Untitled Icebreaker

So, I haven’t posted here for well over a year now, and Rubberduck ‘s last “green release” was in May of 2021 (18,773 downloads as of this writing – the download stats on the site’s front page are stale, as of last February). The website has been “under construction” forever, and all this time I barely answered or participated on Stack Overflow and have been pretty much a ghost in the project’s dev chat and GitHub repository.

Let’s call that a sabbatical. I mean, COVID lockdowns and 2020-2021 hit hard for pretty much everyone, so I’ll just say s..tuff happens and you just have to let things go and do your best to enjoy the ride regardless.

And I did! But as of 2022 July 1, I’m no longer a Microsoft MVP: I did not apply for a 4th renewal, because I know what MVPs do, and I know what I can do myself, and I can’t be honest with myself and pretend the little content I put up in 2021 makes a solid application worthy of consideration. It’s been an amazing experience, but I wouldn’t have been comfortable with accepting this annual award for what I did that year: the Microsoft MVP award means much more than that to me.

As of this writing, the repository has over 1.6K stars on GitHub, 275 forks, and a snapshot of it is even archived along with thousands of other public repositories in the GitHub Antarctic Vault! I’m proud of what we have accomplished, and proud to be able to say Rubberduck has made it beyond the wildest dreams we had for it back in 2015! Years fly… I haven’t written any VBA code in a while, but I wasn’t writing much VBA code anyway ever since C# has been putting the bread on my table, and that never stopped me (or anyone) from working on Rubberduck. I still have ideas and now & then think of where the project should be heading, and the time will definitely come when I can turn that into code again – just not now.

What about Rubberduck?

Rubberduck has come a long, a very long way, and we’ve learned a lot all along – devs and users alike! I kind of burned out though. Nothing seemed to ever make a dent in the growing mountain of issues, and the code base being quite daunting doesn’t make it particularly friendly to new contributors or would-be C# programmers coming from VBA: it was all going to be on pretty much just us to churn through it all. Like answering on Stack Overflow, it became a chore. I couldn’t write anymore, and figured the last post I wrote made a nice front page for the blog anyway.

I strongly doubt Rubberduck can get where we envisioned it for 3.0 in the current state of the project. We could get a v2.6 out there, perhaps up to 2.9 even, but we always wanted more out of a 3.0 build, and the scale and implications of the changes needed for that to happen are rather scary.

I want the next major version to do away with performance issues, from startup to teardown; I want a smaller memory footprint; asynchronous, continuous parsing; total control over what we get to show in a code pane… but we can’t have that without a complete overhaul of the entire architecture and a redesign of the deepest core mechanisms in Rubberduck.

So where’s Rubberduck headed as a project? On one hand we have a massive and mature code base with roughly 200 known issues (and over 700 unimplemented ideas); on the other hand we have a goal that cannot realistically be fulfilled incrementally from where we’re at. I think we need to start with a brand new shell, and bring in the original code piece by piece, adjusting them as we go.

Meanwhile twinBASIC is steadily progressing, but still isn’t quite ready to power a brand new language layer for Rubberduck yet, so we’re still stuck with our Antlr4 grammar and parser, and step one would be to implement a parser that can survive syntax errors so Rubberduck can still process code that cannot run. You see ever since we introduced Antlr4, we’ve been using its token positions to locate specific code in code panes; when a new line gets inserted or any part of any code moves around, a new parse is needed for that entire module to keep these tokens in sync with what’s in the VBE. This is what’s painted us into a corner of endless parse-edit-reparse cycles.

It’s not just the tokens, it’s also what we’ve built on top of it: the `Declaration` class has so many constructors with so many constructor parameters… everything that isn’t a comment, from a line label to variables and procedures, is a declaration. Over the years a decent inheritance hierarchy was built so we have many types of specialized declarations, but each and every one of them is a rather heavy object, and thousands upon thousands of them need to be spawned every time we parse so that the resolver can keep track of everything. Then the VBE is as always actively sabotaging our efforts by hiding attributes, so a complete parse must involve exporting every module to a temporary file that we parse for these hidden attributes, which then need to be associated with the correct declaration.

In order to happen at all, Rubberduck 3.0 needs to completely flip things around, so instead of synchronizing Rubberduck with the VBE, we’d be synchronizing the VBE with Rubberduck. The implications are pretty radical: the VBE gets reduced to a mere host, and Rubberduck needs to be the code editor now, instead of interacting (and fighting!) with the VBE. In other words, I hate to say this but Rubberduck can’t really go forward without essentially a full rewrite, and without implementing what amounts to a whole IDE, inside the VBE.

Known showstoppers include hooking up and interacting with the debugger: there is no API for this, so there wouldn’t be any way to track execution, hit breakpoints, and step through the source code in the custom editor; clearly it’s a sub-par user experience, but if it’s the best we can get at one point we’re going to have to bite the bullet and make it happen anyway, and have the legacy VBE take over when code is running or paused.

So what’s likely going to happen is that the 1.6K-stars repository will remain on the 2.x architecture, and a brand new repo will eventually be up for the 3.0 rewrite. This is obviously risky, because a “Grand Redesign in the Sky” rarely ends well, but I’m not seeing any other way. I guess we’ll just have to see where that goes. Worst-case, we scrap it, stick with the 2.x architecture, and let go of the dream.

What about the website?

Early this year I had a fully working .net 6 solution that I intended to host on Microsoft Azure, but the monthly fees would quickly have depleted the donations we get and it just would not have been sustainable at all, so I thought “hey no problem I’ll just deploy it to the current GoDaddy host”… but the latest version of .net that runs over there is Framework 4.8, which means the solution had to be re-targeted and many little pieces had to be reworked – that’s done now, but the Bootstrap stuff broke and the entire front-end makes no sense anymore and I haven’t really had a chance to spend much time fixing it since then.

Between getting the ball rolling on v3.0 and getting the new website online, my priority is on the website, because well, at the end of the day I’m paying for this hosting and https — many thanks to our donors for this!

The revamped website will have much less static content and pull feature pages from its database; members of the Rubberduck GitHub organisation can edit this content as needed, easily upload updated screenshots, etc. The idea is to make the website be a huge user manual that describes every single feature and sub-feature, without needing a new deployment every time a typo needs fixing. I can’t yet commit to an ETA, but as things in my life fall back into place I’ll start having more time for this in the next few weeks/months. Let’s just say I intend to have it up before the next edition of Hacktoberfest!

What about the blog?

I love writing, so I’m not done here. As a Microsoft MVP I ended up feeling pressured to produce regular content to justify my renewals, and that wasn’t healthy. As I usually took inspiration from various answering experiences on Stack Overflow, I didn’t want my first post in over a year to be just a casual one about programming in VBA: I needed an ice breaker of some sort, and this is it. I’ll be writing more regularly now, but at my own pace.

So yeah, I’m *slowly* coming back from a rather long hiatus with a lot of rather large projects on my plate, and I intend to not burn myself up doing any of it, so this will mean rigorously time-boxing my activities and keeping a sane balance between Rubberduck, the website, the blog, the MVVM library that I still intend to build with twinBASIC, but also with my day job and family life. I’ll be happy if that makes me a Microsoft MVP again in 2023, but it’s not what I’m shooting for.

Next post should be about the upcoming Rubberduck 2.5.3 green release, it’s well past due!