using LocalContext with early-bound member calls
End Sub

By moving the implementation out of the button’s Click handler, we make it much easier to later repurpose that button, or to make a future button elsewhere that invokes the same command. The form module doesn’t need to know about any concrete implementation of the ICommand interface: a button can be wired-up to any command, swapping SomeCommand for a SomeOtherCommand implementation is all that’s needed.


One Step Further

We’ve seen how to pull functionality from a form’s code-behind and refactor it into specialized command objects that can be invoked from a button’s Click handler. The nicest thing about such commands, is that they are full-fledged objects, which means they can be passed around as parameters – and Model-View-ViewModel (MVVM) leverages that.

In the MVVM object model, you have a top-level AppContext object that exposes an ICommandManager object: this manager is responsible for holding a reference to all command bindings in your MVVM application, and there’s an IBindingManager that notifies it whenever a property binding updates in a way that may require commands’ CanExecute method to be evaluated.

When coding against the MVVM object model, you no longer wire-up event handlers: the MVVM infrastructure automatically does it for you – so the only code that remains (that actually does anything) in a form’s code-behind, is code that wires up form controls to property and command bindings – the rest is just implementations for IView and ICancellable interfaces (as applicable), and then a factory method can initialize a bunch of properties (or the properties can be Set from outside the module, but a Create factory method works very well with UserForm classes for property injection):

Option Explicit
Implements IView
Implements ICancellable

Private Type TState
    Context As MVVM.IAppContext
    ViewModel As ExampleViewModel '<~ any class implementing INotifyPropertyChanged
    IsCancelled As Boolean
    CreateNewItem As ICommand
    DeletedSelectedItems As ICommand
    EditSelectedItem As ICommand
End Type

Private This As TState

'...properties...

Public Property Get ViewModel() As ExampleViewModel
    Set ViewModel = This.ViewModel
End Property

Private Sub InitializeView()
    With This.Context.Commands
        .BindCommand ViewModel, Me.CreateButton, ViewModel.CreateNewItem
        .BindCommand ViewModel, Me.DeleteButton, ViewModel.DeleteSelectedItems
        .BindCommand ViewModel, Me.EditButton, ViewModel.EditSelectedItem
        .BindCommand ViewModel, Me.CancelButton, CancelCommand.Create(Me)
    End With
End Sub

'...interface implementations...

The UI controls are still referred to as Me.CreateButton, Me.DeleteButton, and Me.EditButton (added Me.CancelButton for good measure), but now instead of handling their Click event we bind them to ICommand objects – whose references we conveniently expose as Property Get members of our ViewModel, but we can also bind a command that we create inline, like this CancelCommand instance. Shame the QueryClose event isn’t exposed, because then binding a CancelCommand to a UserForm would be all you’d need to do for it to automagically properly close/cancel a dialog.

Note that the form doesn’t even need to know what specific ICommand implementations it’s given to work with, at all: here the form is coupled with the CancelCommand, but all other commands (create, delete, edit) are binding to public ICommand properties that live on the ViewModel object.

Full Circle: EventCommand (MVVM)

Not all commands are created equal: a command like CancelCommand is generic enough that it can work with any ICancellable object, and an AcceptCommand can work with any implementation of the IView interface. On the other hand, something feels wrong about systematically implementing any & all commands in their own classes.

Having each command neatly factored into its own class module is a great way to implement complex commands, but can be overkill when things are relatively trivial – very often the ViewModel class already has access to every object a command needs, and having a way to make the ViewModel itself implement the command would solve this.

I’m going to introduce an EventCommand class into the MVVM infrastructure code, to do exactly this:

'@Folder MVVM.Common.Commands
'@ModuleDescription "A command that allows the ViewModel to supply the implementation."
'@PredeclaredId
'@Exposed
Option Explicit
Implements ICommand

Private Type TState
    Description As String
End Type

Private This As TState

Public Event OnCanExecute(ByVal Context As Object, ByRef outResult As Boolean)
Public Event OnExecute(ByVal Context As Object)

'@Description "Creates a new instance of this ICommand class. Set the returned reference to a WithEvents variable."
Public Function Create(ByVal Description As String) As ICommand
    Dim Result As EventCommand
    Set Result = New EventCommand
    Result.Description = Description
    Set Create = Result
End Function

'@Description "Gets/sets the command's Description."
Public Property Get Description() As String
    Description = This.Description
End Property

Friend Property Let Description(ByVal RHS As String)
    This.Description = RHS
End Property

Private Function ICommand_CanExecute(ByVal Context As Object) As Boolean
    Dim outResult As Boolean
    outResult = True
    RaiseEvent OnCanExecute(Context, outResult)
    ICommand_CanExecute = outResult
End Function

Private Property Get ICommand_Description() As String
    ICommand_Description = This.Description
End Property

Private Sub ICommand_Execute(ByVal Context As Object)
    RaiseEvent OnExecute(Context)
End Sub

In VBA we can’t pass functions around like we can with delegates in C#, but events are a nice language feature we can still leverage for this purpose. Code like this could be in any ViewModel class:

Private WithEvents PseudoDelegateCommand As EventCommand

'...

Private Sub Class_Initialize()
    Set PseudoDelegateCommand = EventCommand.Create("Full circle!")
End Sub

'...

Private Sub PseudoDelegateCommand_OnCanExecute(ByVal Context As Object, outResult As Boolean)
'supply the ICommand.CanExecute implementation here.
'assign outResult to False to disable the command (it's True by default).
'in principle, the Context *is* the ViewModel instance, so this assertion should hold:
    Debug.Assert Me Is Context
'it also means the Context parameter should probably be ignored.
End Sub

Private Sub PseudoDelegateCommand_OnExecute(ByVal Context As Object)
'supply the ICommand.Execute implementation here.
'in principle, the Context *is* the ViewModel instance, so this assertion should hold:
    Debug.Assert Me Is Context
'it also means the Context parameter should probably be ignored.
'EventCommand is useful for commands that are specific to a particular ViewModel,
'and don't really need to have their implementation extracted into their own class.
End Sub

And now we’ve gone full circle and essentially moved the Click handlers out of the View …and into the ViewModel – except these aren’t Click handlers now, although they will run when a user clicks the associated button (mind-boggling, right?): we’re essentially looking at callbacks here, invoked from within the MVVM infrastructure in response to control events… and/or INotifyPropertyChanged notifications from the ViewModel.

From a testability standpoint, it’s important to understand the implications: if you intend to have your ViewModel under a thorough suite of unit tests, then an EventCommand becomes somewhat of a liability. The OnExecute handler (or OnCanExecute, for that matter) shouldn’t require dependencies that the ViewModel doesn’t already have, so that tests can property-inject stub dependencies. In other words, unless the ViewModel already depends on an abstraction to access, say, a database connection or the file system, then the handlers of an EventCommand in that class shouldn’t connect to a database or access the file system.


You’re in command

Whether it’s for a workbook with many simple (-ish) macros, or for a full-fledged MVP, MVC, or MVVM application, implementing the command pattern lets you move the code that contains your actual functionality wherever it makes the most sense to have it. Unless you’re writing a Smart UI, that place is pretty much never the code-behind of the View module. By implementing an ICommand interface directly, you can move all that code from the UI to a command class whose sole purpose is to provide that particular piece of functionality.

Using an EventCommand with MVVM, you can even move that code from the UI to literally anywhere you want, as long as that is a class module (only class modules can have a WithEvents instance variable). It’s not uncommon to see a ViewModel class include somewhat high-abstraction code that provides commands’ implementations.

See and follow github.com/rubberduck-vba/MVVM for the Model-View-ViewModel infrastructure code that makes command bindings a thing in VBA, as well as examples (including a Smart UI!) and additional documentation.

Making MVVM Work in VBA Part 3: Bindings

Bindings are what makes Model-View-ViewModel feel a little bit like magic. Consider this example code, which creates the dynamic controls for an example UI and showcases how much of a game-changer having a MVVM framework could be for VBA code:

Private Sub InitializeView()
    
    Dim Layout As IContainerLayout
    Set Layout = ContainerLayout.Create(Me.Controls, TopToBottom)
    
    With DynamicControls.Create(This.Context, Layout)
        
        With .LabelFor("All controls on this form are created at run-time.")
            .Font.Bold = True
        End With
        
        .TextBoxFor BindingPath.Create(This.ViewModel, "StringProperty"), _
                    Validator:=New RequiredStringValidator, _
                    TitleSource:="Some String:" '<~ also accepts an IBindingPath

        .TextBoxFor BindingPath.Create(This.ViewModel, "CurrencyProperty"), _
                    FormatString:="{0:C2}", _
                    TitleSource:="Some Amount:" '<~ also accepts an IBindingPath
        
        .CommandButtonFor CancelCommand.Create(Me), This.ViewModel, "Close"
        
    End With
End Sub

This VBA code generates a dynamic UI layout with controls automatically bound to ViewModel properties, and buttons automatically bound to commands. In a project that leverages the MVVM infrastructure code, that’s the only code needed to produce this:

The RequiredStringValidator makes it impossible to leave the ‘StringProperty’ TextBox empty; valid values are automatically applied to the corresponding ViewModel property.

There’s a lot to be written about this DynamicControls API, but that part isn’t very polished yet, and the secret sauce is that it builds (mostly anyway) on top of Property Bindings: they are what makes this sorcery possible… even with a classic drag-and-drop designer UI.

I just couldn’t resist having [at least basic, bare-bones but still extensible] support for a working .LabelFor / .TextBoxFor syntax in VBA code, for the MSForms UI library! I’ll save that for another day though, the layout stuff isn’t where it needs to be yet.

I’m missing about a million unit tests so there’s a good chance something somewhere isn’t working the way it should, but what’s there should be close enough to be worth talking about, and what matters the most is that the code is testable.

Let’s dissect how property bindings work. This time I did not push code to the examples repository, because this is an actual project in its own right, with its own need for examples. I have uploaded everything to https://github.com/rubberduck-vba/MVVM.


Property Bindings

In the context of this MVVM infrastructure code, a property binding is an object responsible for binding a source property path to a target property path; the source points to a ViewModel property, and the target to a property of a UI element (control).

ViewModel?

A ViewModel can be any object that implements the INotifyPropertyChanged interface, as long as that class has:

  • Public properties for everything the View needs to bind to.
    • Property Let procedures should invoke OnPropertyChanged, but only when the property value actually changed: avoid signaling a changed property when its current value was merely overwritten with the same.
    • Property Get procedures are required for all binding modes; Property Let procedures are only needed for TwoWay and OneWayToSource bindings.
  • ICommand public properties can be exposed to avoid coupling the view with any particular specific command (other than AcceptCommand and/or CancelCommand).

Note that a View could use multiple ViewModels as needed; ViewModel classes should never know anything about any View.

INotifyPropertyChanged

This interface is central in the event propagation mechanics: in design patterns terms, a class that implement it is the subject in an Observer Pattern where the registered handlers are the observers. The reason a ViewModel needs to implement this interface, is because creating a property binding registers the binding as an observer – and it handles the ViewModel telling it about a property change by applying the binding(s) for that property.

The ExampleViewModel class illustrates how to properly implement this interface:

Public Property Get SomeProperty() As String
    SomeProperty = This.SomeProperty
End Property

Public Property Let SomeProperty(ByVal RHS As String)
    If This.SomeProperty <> RHS Then
        This.SomeProperty = RHS
        OnPropertyChanged "SomeProperty"
    End If
End Property

Private Sub OnPropertyChanged(ByVal PropertyName As String)
    This.Notifier.OnPropertyChanged Me, PropertyName
End Sub

Private Sub Class_Initialize()
    Set This.Notifier = New PropertyChangeNotifierBase
    '...
End Sub

The OnPropertyChanged method is only invoked when the RHS assigned value is different than the current value, and we don’t need to worry about tracking/adding observers or invoking them, because everything we need is already encapsulated in the PropertyChangeNotifierBase class, so we implement the interface by simply passing the parameters over to this “notifier” instance:

Private Sub INotifyPropertyChanged_OnPropertyChanged(ByVal Source As Object, ByVal PropertyName As String)
    This.Notifier.OnPropertyChanged Source, PropertyName
End Sub

Private Sub INotifyPropertyChanged_RegisterHandler(ByVal Handler As IHandlePropertyChanged)
    This.Notifier.RegisterHandler Handler
End Sub

Now we know the interfaces involved in keeping source and target in sync, let’s look at everything else – starting with the binding paths.

IBindingPath

The documentation calls it “An object that can resolve a string property path to a value”, and that’s really all it does. The properties may need some explaining though:

  • Context refers to the base object for resolving the path, i.e. your ViewModel (for the source), or a UI control (for the target).
  • Path refers to the property path string; usually just a ViewModel or control property name, but this string is resolved recursively so you could bind to “ViewModel.SomeObject.SomeProperty” if you needed to.
  • Object is the object that owns the property we’re referring to. If the path is just a property name, then this is the same reference as the Context.
  • PropertyName is the resolved property name. In the example path above, that would be “SomeProperty”.

The interface also exposes Resolve, as well as TryReadPropertyValue, TryWritePropertyValue, and ToString methods; these members are invoked by the MVVM infrastructure internals.

IBindingPath is implemented by the BindingPath class, which exposes a Create factory method that property-injects the Context and Path values and invokes the Resolve method before returning the created object, so creating a binding path really just looks like this:

Dim Path As IBindingPath
Set Path = BindingPath.Create(ViewModel, "PropertyName")

And with that we’re ready to create an IPropertyBinding.

PropertyBindingBase

The IPropertyBinding interface is mostly only useful internally. There’s little of interest here that isn’t more appropriately covered by looking at the factory method for the PropertyBindingBase class. You ready? It’s quite a mouthful…

Public Function Create(ByVal BindingManager As IBindingManager, ByVal CommandManager As ICommandManager, ByVal TargetContext As Object, ByVal SourceContext As Object, ByVal SourcePropertyPath As String, _
Optional ByVal TargetPropertyPath As String = DefaultTargetControlProperty, _
Optional ByVal Mode As BindingMode = BindingMode.TwoWayBinding, _
Optional ByVal UpdateSource As BindingUpdateSourceTrigger = BindingUpdateSourceTrigger.OnExit, _
Optional ByVal Converter As IValueConverter, _
Optional ByVal StringFormat As IStringFormatter, _
Optional ByVal Validator As IValueValidator, _
Optional ByVal ValidationAdorner As IDynamicAdorner, _
Optional ByVal CancelExitOnValidationError As Boolean = True) As IPropertyBinding

The factory method creates the IBindingPath objects from the given context and property path strings, which makes it simpler for the calling code. Note that the target property path is Optional, how is that possible?

If you’ve spent a bit of time with the MVVM prototype code, you probably noticed the PropertyBinding class was pretty much out of control, and extending it to support more target types would only make it worse. So what I did is, I pulled the common code into a new PropertyBindingBase class, then moved the control-specific code into its own specialized control-specific property binding implementation, and now there’s a strategy pattern that’s responsible for fetching the correct implementation – so that’s how binding a TextBox target creates a TextBoxPropertyBinding, and how binding a Label target creates a OneWayPropertyBinding. Each control-specific binding class can handle that control’s events and implement control-specific behavior accordingly.

IBindingManager

The binding manager is the object that knows about all the property bindings; each property binding needs a reference to the binding manager that owns it, in order to invoke data validation and trigger command bindings to evaluate whether commands can be executed. This object is automatically created when you create an AppContext instance, but the AppContext can be injected with any IBindingManager implementation as needed.

ICommandManager

This “manager” guy knows about all the command bindings, which isn’t something I’ve talked about much yet. Next article about the Command Pattern will dive into more details; this object is automatically created when you create an AppContext instance, but the AppContext can be inject with any ICommandManager implementation as needed.

TargetContext

Typically, that’s just a reference to the target MSForms control. Technically, it could really be any object that has any number of public properties.

SourceContext

Typically, that’s just a reference to the source ViewModel object. Technically, it could really be any object that has any number of public properties [and ideally, that implements INotifyPropertyChanged to support 2-way bindings].

SourcePropertyPath

The last required parameter is a string representing a path (relative to the SourceContext) to the property that holds the value we want the binding target to use; see IBindingPath.

TargetPropertyPath

Each binding type has a default target property that is automatically inferred from the type of target (and in some cases, from the data type of the source property). For example, binding to a TextBox control automatically wires up the control’s Text property, such that providing a TargetPropertyPath is only needed when binding to another target property.

Mode

This enum value determines whether the binding synchronizes the target, the source, or both. Note that binding modes OneWayBinding and TwoWayBinding both require the source object to implement INotifyPropertyChanged.

UpdateSource

This enum value determines when the binding gets to update its source. When the Mode is OneWayBinding or OneTimeBinding, value UpdateSourceTrigger.Never is used automatically.

OnKeyPress gets to validate each individual keypress. Useful for TextBox bindings that need a key validator.

OnExit and OnPropertyChanged are still somewhat ambiguously defined, but OnExit gets to keep the target control focused if there’s a validation error, and OnPropertyChanged is [currently] firing for every keypress in a TextBox, after the control’s Text property udpates. Disambiguating the terms would mean breaking with MSForms’ meaning of “updated”… which may actually be a good thing: OnPropertyChanged would basically fire on exit but without a possible navigation-blocking validation error, and then OnKeyPress mode would still need to behave like OnPropertyChanged as far as updating the source goes.

Converter

Each property binding can use an IValueConverter to “convert” a value midway between the source and the target (or between the target and the source). For example we can bind a CheckBox control to a Boolean property, but if we need the checkbox checked when the property value is False, we can use an InverseBooleanConverter to convert True to False as the binding is applied.

StringFormat

The IAppContext.StringFormatterFactory property (can be property-injected from AppContext.Create) determines which formatter class type is going to be injected here. Supply a VBStringFormatterFactory to use VB6/VBA Strings.Format format string syntax, or supply a StringFormatterFactory (or just leave the defaults alone) to use the much more flexible .NET String.Format syntax.

Validator

When a binding is given an IValueValidator, it gets to start issuing validation errors, which propagate to the ViewModel and can be used to pop a warning banner with the validation error message. Note: the AcceptCommand class’ implementation of ICommand.CanExecute makes it return False when the ViewModel has validation errors.

ValidationAdorner

Having validation errors is good, letting the user know about them is even better. Supply an IDynamicAdorner implementation by invoking ValidationErrorAdorner.Create and use the default error formatters or supply custom ones.


Order of Operations

Several objects get involved whenever something happens in a UI control. Let’s look at what happens when we type something in a TextBox with a standard two-way property binding to some ViewModel property.

Control Events

If the TextBox control has a Change event handler in the form’s code-behind (it really shouldn’t though, if we actually follow MVVM), that code probably gets to run first. The IPropertyBinding implementation would be a TextBoxPropertyBinding object, which handles MouseUp and KeyPress, but these handlers don’t trigger anything. What actually triggers the propagation of the new TextBox.Text value to the ViewModel property, is the BeforeUpdate and Exit events, both of which are initially handled in the ControlEventsPunk class, an object that leverages the Win32 IConnectionPoint API to hook up event handlers for the MSForms.Controls interface of our TextBox control (we covered that in the previous post).

So the first thing to run is the ControlEventsPunk.OnBeforeUpdate callback, which promptly iterates all registered handlers (“observers”) and invokes their HandleBeforeUpdate method.

So the ControlEventsPunk.OnBeforeUpdate callback propagates the event to the TextBoxPropertyBinding, and the IHandleControlEvents_HandleBeforeUpdate procedure runs as a result… which proceeds to forward it to the PropertyBindingBase class with a call to OnBindingUpdateSourceOpportunity, a method with the responsibility of conditionally invoking the ApplyToSource method.

ApplyToSource

The method’s job is to read the value from the binding target, and then write that value to the binding source. If the binding’s Mode is OneTimeBinding or OneWayBinding, we can already bail out because these modes only ever write to the binding target.

The first thing that needs to happen is a call to Resolve against the target (an IBindingPath). Typically the Target path would resolve IBindingPath.Object to a MSForms UI control, and IBindingPath.PropertyName accordingly resolves to Text for a TextBoxPropertyBinding, or Value for a CheckBoxPropertyBinding, or Caption for a CaptionPropertyBinding given a Frame or Label target – unless a TargetPropertyPath string was provided, in which case all bets are off and we might be binding the ForeColor or Font.Bold properties of a Label-like control, or what’s stopping us from binding its Width property (time to revisit that progress indicator, I guess).

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because the binding can use an IValueConverter implementation, such that you could conceivably implement, say, a converter that takes some Enum constant and maps each value to some Picture icon, and then use that converter in the binding of a ViewModel property of that Enum type to some MSForms.Image control’s Picture property… but I digress. Converters can also do boring things, like making sure the input value 2 becomes 0.02 before it gets written to that PercentValue ViewModel property, and then string formats can make sure that looks like 2.0% before it gets written to TextBox.Text, but we’ll get to that.

So the next thing that needs to happen is a call to IBindingPath.TryReadPropertyValue, and if we can’t do that we need to bail out, but this time ApplyResult.BindingSkipped won’t be good enough, so we explicitly return a BindingFailed result.

Once we know what value is currently in TextBox.Text (when the source update trigger is OnKeyPress, we have the KeyAscii value for it), we need to invoke IValueConverter.ConvertBack if a converter was specified for the binding; if the conversion fails, we return ApplyResult.BindingConversionError.

If conversion succeeded, we’re ready to validate the converted value (or the original one, if there is no converter). If the update trigger is OnKeyPress, then the validator operates on the single keypress – otherwise we validate the entire value. Things get interesting when there’s a validation error now: we’re returning ApplyResult.BindingValidationError, but then if there’s a ValidationAdorner, its Show method gets invoked and the validation error for that property is propagated to an IValidationManager object.

If validation passes, we try to read the source property value. If we can’t read it, we bail with a BindingFailed result. Otherwise we compare the source value with the target value, and if they are different then we proceed to clear any validation errors for that property, and then we finally write the new value to the source property; if that final step succeeds, we return ApplyResult.BindingSuccess result.

ApplyToTarget

When it’s a ViewModel property that changes, a similar sequence of events unfolds: the Property Let procedure invokes INotifyPropertyChanged.NotifyPropertyChanged, the property binding was registered as an observer, so IHandlePropertyChanged_HandlePropertyChanged is invoked; whenever the provided Source is the binding source and the provided PropertyName is the source property name, ApplyToTarget gets invoked.

When the binding mode is OneWayToSource or OneTimeBinding, we know we can immediately bail out, because these states don’t write to the binding target. Now, it’s entirely possible that we still need to supply a TextBox with a Text value even if we can’t yet resolve the binding Source (e.g. IBindingPath.Object resolves to Nothing). In such cases, we attempt to get a sensible default target value depending on the name of the target property:

  • “Text” and “Caption” target properties default to vbNullString;
  • “Enabled” and “Visible” target properties default to False;
  • “Value” property defaults to False when the target is a CheckBox or OptionButton.

If the source object is Nothing and we don’t have a fallback default, we bail out. Otherwise we try to read the source (ViewModel) value, then we validate it, then we convert it, then we read the target property value, compare with the source, and overwrite it if they’re different… but just before doing that, we run it through an IStringFormatter if we have one.


StringFormat

An MVVM application might need to use, say, a Date value somewhere. The application needs the data type to be Date, such that the program doesn’t need to worry about a malformed or ambiguous date string and works with the actual underlying Date value. Such an application would define a ViewModel class with a Date property (say, OrderDate), and then there can be a TextBox control showing that Date value to the user.

If we don’t do anything, the content of that TextBox control would be whatever VBA decides a Date value needs to look like when represented as a String, and that would be the (sorry, American readers) utterly nonsensical en-US format (mm-dd-yyyy). If your application’s users are happy with such a format, more power to them – but I like my date strings unambiguous and boringly standard, so I’d want the TextBox content to say “yyyy-mm-dd” instead. By providing a FormatString argument to the property binding, we can make it do exactly that. Or we can just as easily make it say “Thursday, October 22 2020” if we wanted to, and with a StringToDateConverter we could round-trip that value back to a proper Date.

Or maybe our ViewModel has a Currency property because our application needs to get some dollar amount, and having that displayed in a TextBox control as 1234567.89 is bare-bones good enough, but we could provide a FormatString argument to the property binding and have our ViewModel’s Currency property hold the numeric value 1234567.89 all while the bound TextBox control says $1,234,567.89.

Without MVVM property bindings doing this for us, implementing this kind of functionality is such a pain in the neck that it’s hardly ever done at all! Nobody wants to deal with parsing dates and formatted currency amounts off a TextBox control, and for a reason: when TextBox.Text is the value you’re working with, you are working with a String and you do need to parse its content.

With MVVM, we’re completely elsewhere: the TextBox.Text is just a receptacle for displaying whatever the real underlying value is (i.e. the ViewModel property), and is completely separated from it – and this tremendously simplifies everything.

The MVVM infrastructure code comes with two implementations for the IStringFormatter interface:

So in order to make a Date ViewModel property look like YYYY-MM-DD we could:

  • Use a VBStringFormatter with a “YYYY-MM-DD” format string (case insensitive)
  • Use a StringFormatter with a “yyyy-MM-dd” format string (note: lowercase-“m” refers to the “minute” part of the datetime here – use uppercase-“M” for the month!)

And in order to make a Currency ViewModel property look like money we could:

  • Use a VBStringFormatter with a “Currency” (or a culture-invariant “$#,##0.00”) format string
  • Use a StringFormatter with a “{0:C2}” format string (if we want 2 decimals)

Creating an IStringFormatter every time we want to use one would be annoying, so the binding manager uses the abstract factory from the IAppContext to spawn it automatically. A nice side-effect of this, is that the string formatters for the bindings of a given context are guaranteed to all use the same syntax. So if we wanted to use VB format strings, we would create the app context like this:

Dim Context As IAppContext
Set Context = AppContext.Create(FormatterFactory:=New VBStringFormatterFactory)

Note that if you use a format string that results in a TextBox.Text value that can’t be automatically (and correctly) parsed back into the data type of the bound ViewModel property (if that isn’t a String), updating the binding source will likely fail with a conversion error: you will need to implement an IValueConverter and inject it into the binding along with the format string in order to correctly convert the formatted string back to a value that is usable by the binding; a StringToDateConverter class exists in the MVVM infrastructure code to work with Date properties and standard format strings, but the implementation may need adjustments to handle formats that don’t automatically round-trip back to a Date value.


Validation

Another key aspect of property bindings, is that they simplify validating user inputs. If a program needs to work with some numeric value provided by the user and the user interface doesn’t validate its inputs, there’s a type mismatch error written in the sky there, or worse. As a general rule of thumb, it’s a good idea for code to assume that a value coming from the user is anything but what the program needs to work as expected.

The best way to handle an error is always to avoid throwing that error in the first place, and validating user inputs contributes to exactly this.

If you need the digits of a phone number and present the user with a control that only accepts a certain number of digit characters and then uses a format string to prettify the value on exit, you ensure that your PhoneNumber string value only ever contains the meaningful characters, leaving the “what a phone number looks like” concern separate from the “phone number” data itself, which means every phone number in your list/table ultimately gets to look exactly the same, as opposed to the free-form nightmares I presume we’re all well too familiar with.

The MVVM infrastructure addresses validation concerns through the IValidationManager interface. The object that implements this interface is responsible for managing validation errors across binding sources (ViewModels) in the context of an IApplicationContext.

ValidationManager

The role of the validation manager is to encapsulate the validation state and expose methods to add and clear validation errors; the IsValid indexed property returns a Boolean given a context (the ViewModel) and an optional property name: in order to know whether the entire context is valid, omit the PropertyName argument.

OnValidationError and ClearValidationError respectively add and remove a validation error for a particular source property, and the validation manager keeps validation errors in a dictionary keyed with the ViewModel object (a string representation of its object pointer), such that each ViewModel can be deemed “valid” or “invalid” individually/separately.

The “manager” class isn’t responsible for doing anything with a validation error: it just holds the state, so that other components can query it and retrieve the IValidationError for SomeViewModel.SomeProperty.

An IValidationError is a simple object that gives us a Message (from the IValueValidator that caused the binding to fail validation) and the IPropertyBinding that couldn’t be applied.


So, that dynamic UI stuff?

It works good-enough to make a good-enough screenshot, but the IContainerLayout stuff needs more thinking-through and more fiddling to get everything just right. See, as of this writing the layout API stacks controls horizontally or vertically, and well, that’s about it.

I want a docking panel, a layout container that can resize its children as needed and that’s a truly fascinating topic… For now there’s an IDynamicControlBuilder interface that looks like this:

'@Folder MVVM.Infrastructure.Abstract
'@ModuleDescription "Builds dynamic MSForms UI components from a binding source."
'@Interface
'@Exposed
Option Explicit

'@Description "Creates a multiline MSForms.TextBox control for the spercified String property binding path."
Public Function TextAreaFor(ByVal SourceValue As IBindingPath, Optional ByVal Converter As IValueConverter, Optional ByVal Validator As IValueValidator, Optional ByVal ErrorAdorner As IDynamicAdorner, Optional ByVal TitleSource As Variant) As MSForms.TextBox
End Function

'@Description "Creates a MSForms.TextBox control for the specified String property binding path."
Public Function TextBoxFor(ByVal SourceValue As IBindingPath, Optional ByVal FormatString As String, Optional ByVal Converter As IValueConverter, Optional ByVal Validator As IValueValidator, Optional ByVal ErrorAdorner As IDynamicAdorner, Optional ByVal TitleSource As Variant) As MSForms.TextBox
End Function

'@Description "Creates a MSForms.Label control for the specified Caption string or String property binding path."
Public Function LabelFor(ByVal SourceCaption As Variant, Optional ByVal FormatString As String, Optional ByVal Converter As IValueConverter) As MSForms.Label
End Function

'@Description "Creates a MSForms.ComboBox control for the specified Value property binding path; SourceItems should be an array property."
Public Function ComboBoxFor(ByVal SourceValue As IBindingPath, ByVal SourceItems As IBindingPath, Optional ByVal FormatString As String, Optional ByVal Converter As IValueConverter, Optional ByVal Validator As IValueValidator, Optional ByVal ErrorAdorner As IDynamicAdorner, Optional ByVal TitleSource As Variant) As MSForms.ComboBox
End Function

'@Description "Creates a MSForms.ListBox control for the specified Value property binding path; SourceItems should be an array property."
Public Function ListBoxFor(ByVal SourceValue As IBindingPath, ByVal SourceItems As IBindingPath, Optional ByVal TitleSource As Variant) As MSForms.ListBox
End Function

'@Description "Creates a MSForms.OptionButton control for the specified Value (Boolean) property binding path; uses the specified Caption string or String property binding path for the control's Caption."
Public Function OptionButtonFor(ByVal SourceValue As IBindingPath, ByVal SourceCaption As Variant) As MSForms.OptionButton
End Function

'@Description "Creates a MSForms.CheckBoxButton control for the specified Value (Boolean) property binding path; uses the specified Caption string or String property binding path for the control's Caption."
Public Function CheckBoxFor(ByVal SourceValue As IBindingPath, ByVal SourceCaption As Variant) As MSForms.CheckBox
End Function

'@Description "Creates a MSForms.CommandButton control for the specified ICommand, using the specified ViewModel context and Caption string or String property binding path."
Public Function CommandButtonFor(ByVal Command As ICommand, ByVal BindingContext As Object, ByVal SourceCaption As Variant) As MSForms.CommandButton
End Function

…and I haven’t even tested all of it yet, and small little things that actually matter, like OptionButton groups, aren’t being considered. I still need to think of how this API can get where it wants to be, but I really like where it’s going.


Thoughts?

To be honest, I’m having a blast with this, and writing actual working MVVM code in VBA is completely surreal, in a very awesome way.

I think it’s in itself a nice deep-dive into OOP+VBA – whether the MVVM architecture it enables ends up being the backbone of any production app or not.

What do you think?

Making MVVM Work in VBA Part 2: Event Propagation

Using a WithEvents variable to handle the MSForms.Control events of, say, a TextBox control has the irritating tendency to throw a rather puzzling run-time error 459 “Object or class does not support the set of events”. To be honest, I had completely forgotten about this when I started working on this MVVM framework. I had even posted an answer on Stack Overflow and my learning-it-the-hard-way is immortalized on that page.

…there’s a bit of COM hackery going on behind the scenes; there’s enough smokes & mirrors for VBA to successfully compile the above, but, basically, you’re looking at a glitch in The Matrix (Rubberduck’s resolver has similar “nope” issues with MSForms controls): there isn’t any obvious way to get VBA to bind a dynamic control object to its MSForms.Control events.

-Mathieu Guindon, Apr 18 ’19 

What I hadn’t noticed until today, was that another user had posted an answer to that question a few hours later that day – and that answer ultimately leads to the groundbreaking manual wiring-up of what VBA normally does automagically under the hood when we declare a WithEvents variable.

pUnk’d

The code I’m about to share is heavily based on the work shared on Stack Overflow by user Evr, and uses the ConnectToConnectionPoint Win32 API that, it must be mentioned, comes with a caveat:

This function is available through Windows XP and Windows Server 2003. It might be altered or unavailable in subsequent versions of Windows.

Regardless, it works (for now anyway, …if we lose Mac support for this specific capability).

Rubberduck uses similar connection points to handle a number of VBE events that aren’t otherwise exposed, so I knew this was going to work one way or another. The idea is to pass an IUnknown pointer to an object that exposes members with very specific VB_UserMemId attribute values, and have accordingly very specific member signatures.

This post lists a bunch of such attributes – however since there aren’t any problems with binding regular TextBox and CommandButton events (these do work with simple WithEvents event providers), I’m only interested in these:

EventVB_UserMemId
AfterUpdate-2147384832
BeforeUpdate-2147384831
Enter-2147384830
Exit-2147384829
The VB_UserMemId attribute values for each of the MSForms.Control events.

This is going to be a little bit lower-level than usual, but every VBA user class has an IUnknown pointer, So we can use any class module that has the members with the appropriate VB_UserMemId attribute values, and pass that as the pUnk pointer argument.

So, here’s the punk in question, exactly as I currently have it:

VERSION 1.0 CLASS
BEGIN
  MultiUse = -1  'True
END
Attribute VB_Name = "ControlEventsPunk"
Attribute VB_GlobalNameSpace = False
Attribute VB_Creatable = False
Attribute VB_PredeclaredId = False
Attribute VB_Exposed = False
Attribute VB_Description = "Provides an event sink to relay MSForms.Control events."
'@Folder MVVM.Infrastructure.Win32
'@ModuleDescription "Provides an event sink to relay MSForms.Control events."
'based on https://stackoverflow.com/a/51936950
Option Explicit
Implements IControlEvents
Private Type GUID
    Data1 As Long
    Data2 As Integer
    Data3 As Integer
    Data4(0 To 7) As Byte
End Type
'[This function is available through Windows XP and Windows Server 2003. It might be altered or unavailable in subsequent versions of Windows.]
'https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/win32/api/shlwapi/nf-shlwapi-connecttoconnectionpoint
#If VBA7 Then
Private Declare PtrSafe Function ConnectToConnectionPoint Lib "shlwapi" Alias "#168" (ByVal Punk As stdole.IUnknown, ByRef riidEvent As GUID, ByVal fConnect As Long, ByVal PunkTarget As stdole.IUnknown, ByRef pdwCookie As Long, Optional ByVal ppcpOut As LongPtr) As Long
#Else
Private Declare Function ConnectToConnectionPoint Lib "shlwapi" Alias "#168" (ByVal punk As stdole.IUnknown, ByRef riidEvent As GUID, ByVal fConnect As Long, ByVal punkTarget As stdole.IUnknown, ByRef pdwCookie As Long, Optional ByVal ppcpOut As Long) As Long
#End If
Private Type TState
    RefIID As GUID 'The IID of the interface on the connection point container whose connection point object is being requested.
    Connected As Boolean
    PunkTarget As Object
    Cookie As Long
    
    Handlers As Collection
End Type
'from https://stackoverflow.com/a/61893857 (same user as #51936950!)
Private Const ExitEventID As Long = -2147384829
Private Const EnterEventID As Long = -2147384830
Private Const BeforeUpdateEventID As Long = -2147384831
Private Const AfterUpdateEventID As Long = -2147384832
Private This As TState
'@Description "Gets/sets the target MSForms.Control reference."
Public Property Get Target() As Object
Attribute Target.VB_Description = "Gets/sets the target MSForms.Control reference."
    Set Target = This.PunkTarget
End Property
Public Property Set Target(ByVal RHS As Object)
    Set This.PunkTarget = RHS
End Property
'@Description "Registers the listener."
Public Function Connect() As Boolean
Attribute Connect.VB_Description = "Registers the listener."
    GuardClauses.GuardNullReference This.PunkTarget, TypeName(Me), "Target is not set."
    ConnectToConnectionPoint Me, This.RefIID, True, This.PunkTarget, This.Cookie, 0&
    This.Connected = This.Cookie <> 0
    Connect = This.Connected
End Function
'@Description "De-registers the listener."
Public Function Disconnect() As Boolean
Attribute Connect.VB_Description = "De-registers the listener."
    If Not This.Connected Then Exit Function
    ConnectToConnectionPoint Me, This.RefIID, False, This.PunkTarget, This.Cookie, 0&
    This.Connected = False
    Disconnect = True
End Function
'@Description "A callback that handles MSForms.Control.AfterUpdate events for the registered target control."
Public Sub OnAfterUpdate()
Attribute OnAfterUpdate.VB_UserMemId = -2147384832
Attribute OnAfterUpdate.VB_Description = "A callback that handles MSForms.Control.AfterUpdate events for the registered target control."
    Dim Handler As IHandleControlEvents
    For Each Handler In This.Handlers
        Handler.HandleAfterUpdate
    Next
End Sub
'@Description "A callback that handles MSForms.Control.BeforeUpdate events for the registered target control."
Public Sub OnBeforeUpdate(ByVal Cancel As MSForms.ReturnBoolean)
Attribute OnBeforeUpdate.VB_UserMemId = -2147384831
Attribute OnBeforeUpdate.VB_Description = "A callback that handles MSForms.Control.BeforeUpdate events for the registered target control."
    Dim Handler As IHandleControlEvents
    For Each Handler In This.Handlers
        Handler.HandleBeforeUpdate Cancel
    Next
End Sub
'@Description "A callback that handles MSForms.Control.Exit events for the registered target control."
Public Sub OnExit(ByVal Cancel As MSForms.ReturnBoolean)
Attribute OnExit.VB_UserMemId = -2147384829
Attribute OnExit.VB_Description = "A callback that handles MSForms.Control.Exit events for the registered target control."
    Dim Handler As IHandleControlEvents
    For Each Handler In This.Handlers
        Handler.HandleExit Cancel
    Next
End Sub
'@Description "A callback that handles MSForms.Control.Enter events for the registered target control."
Public Sub OnEnter()
Attribute OnEnter.VB_UserMemId = -2147384830
Attribute OnEnter.VB_Description = "A callback that handles MSForms.Control.Enter events for the registered target control."
    Dim Handler As IHandleControlEvents
    For Each Handler In This.Handlers
        Handler.HandleEnter
    Next
End Sub
'@Description "Registers the specified object to handle the relayed control events."
Public Sub RegisterHandler(ByVal Handler As IHandleControlEvents)
Attribute RegisterHandler.VB_Description = "Registers the specified object to handle the relayed control events."
    This.Handlers.Add Handler
End Sub
Private Sub Class_Initialize()
    Set This.Handlers = New Collection
    This.RefIID.Data1 = &H20400
    This.RefIID.Data4(0) = &HC0
    This.RefIID.Data4(7) = &H46
End Sub
Private Sub IControlEvents_OnAfterUpdate()
    OnAfterUpdate
End Sub
Private Sub IControlEvents_OnBeforeUpdate(ByVal Cancel As MSForms.IReturnBoolean)
    OnBeforeUpdate Cancel
End Sub
Private Sub IControlEvents_OnEnter()
    OnEnter
End Sub
Private Sub IControlEvents_OnExit(ByVal Cancel As MSForms.IReturnBoolean)
    OnExit Cancel
End Sub
Private Sub IControlEvents_RegisterHandler(ByVal Handler As IHandleControlEvents)
    RegisterHandler Handler
End Sub

Let’s ignore the IControlEvents interface for now. The class has a Target – that’ll be our TextBox control instance. So we set the Target, and then we can invoke Connect, and when we’re done we can invoke Disconnect to explicitly undo the wiring-up.

Then we have an OnEnter method with VB_UserMemId = -2147384830, which makes it an event handler procedure for MSForms.Control.Enter. The name of the procedure isn’t relevant, but it’s important that the procedure is parameterless.

Similarly, the name of the OnExit procedure has no importance, but it must have a single ByVal Cancel As MSForms.ReturnBoolean parameter (only ByVal and the data type matter). For events that have more than one parameter, the order is also important.

In theory that’s all we need: we could go on and handle Control.Exit in this OnExit procedure, and call it a day. In fact you can probably do that right away – however I need another step for my purposes, because I’m going to need my PropertyBindingBase class to propagate these events “up” to, say, some TextBoxPropertyBinding class that can implement some TextBox-specific behavior for the Control events.

Propagating Events

I had already a working pattern for my INotifyPropertyChange requirements to propagate property changes across objects, and the pattern is applicable here too. See, I could have declared a Public Event Exit(ByRef Cancel As MSForms.ReturnBoolean) on the ControlEventsPunk class, and then I could have used a WithEvents variable to handle them – and that would have worked too. Except I don’t want to use events here, because events work well as implementation details… but they can’t be exposed on an interface, which makes them actually more complicated to work with.

There are two interfaces: one that defines the “events” and exposes a method to register “handlers”, and the other mandates the presence of a callback for each “event”. For INotifyPropertyChange the handler interface was named IHandlePropertyChange, so I went with IControlEvents and IHandleControlEvents.

So, the “provider” interface looks like this:

'@Folder MVVM.Infrastructure.Bindings.Abstract
'@ModuleDescription "Provides the infrastructure to relay MSForms.Control events."
Option Explicit
Public Sub RegisterHandler(ByVal Handler As IHandleControlEvents)
End Sub
Public Sub OnEnter()
End Sub
Public Sub OnExit(ByVal Cancel As MSForms.ReturnBoolean)
End Sub
Public Sub OnAfterUpdate()
End Sub
Public Sub OnBeforeUpdate(ByVal Cancel As MSForms.ReturnBoolean)
End Sub

And then the “handler” interface looks like this:

'@Folder MVVM.Infrastructure.Bindings.Abstract
'@ModuleDescription "An object that can be registered as a handler for IControlEvents callbacks."
Option Explicit
Public Sub HandleEnter()
End Sub
Public Sub HandleExit(ByVal Cancel As MSForms.ReturnBoolean)
End Sub
Public Sub HandleAfterUpdate()
End Sub
Public Sub HandleBeforeUpdate(ByVal Cancel As MSForms.ReturnBoolean)
End Sub

So, looking back at the ControlEventsPunk class, we find that the implementation for RegisterHandler consists in adding the provided Handler object to an encapsulated Collection that holds all the registered handlers; when we “handle” a control event, we iterate all registered handlers and invoke them all in a sequence. When an event has a Cancel parameter, the last handler that ran gets the final say on whether the parameter should be True or False, and each handler receives the Cancel value that was set by the previous handler than ran.

This is a slightly different paradigm than your regular VBA/VB6 auto-wired events, where one event only ever has one handler: now these work more like the multicast delegates that events are in .NET, with an “invocation list” and the ability to add/remove (although, I haven’t implemented the removal) handlers dynamically at run-time – except the “handlers” are full-fledged VBA objects here, rather than .NET delegates.

Whenever the MVVM infrastructure needs to propagate events, I use this pattern instead. This was my first time actually implementing an Observer Pattern, and hadn’t even realized! (thanks Max!) – that isn’t a pattern you see often in event-capable languages, but I can definitely see this proven, solid abstraction (Java developers would probably be rather familiar with that one) become my new favorite go-to pattern to expose events on an interface in VBA… But there’s probably a reason the first time I come across a situation where that pattern is really handy (and actually needed, for testability), is when I’m writing framework-level (i.e. an API intended to be used by code that isn’t written yet) code that’s very much as deep into the OOP rabbit hole as I’ve ever been in VBA (or any other language for that matter)… and there’s still no rock bottom in sight.

In any case, now that we have a way to handle and propagate control events, we can have MVVM property bindings that can format TextBox.Text on exit, i.e. we can have a ViewModel that knows SomeProperty has a value of 25.59, and the Text property of the bound textbox control can say $25.59 just by specifying a FormatString (like “Currency”, for example) when we create the binding.

For the next post in this series I think we’re ready to deep-dive into the actual binding mechanics, and I’ll have the updated MVVM infrastructure code on GitHub by then.

Making MVVM Work in VBA Part 1 – Testing

I have recently written (100% VBA) a proof-of-concept for a Model-View-ViewModel (MVVM) framework, and since the prototype works exactly as needed (with some rough edges of course)… I’ve decided to explore what Rubberduck can do to make MVVM fully supported, but going down that path poses a serious problem that needs a very good and well thought-out solution.

A Vision of a Framework

When you start a new project in Visual Studio (including 6.0 /VB6), the IDE prompts for a project type, essentially asking “what are we building today?

In VBA the assumption is that you just want to write a bit of script to automate some document manipulation. And then the framework so to speak, is the VBA Standard Library: functions, methods, constants, and actual objects too; all globally-scoped for convenience and quick-and-easy access: a fully spelled-out VBA.Interaction.MsgBox function call is a rare sight! Combined with the nonexistence of namespaces, the flip side is that the global scope is easily polluted, and name collisions are inevitable since anything exposed by any library becomes globally accessible. This makes fully-qualified global function calls appear sporadically sprinkled in the code, which can be confusing. I digress, but what I mean to get at is that this is part of what made Microsoft make the shift to the .NET platform in the early 2000’s, and eventually abandon the Visual Basic Editor to its fate. The COM platform and Win32 API was the framework, and Win32 programming languages built on top of that.

This leaves two approaches for a vision of a “framework” for VBA:

  • Package a type library and ship it.
    • Pros: any COM-visible library will work, can be written in .NET
    • Cons: projects now have a hard dependency on a specific type library; updating is a mess, etc.
  • Embed the framework into VBA projects, pretty much like JavaScript does.
    • Pros: devs are in charge of everything, framework is 100% VBA and inherently open-source, updating is essentially seamless for any non-breaking change, no early-bound dependencies, graceful late-bound degradation, etc.
    • Cons: VBA devs and maintainers that aren’t using Rubberduck will be massively lost in the source code (framework would cleanly leverage @Folder annotations), but then when the host application allows it this could be mitigated by embedding the code into its own separate VBA project and reference it from other projects (e.g. ship an Excel add-in with the framework code your VBA project depends on).

I think I’m slightly biased here, but I think this rules out the type library approach regardless. So we need a way to make this work in VBA, with VBA source code that lives in a GitHub repository with vetted, trusted content.

Where Rubberduck fits in

Like Visual Studio, Rubberduck could prompt VBA devs with “what are we building today?” and offer to pull various “bundles” of modules from this GitHub repository into the active project. Rubberduck would request the available “bundles” from api.rubberduckvba.com, which would return with “bundle metadata” describing each “package” (is “nugget” forbidden to use as a name for these / play on “nuget” (the package manager for .NET)?), and then list them in a nice little dialog.

The “nugget” metadata would include a name, a description, and the path to each file to download for it. Every package would be the same “version”, but the tool could easily request any particular “tag” or “release” version, and/or pull from “main” or from “next” branches, and the source code / framework itself could then easily be a collaborative effort, with its own features and projects and milestones and collaborators, completely separate from the C# Rubberduck code base.

This complete decoupling from Rubberduck means you don’t need to use Rubberduck to leverage this VBA code in your VBA projects, and new tags / “releases” would be entirely independent of Rubberduck’s own release cycles. That means you’re using, say, future-Rubberduck 2.7.4 and the “nuggets” feature offers “v1.0 [main]” and “v1.1 [next]”; one day you’re still using Rubberduck 2.7.4 but now you get “v1.1 [main]”, “v1.0”, and “v1.2 [next]” to chose from, and if you updated the “nuggets” in your project from v1.0 to v1.1 then Rubberduck inspections would flag uses of any obsolete members that would now be decorated with @Obsolete annotations… it’s almost like this annotation was presciently made for this.

But before we can even think of implementing something like this and make MVVM infrastructure the very first “nugget”, we need a rock-solid framework in the first place.


Unit Tests

I had already written the prototype in a highly decoupled manner, mindful of dependencies and how things could later be tested from the outside. I’m very much not-a-zealot when it comes to things like Test-Driven Development (TDD), but I do firmly believe unit tests provide a solid safety net and documentation for everything that matters – especially if the project is to make any kind of framework, where things need to provably work.

And then it makes a wonderful opportunity to blog about writing unit tests with Rubberduck, something I really haven’t written nearly enough about.

Tests? Why?!

Just by writing these tests, I’ve found and fixed edge-case bugs and improved decoupling and cohesion by extracting (and naming!) smaller chunks of functionality into their own separate class module. The result is quite objectively better, simpler code.

Last but not least, writing testable code (let alone the tests!) in VBA makes a great way to learn these more advanced notions and concepts in a language you’re already familiar with.

If you’re new to VBA and programming in general, or if you’re not a programmer and you’re only interested in making macros, then reading any further may make your head spin a bit (if that’s already under way… I’m sorry!), so don’t hesitate to ask here or on the examples repository on GitHub if you have any questions! This article is covering a rather advanced topic, beyond classes and interfaces, but keep in mind that unit testing does not require OOP! It just so happens that object-oriented code adhering to SOLID principles tends to be easily testable.

This is an ongoing project and I’m still working on the test suite and refactoring things; I wouldn’t want to upload the code to GitHub in its current shape, so I’ll come back here with a link once I have something that’s relatively complete.


Where to Start?

There’s a relatively small but very critical piece of functionality that makes a good place to begin in the MVVM infrastructure code (see previous article): the BindingPath class, which I’ve pulled out of PropertyBinding this week. The (still too large for its own good) PropertyBinding class is no longer concerned with the intricacies of resolving property names and values: both this.Source and this.Target are declared As IBindingPath in a PropertyBinding now, which feels exactly right.

The purpose of a BindingPath is to take a “binding context” object and a “binding path” string (the binding path is always relative to the binding context), and to resolve the member call represented there. For example, this would be a valid use of the class:

Dim Path As IBindingPath
Set Path = BindingPath.Create(Sheet1.Shapes("Shape1").TextFrame.Characters, "Text")

This Path object implements TryReadPropertyValue and TryWritePropertyValue methods that the BindingManager can invoke as needed.

'@Folder MVVM.Infrastructure.Bindings
'@ModuleDescription "An object that can resolve a string property path to a value."
'@PredeclaredId
Option Explicit
Implements IBindingPath
Private Type TState
    Context As Object
    Path As String
    
    Object As Object
    PropertyName As String
End Type
Private This As TState
'@Description "Creates a new binding path from the specified property path string and binding context."
Public Function Create(ByVal Context As Object, ByVal Path As String) As IBindingPath
    GuardClauses.GuardNonDefaultInstance Me, BindingPath, TypeName(Me)
    GuardClauses.GuardNullReference Context, TypeName(Me)
    GuardClauses.GuardEmptyString Path, TypeName(Me)
    
    Dim Result As BindingPath
    Set Result = New BindingPath
    Set Result.Context = Context
    Result.Path = Path
    
    Result.Resolve
    Set Create = Result
End Function
'@Description "Gets/Sets the binding context."
Public Property Get Context() As Object
    Set Context = This.Context
End Property
Public Property Set Context(ByVal RHS As Object)
    GuardClauses.GuardDefaultInstance Me, BindingPath, TypeName(Me)
    GuardClauses.GuardNullReference RHS, TypeName(Me)
    GuardClauses.GuardDoubleInitialization This.Context, TypeName(Me)
    Set This.Context = RHS
End Property
'@Description "Gets/Sets a string representing a property path against the binding context."
Public Property Get Path() As String
    Path = This.Path
End Property
Public Property Let Path(ByVal RHS As String)
    GuardClauses.GuardDefaultInstance Me, BindingPath, TypeName(Me)
    GuardClauses.GuardEmptyString RHS, TypeName(Me)
    GuardClauses.GuardDoubleInitialization This.Path, TypeName(Me)
    This.Path = RHS
End Property
'@Description "Gets the bound object reference."
Public Property Get Object() As Object
    Set Object = This.Object
End Property
'@Description "Gets the name of the bound property."
Public Property Get PropertyName() As String
    PropertyName = This.PropertyName
End Property
'@Description "Resolves the Path to a bound object and property."
Public Sub Resolve()
    This.PropertyName = ResolvePropertyName(This.Path)
    Set This.Object = ResolvePropertyPath(This.Context, This.Path)
End Sub
Private Function ResolvePropertyName(ByVal PropertyPath As String) As String
    Dim Parts As Variant
    Parts = Strings.Split(PropertyPath, ".")
    ResolvePropertyName = Parts(UBound(Parts))
End Function
Private Function ResolvePropertyPath(ByVal Context As Object, ByVal PropertyPath As String) As Object
    Dim Parts As Variant
    Parts = Strings.Split(PropertyPath, ".")
    
    If UBound(Parts) = LBound(Parts) Then
        Set ResolvePropertyPath = Context
    Else
        Dim RecursiveProperty As Object
        Set RecursiveProperty = CallByName(Context, Parts(0), VbGet)
        If RecursiveProperty Is Nothing Then Exit Function
        Set ResolvePropertyPath = ResolvePropertyPath(RecursiveProperty, Right$(PropertyPath, Len(PropertyPath) - Len(Parts(0)) - 1))
    End If
    
End Function
Private Property Get IBindingPath_Context() As Object
    Set IBindingPath_Context = This.Context
End Property
Private Property Get IBindingPath_Path() As String
    IBindingPath_Path = This.Path
End Property
Private Property Get IBindingPath_Object() As Object
    Set IBindingPath_Object = This.Object
End Property
Private Property Get IBindingPath_PropertyName() As String
    IBindingPath_PropertyName = This.PropertyName
End Property
Private Sub IBindingPath_Resolve()
    Resolve
End Sub
Private Function IBindingPath_ToString() As String
    IBindingPath_ToString = StringBuilder _
        .AppendFormat("Context: {0}; Path: {1}", TypeName(This.Context), This.Path) _
        .ToString
End Function
Private Function IBindingPath_TryReadPropertyValue(ByRef outValue As Variant) As Boolean
    If This.Object Is Nothing Then Resolve
    On Error Resume Next
    outValue = VBA.Interaction.CallByName(This.Object, This.PropertyName, VbGet)
    IBindingPath_TryReadPropertyValue = (Err.Number = 0)
    On Error GoTo 0
End Function
Private Function IBindingPath_TryWritePropertyValue(ByVal Value As Variant) As Boolean
    If This.Object Is Nothing Then Resolve
    On Error Resume Next
    VBA.Interaction.CallByName This.Object, This.PropertyName, VbLet, Value
    IBindingPath_TryWritePropertyValue = (Err.Number = 0)
    On Error GoTo 0
End Function

Here’s our complete “system under test” (SUT) as far as the BindingPathTests module goes. We have a Create factory method, Context and Path properties, just like the class we’re testing.

The path object is itself read-only once initialized, but the binding source may resolve to Nothing or to a different object reference over the course of the object’s lifetime: say we want a binding path to SomeViewModel.SomeObjectProperty; when we first create the binding, SomeObjectProperty might very well be Nothing, and then it’s later Set-assigned to a valid object reference. This is why the IBindingPath interface needs to expose a Resolve method, so that IPropertyBinding can invoke it as needed, as the binding is being applied.

We’ll want a test for every guard clause, and each method needs at least one test as well.

So, I’m going to add a new test module and call it BindingPathTests. Rubberduck’s templates are good-enough to depict the mechanics and how things work at a high level, but if you stick to the templates you’ll quickly find your unit tests rather boring, wordy, and repetitive: we must break out of the mold, there isn’t one true way to do this!

Rubberduck discovers unit tests in standard modules annotated with @TestModule. Test methods are any [parameterless, for now] method annotated with a @TestMethod annotation that can have a category string – the Test Explorer can group your tests using these categories. The declarations section of a test module must include a declaration (early or late bound) for an Rubberduck.AssertClass or Rubberduck.PermissiveAssertClass (both implement the same internal interface; the “permissive” one has VBA-like equality semantics, and the default one has stricter type equality requirements (a Long can’t be equal to a Double, for example). The default test template also defines a FakesProvider object, but we’re not going to need it now (if we needed to test logic that involved e.g. branching on the result of a MsgBox function call, we could hook into the MsgBox function and configure it to return what the test needs it to return, which is honestly wicked awesome). So our test module might look something like this at first:

'@Folder Tests.Bindings
'@TestModule
Option Explicit
Option Private Module
#Const LateBind = LateBindTests
#If LateBind Then
Private Assert As Object
#Else
Private Assert As Rubberduck.AssertClass
#End If

With this conditionally-compiled setup, all we need to toggle between late and early binding is to define a project-scoped conditional compilation argument: bring up the project properties and type LateBindTests=0 or LateBindTests=1 in that box, and just like that you can control conditional compilation project-wide without modifying a single module.

The first thing to do is to get the test state defined, and implement TestInitialize and TestCleanup methods that configure this state – in the case of BindingManagerTests, I’m going to add a private type and a private field to define and hold the current test state:

Private Type TState
    ExpectedErrNumber As Long
    ExpectedErrSource As String
    ExpectedErrorCaught As Boolean
    
    ConcreteSUT As BindingManager
    AbstractSUT As IBindingManager
    HandlePropertyChangedSUT As IHandlePropertyChanged
    
    BindingSource As TestBindingObject
    BindingTarget As TestBindingObject
    SourcePropertyPath As String
    TargetPropertyPath As String
    Command As TestCommand
End Type
Private Test As TState

Unit Testing Paradigm

Test modules are special, in the sense that they aren’t (absolutely shouldn’t be anyway) accessible from any code path in the project. Rubberduck invokes them one by one when you run a command like “run all tests” or “repeat last run”. But there’s a little more to it than that, worthy of mention.

VBA being single-threaded, tests are invoked by Rubberduck on the UI/main thread, and uses a bit of trickery to keep its own UI somewhat responsive. Each module runs sequentially, and each test inside each module runs sequentially as well – but the test execution order still shouldn’t be considered deterministic, and each test should be completely independent of every other test, such that executing all tests in any given order always produces the same outcomes.

A test that makes no assertions will be green/successful. When writing unit tests, the first thing you want to see is a test that’s failing (you can’t trust a test you have never seen fail!), and with Rubberduck in order to give a test a reason to fail, you use Assert methods (wiki).

When Rubberduck begins processing a test module, it invokes the methods (again, sequentially but not in an order that should matter) marked @ModuleInitialize in the module – ideally that would be only one method.

This is where the Assert object should be assigned (the default test templates do this):

'@ModuleInitialize
Private Sub ModuleInitialize()
#If LateBind Then
    'requires HKCU registration of the Rubberduck COM library.
    Set Assert = CreateObject("Rubberduck.PermissiveAssertClass")
#Else
    'requires project reference to the Rubberduck COM library.
    Set Assert = New Rubberduck.PermissiveAssertClass
#End If
End Sub

Rubberduck’s test engine will then execute all methods (usually cleaner with only one though) annotated with @TestInitialize before executing each test in the module; that is the best place to put the wordy setup code that would otherwise need to be in pretty much every single test of the module:

'@TestInitialize
Private Sub TestInitialize()
    Dim Context As TestBindingObject
    Set Context = New TestBindingObject
    
    Set Context.TestBindingObjectProperty = New TestBindingObject
    
    Test.Path = "TestBindingObjectProperty.TestStringProperty"
    Test.PropertyName = "TestStringProperty"
    Set Test.BindingSource = Context.TestBindingObjectProperty
    
    Set Test.BindingContext = Context
    Set Test.ConcreteSUT = BindingPath.Create(Test.BindingContext, Test.Path)
    Set Test.AbstractSUT = Test.ConcreteSUT
End Sub

By moving the test state to module level rather than having it local to each test, we already eliminate a lot of code duplication, and the Test module variable makes a rather nifty way to access the current test state, too!

Methods annotated with @TestCleanup are automatically invoked after each test in the module; in order to avoid accidentally sharing state between tests, every object reference should be explicitly set to Nothing, and values of intrinsic data types should be explicitly reset to their respective default value:

'@TestCleanup
Private Sub TestCleanup()
    Set Test.ConcreteSUT = Nothing
    Set Test.AbstractSUT = Nothing
    Set Test.BindingSource = Nothing
    Set Test.BindingContext = Nothing
    Test.Path = vbNullString
    Test.PropertyName = vbNullString
    Test.ExpectedErrNumber = 0
    Test.ExpectedErrSource = vbNullString
    Test.ExpectedErrorCaught = False
End Sub

What Goes Into the Test State?

A number of members should always be in the Test state structure:

  • ConcreteSUT (or just SUT) and AbstractSUT both point to the same object, through the default interface (BindingPath) and the explicit one (IBindingPath), respectively.
  • If the system under test class implements additional interfaces, having a pointer to the SUT object with these interfaces is also useful. For example the TState type for the BindingManager class has a HandlePropertyChangedSUT As IHandlePropertyChanged member, because the class implements this interface.
  • Default property values and dependency setup: we want a basic default SUT configured and ready to be tested (or fine-tuned and then tested).
  • ExpectedErrNumber, ExpectedErrSource, and ExpectedErrorCaught are useful when a test is expecting a given input to produce a particular specific error.

Expecting Errors

The “expected error” test method template works for its purpose, but having this on-error-assert logic duplicated everywhere is rather ugly. Consider pulling that logic into a private method instead (I’m considering adding this into Rubberduck’s test module templates):

Private Sub ExpectError()
    Dim Message As String
    If Err.Number = Test.ExpectedErrNumber Then
        If (Test.ExpectedErrSource = vbNullString) Or (Err.Source = Test.ExpectedErrSource) Then
            Test.ExpectedErrorCaught = True
        Else
            Message = "An error was raised, but not from the expected source. " & _
                      "Expected: '" & TypeName(Test.ConcreteSUT) & "'; Actual: '" & Err.Source & "'."
        End If
    ElseIf Err.Number <> 0 Then
        Message = "An error was raised, but not with the expected number. Expected: '" & Test.ExpectedErrNumber & "'; Actual: '" & Err.Number & "'."
    Else
        Message = "No error was raised."
    End If
    
    If Not Test.ExpectedErrorCaught Then Assert.Fail Message
End Sub

With this infrastructure in place, the unit tests for all guard clauses in the module can look like this – it’s still effectively doing Arrange-Act-Assert like the test method templates strongly suggest, only implicitly so (each “A” is essentially its own statement, see comments in the tests below):

'@TestMethod("GuardClauses")
Private Sub Create_GuardsNullBindingContext()
    Test.ExpectedErrNumber = GuardClauseErrors.ObjectCannotBeNothing '<~ Arrange
    On Error Resume Next
        BindingPath.Create Nothing, Test.Path '<~ Act
        ExpectError '<~ Assert
    On Error GoTo 0
End Sub
'@TestMethod("GuardClauses")
Private Sub Create_GuardsEmptyPath()
    Test.ExpectedErrNumber = GuardClauseErrors.StringCannotBeEmpty '<~ Arrange
    On Error Resume Next
        BindingPath.Create Test.BindingContext, vbNullString '<~ Act
        ExpectError '<~ Assert
    On Error GoTo 0
End Sub
'@TestMethod("GuardClauses")
Private Sub Create_GuardsNonDefaultInstance()
    Test.ExpectedErrNumber = GuardClauseErrors.InvalidFromNonDefaultInstance '<~ Arrange
    On Error Resume Next
        With New BindingPath
            .Create Test.BindingContext, Test.Path '<~ Act
            ExpectError '<~ Assert
        End With
    On Error GoTo 0
End Sub

And then similar tests exist for the respective guard clauses of Context and Path members. Having tests that validate that guard clauses are doing their job is great: it tells us exactly how not to use the class… and that doesn’t tell us much about what a BindingPath object actually does.


Testing the Actual Functionality

The methods we’re testing need to be written in a way that makes it possible for a test to determine whether it’s doing its job correctly or not. For functions and properties, the return value is the perfect thing to Assert on. For Sub procedures, you have to Assert on the side-effects, and have verifiable and useful, reliable ways to verify them.

These two tests validate that the BindingPath returned by the Create factory method has resolved the PropertyName and Object properties, respectively.

'@TestMethod("Bindings")
Private Sub Create_ResolvesPropertyName()
    Dim SUT As BindingPath
    Set SUT = BindingPath.Create(Test.BindingContext, Test.Path)
    Assert.IsFalse SUT.PropertyName = vbNullString
End Sub
'@TestMethod("Bindings")
Private Sub Create_ResolvesBindingSource()
    Dim SUT As BindingPath
    Set SUT = BindingPath.Create(Test.BindingContext, Test.Path)
    Assert.IsNotNothing SUT.Object
End Sub

I could have made multiple assertions in a test, like this…

'@TestMethod("Bindings")
Private Sub Create_ResolvesBindingSource()
    Dim SUT As BindingPath
    Set SUT = BindingPath.Create(Test.BindingContext, Test.Path)
    Assert.IsFalse SUT.PropertyName = vbNullString
    Assert.IsNotNothing SUT.Object
End Sub

The Test Explorer would say “IsFalse assert failed” or “IsNotNothing assert failed”, so it’s arguably (perhaps pragmatically so) still useful and clear enough why that test would fail (and if you had multiple Assert.IsFalse calls in a test you could provide a different message for each)… but really as a rule of thumb, tests want to have one reason to fail. If the conditions to meaningfully pass or fail a test aren’t present, use Assert.Inconclusive to report the test as such:

'@TestMethod("Bindings")
Private Sub Resolve_SetsBindingSource()
    With New BindingPath
        .Path = Test.Path
        Set .Context = Test.BindingContext
        
        If Not .Object Is Nothing Then Assert.Inconclusive "Object reference is unexpectedly set."
        .Resolve
        
        Assert.AreSame Test.BindingSource, .Object
    End With
End Sub
'@TestMethod("Bindings")
Private Sub Resolve_SetsBindingPropertyName()
    With New BindingPath
        .Path = Test.Path
        Set .Context = Test.BindingContext
        
        If .PropertyName <> vbNullString Then Assert.Inconclusive "PropertyName is unexpectedly non-empty."
        .Resolve
        
        Assert.AreEqual Test.PropertyName, .PropertyName
    End With
End Sub

This mechanism is especially useful when the test state isn’t in local scope and there’s a real possibility that the TestInitialize method is eventually modified and inadvertently breaks a test. Such conditional Assert.Inconclusive calls are definitely a form of defensive programming, just like having guard clauses throwing custom meaningful errors.

Note that while we know that the BindingPath.Create function invokes the Resolve method, the tests for Resolve don’t involve Create: the Path and Context are being explicitly spelled out, and the .Resolve method is invoked from a New instance.

And that’s pretty much everything there is to test in the BindingPath class.

There’s one thing I haven’t mentioned yet, that you might have caught in the TState type:

BindingSource As TestBindingObject
BindingTarget As TestBindingObject

This TestBindingObject is a test stub: it’s a dependency of the class (it’s the “binding context” of the test path) and it’s a real object, but it is implemented in a bit of a special way that the BindingPath tests don’t do justice to.

Test Stubs

Eventually Rubberduck’s unit testing framework will feature a COM-visible wrapper around Moq, a popular mocking framework for .NET that Rubberduck already uses for its own unit test requirements. When this happens Rubberduck unit tests will no longer need such “test stubs”. Instead, the framework will generate them at run-time and make them work exactly as specified/configured by a unit test, and “just like that” VBA/VB6 suddenly becomes surprisingly close to being pretty much on par with professional, current-day IDE tooling.

The ITestStub interface simply formalizes the concept:

'@Exposed
'@Folder Tests.Stubs
'@ModuleDescription "An object that stubs an interface for testing purposes."
'@Interface
Option Explicit
'@Description "Gets the number of times the specified member was invoked in the lifetime of the object."
Public Property Get MemberInvokes(ByVal MemberName As String) As Long
End Property
'@Description "Gets a string representation of the object's internal state, for debugging purposes (not intended for asserts!)."
Public Function ToString() As String
End Function

A TestStubBase “base class” provides the common implementation mechanics that every class implementing ITestStub will want to use – the idea is to use a keyed data structure to track the number of times each member is invoked during the lifetime of the object:

'@Folder Tests.Stubs
Option Explicit
Private Type TState
    MemberInvokes As Dictionary
End Type
Private This As TState
'@Description "Tracks a new invoke of the specified member."
Public Sub OnInvoke(ByVal MemberName As String)
    Dim newValue As Long
    If This.MemberInvokes.Exists(MemberName) Then
        newValue = This.MemberInvokes.Item(MemberName) + 1
        This.MemberInvokes.Remove MemberName
    Else
        newValue = 1
    End If
    This.MemberInvokes.Add MemberName, newValue
End Sub
'@Description "Gets the number of invokes made against the specified member in the lifetime of this object."
Public Property Get MemberInvokes(ByVal MemberName As String) As Long
    If This.MemberInvokes.Exists(MemberName) Then
        MemberInvokes = This.MemberInvokes.Item(MemberName)
    Else
        MemberInvokes = 0
    End If
End Property
'@Description "Gets a string listing the MemberInvokes cache content."
Public Function ToString() As String
    Dim MemberNames As Variant
    MemberNames = This.MemberInvokes.Keys
    
    With New StringBuilder
        Dim i As Long
        For i = LBound(MemberNames) To UBound(MemberNames)
            Dim Name As String
            Name = MemberNames(i)
            .AppendFormat "{0} was invoked {1} time(s)", Name, This.MemberInvokes.Item(Name)
        Next
        ToString = .ToString
    End With
    
End Function
Private Sub Class_Initialize()
    Set This.MemberInvokes = New Dictionary
End Sub

With this small bit of infrastructure, the TestBindingObject class is a full-fledged mock object that can increment a counter whenever a member is invoked, and that can be injected as a dependency for anything that needs an IViewModel:

'@Folder Tests.Stubs
'@ModuleDescription "An object that can stub a binding source or target for unit tests."
Option Explicit
Implements ITestStub
Implements IViewModel
Implements INotifyPropertyChanged
Private Type TState
    Stub As TestStubBase
    Handlers As Collection
    TestStringProperty As String
    TestNumericProperty As Long
    TestBindingObjectProperty As TestBindingObject
    Validation As IHandleValidationError
End Type
Private This As TState
Public Property Get TestStringProperty() As String
    This.Stub.OnInvoke "TestStringProperty.Get"
    TestStringProperty = This.TestStringProperty
End Property
Public Property Let TestStringProperty(ByVal RHS As String)
    This.Stub.OnInvoke "TestStringProperty.Let"
    If This.TestStringProperty <> RHS Then
        This.TestStringProperty = RHS
        OnPropertyChanged Me, "TestStringProperty"
    End If
End Property
Public Property Get TestNumericProperty() As Long
    This.Stub.OnInvoke "TestNumericProperty.Get"
    TestNumericProperty = This.TestNumericProperty
End Property
Public Property Let TestNumericProperty(ByVal RHS As Long)
    This.Stub.OnInvoke "TestNumericProperty.Let"
    If This.TestNumericProperty <> RHS Then
        This.TestNumericProperty = RHS
        OnPropertyChanged Me, "TestNumericProperty"
    End If
End Property
Public Property Get TestBindingObjectProperty() As TestBindingObject
    This.Stub.OnInvoke "TestBindingObjectProperty.Get"
    Set TestBindingObjectProperty = This.TestBindingObjectProperty
End Property
Public Property Set TestBindingObjectProperty(ByVal RHS As TestBindingObject)
    This.Stub.OnInvoke "TestBindingObjectProperty.Set"
    If Not This.TestBindingObjectProperty Is RHS Then
        Set This.TestBindingObjectProperty = RHS
        OnPropertyChanged Me, "TestBindingObjectProperty"
    End If
End Property
Private Sub OnPropertyChanged(ByVal Source As Object, ByVal PropertyName As String)
    Dim Handler As IHandlePropertyChanged
    For Each Handler In This.Handlers
        Handler.OnPropertyChanged Source, PropertyName
    Next
End Sub
Private Sub Class_Initialize()
    Set This.Stub = New TestStubBase
    Set This.Handlers = New Collection
    Set This.Validation = ValidationManager.Create
End Sub
Private Sub INotifyPropertyChanged_OnPropertyChanged(ByVal Source As Object, ByVal PropertyName As String)
    OnPropertyChanged Source, PropertyName
End Sub
Private Sub INotifyPropertyChanged_RegisterHandler(ByVal Handler As IHandlePropertyChanged)
    This.Handlers.Add Handler
End Sub
Private Property Get ITestStub_MemberInvokes(ByVal MemberName As String) As Long
    ITestStub_MemberInvokes = This.Stub.MemberInvokes(MemberName)
End Property
Private Function ITestStub_ToString() As String
    ITestStub_ToString = This.Stub.ToString
End Function
Private Property Get IViewModel_Validation() As IHandleValidationError
    Set IViewModel_Validation = This.Validation
End Property

This functionality will be extremely useful when testing the actual property bindings: for example we can assert that a method was invoked exactly once, and fail a test if the method was invoked twice (and/or if it never was).


There’s a lot more to discuss about unit testing in VBA with Rubberduck! I hope this article gives a good idea of how to get the best out of Rubberduck’s unit testing feature.