Computing Thoughts

Bruce Eckel's Programming Blog

Jan 2, 2021 - 16 minute read

The Problem with Gradle

Or: How to Remain Sane when Approaching Gradle (with apologies to Hans Dockter).

(James Ward and I go into more detail about this article in the Happy Path Programming Podcast).

I started using make in the 80’s. When I wrote Thinking in C++, I created a tool I called makebuilder which analyzed the examples extracted from the book and generated an appropriate makefile. make is a dedicated tool that only cares about dependencies and actions, so it is reasonably approachable.

When I wrote Thinking in Java, I created a similar tool I called antbuilder, which generated an appropriate Ant build file. Although Ant was created during the collective insanity of XML being the future of everything, ant is nonetheless a dedicated build tool so it is, like make, reasonably approachable.

This was my background when I began looking at Gradle, and I had certain expectations, primarily that the tool would have a straightforward configuration and setup process, and that things would look passably familiar. This idea was supported by what I’d read about Gradle, promising that most configurations would be simple and that you’d normally never need to dip below the surface of that configuration.

Instead, Gradle was very mysterious for me. It seemed to have innumerable cliffs and I kept discovering these and falling off. Most importantly, I did not have any kind of mental model that would guide me in making decisions and solving problems.

When I began writing On Java 8, my friend James Ward declared that I couldn’t use Ant and had to use Gradle, and that he would help. He ended up creating the various Gradle build files for the book, and I could read and even modify some parts, but the big picture remained baffling, even after reading a couple of books on Gradle.

After that, I started work on Atomic Kotlin, for which we also used Gradle, but my coauthor Svetlana created and managed the Gradle files. Partway through writing the book, Gradle was changed so it also uses Kotlin, but I still didn’t understand enough about Gradle with Groovy, so I didn’t want to risk breaking our system by trying to change to Kotlin.

More recently I saw a YouTube video about Gradle where they just did things but never really explained. You know the kind of people who have memorized the entire Unix command-line suite and use it effortlessly without every looking anything up? That seemed to be what I was watching, and it wasn’t reassuring.

I was stuck in this place for years, depending on others to help figure it out and not understanding it when they did. This was very frustrating and I avoided dealing with Gradle when I could. But underneath, it was bugging me to be so stumped by a piece of software technology.

The Chinese publisher of On Java 8 recently asked me to add a final chapter on Java 11. As I began digging into that, I realized I would need to extract the examples into a separate repository with its own Gradle build which required Java 11. I really didn’t want to ask for help this time (mostly because the helpers nearest to hand have expressed significant distaste for working with Gradle). So I decided to commit and take the time to figure it out and understand it, at least far enough for me to handle the Java 11 chapter.

And ideally without throwing things (by which I mean not exceptions but physical objects, out of frustration).

Through internet searches I became more engaged with the Gradle docs. The process required multiple dedicated days (on top of the attempts I had made in the past), along with a lot of self-reasurance that it was OK to just take my time and keep poking at it.

With patience and perserverance, Gradle slowly began giving up its mysteries. At the same time, I started understanding why it had been so baffling to me and why treating Gradle as an exercise in configuration just doesn’t work. You can’t go at it with a quick-and-dirty attitude, and that’s what had stymied me. This is the problem I had with Gradle:

To do anything you have to know everything

Yes, it’s hypothetically possible to create a simple build.gradle file for a basic build. But usually by the time you get to the point of needing a Gradle build, your problem is complicated enough that you must do more. And it turns out that “doing more” translates to “knowing everything.” Once you get past the simple things you fall off a cliff.

Think of the grappling shoes in the very first episode of Rick and Morty. Rick explains that the shoes allow you to walk on vertical surfaces, so Morty puts them on and promptly falls down a cliff, after which Rick explains that “you have to turn them on.” Gradle is my grappling shoes.

My goal here is to give you perspective, so as you fall down the cliff face you will understand what is happening, and what is necessary to climb back up.


Virtually every build system has two essential ingredients:

  1. Tasks: These comprise the menu of actions for your build. A build usually has multiple tasks and you typically invoke the desired task from the command-line, as in gradle build. Other build systems have different names for tasks; for example, make calls them targets.

  2. Dependencies: A dependency says “this can’t happen before that happens.” Typically, this means “I can’t compile/run this component before that component is available/updated,” but a dependency can refer to any kind of ordering that says “do this first, then do that.”

Dependencies can be thought of as “internal” (relying on other components within the build) or “external” (updating components from external repositories, local or remote).

The build tool reads a script which is usually in a file with a standardized name such as build.gradle or Makefile. Based on the instructions in the script, the build tool performs the operations necessary to update the project.

Historically, build tools like make are configuration-focused, and relegate actions to external programs. For example, a simple Makefile looks like this:

vip: vip.o
    cc vip.o -o vip

vip.o: vip.c
    cc -c vip.c -o vip.o

The non-indented lines establish the dependences: vip depends on vip.o and vip.o depends on vip.c. If you modify vip.c, make will see that vip.c is now newer than vip.o, so vip.o is out of date and make runs the command cc -c vip.c -o vip.o to bring vip.o up to date. Now vip is older than vip.o so make runs the command cc vip.o -o vip.

Commands are indented (horribly, by tabs, because make was created in the early days of Unix when they were still obsessed with saving bytes), and those commands are not part of make but simply shell command-line programs (in this case, the C compiler cc). make doesn’t know anything except that, according to the Makefile, executing the commands will bring the target up to date.

The simplicity of make is elegant, and it is still in active use today. An important limitation to make emerged over time, as people began relying on it for larger and more complex programs. It became challenging to always rely on outside programs as commands, so some versions of make began adding more and more internal capabilities to meet these needs. For those of you that have followed make to its edges, you might have had the same “aha!” moment that I did: “THIS is the spot where the creators of make realized they were building a programming language, and they stopped.”

Creators of modern build systems understand that some level of programming support is necessary in a build tool, and that it usually makes more sense to utilize an existing language than to get lost creating a new one (that, after all, is how we ended up with Java. They were supposed to be making a dedicated device for televisions). The questions are:

  1. Which language? The best choice seems like one the user is already familiar with, to lower the cognitive barrier against learning your build system.

  2. How intrusive? How much does this language dominate the experience of using your build system? How much language expertise is required to use the build tool?

  3. How influencing? My ideal would be a build system that looks like the existing language with a few minimal syntax additions to configure target rules. As you’ll see, the design of Gradle was significantly influenced by its use of the Groovy language.

We are still in the early days of the “adding a build system atop an existing language” paradigm. Gradle is an experiment in this paradigm, so we expect some sub-optimal choices. However, by understanding its issues you might have less frustration learning Gradle than I did.

1. You’re not Configuring, You’re Programming

Although Gradle attempts to look like it’s just declaring configurations, each of these configurations is actually a function call. Basically, everything except for some of the language directives is either creating objects or calling functions. I found it quite helpful to realize that, because now I look at the configuration declarations and see they are actually calling functions, and this makes it easier for me to understand.

2. Groovy is Not Java

You’ll need to grasp a significant portion of the Groovy language in order to create useful Gradle build files. I found it nearly impossible to understand what was happening before I took a deep enough dive into Groovy.

Groovy is a significant improvement over Java, and several features in Groovy influenced the language design for Kotlin. The more I learn about Groovy the more I realize I never gave it fair consideration.

Groovy syntax is reminiscent of Java, but it’s a different language and you need to learn a new set of rules and tricks. The fact that Groovy has access to existing Java libraries is primarily a benefit to the Gradle developers.

Aside: Understanding Kotlin allowed me to understand Groovy.

3. Gradle Uses a Domain-Specific Language

A Domain-Specific Language (DSL) is specialized to a particular application domain. The goal of a so-called internal DSL (one that is built within an existing language) is to narrow the focus to the problem at hand (e.g. configuring a software build) so that, ideally, the user only needs to understand the DSL in order to do the job.

For example, to tell Gradle where to find your Java source files, you can say:

sourceSets {
    main {
        java {
            srcDirs 'java11'

This is intended to create a declarative way to describe your builds, and it relies on the syntax for Groovy’s lambdas (which they unfortunately call closures). If the last argument in a function call is a lambda, it can be placed after the argument list. Here, sourceSets, main and java are all functions that take a single lambda parameter, so no parenthesized list is necessary, just the lambda. Thus, sourceSets, main and java are all function calls, but the resulting syntax makes it look like … something else.

How helpful is this DSL syntax, really? I have to translate it into function calls in my head when I read it. So for me it’s additional cognitive overhead which is ultimately a hindrance. The DSL operations can all be done with function calls, and programmers already understand function calls.

Some people prefer to express their build files with function calls and ignore the DSL syntax.

As I previously observed, you must know far more than the DSL syntax in order to do anything but the most basic of builds, so the DSL completely fails its raison d’etre. Unfortunately the DSL is not only part of the mix but generally the way that Gradle is introduced to newcomers. It’s basically just a noisier, and often more confusing, way to make function calls. Which brings me to:

4. There are Many Ways to do the Same Thing

Groovy allows you to express things in numerous different ways and the Gradle documentation seems to revel in this variety. When you’re just trying to get through it, adding the variations right away only makes it harder. Worse, people tend to casually use the different approaches, so you must recognize and unravel the competing syntaxes.

For example, the previous sourceSets could also be configured using function-call syntax by adding parentheses:

sourceSets {
    main {
        java {

Or you could choose to skip the DSL syntax and write it more compactly: = ['java11']

Which is equivalent to:'java11')

You’re free to choose from among the different approaches, and people do, so when you’re reading code examples you must understand all the variations. This compounds the complexity of learning Gradle.

To quote the Zen of Python:

There should be one–and preferably only one–obvious way to do it.

Being able to do something in many different ways is not a benefit.

5. Magic

Until you fully understand what’s going on, there seem to be many magical things that require special arcane knowledge.

Consider creating a task. You typically do this with a static declaration in your build.gradle:

task hello {
    doLast {
        println 'Hello world!'

doLast lambdas are executed as the task is completing.

Now when you say gradle hello on the command line, the hello task will run.

It turns out you can also create tasks dynamically, inside functions. To do this you must know about the tasks object, which is just there, automatically and invisibly, inside every gradle build. If, in an empty build.gradle file, you put:

tasks.forEach { println it }

It will print all the tasks in the tasks list. And without creating any tasks yourself, you will see:

task ':buildEnvironment'
task ':components'
task ':dependencies'
task ':dependencyInsight'
task ':dependentComponents'
task ':help'
task ':init'
task ':model'
task ':outgoingVariants'
task ':prepareKotlinBuildScriptModel'
task ':projects'
task ':properties'
task ':tasks'
task ':wrapper'

The tasks object is where we find the create() method for dynamic task creation (and tasks also seems to contain itself for some reason). We pass the name of the task we wish to create as you see in hello2:

task hello1 {
    doLast {
        println 'Hello 1!'

tasks.create("hello2") {
    dependsOn hello1
    doLast {
        println 'Hello 2!'

task("hello3") {
    dependsOn hello2
    doLast {
        println 'Hello 3!'

task all {
    doLast {
        tasks.matching {
        }.forEach {

hello3 shows yet another way to create a task, by simply calling the task() function. Note that each of the hello tasks explicitly depends on the previous one, so if you run gradle hello3 you’ll see hello2 and hello1 executed as well.

all searches through the tasks list (which, as we saw before, includes many other tasks), finds the tasks whose names start with hello, and displays them.

Normally if you want to set a project-level value for use by multiple pieces of code, you use ext, another object that is just there. It not only holds project-level values, it can collect values from other files and decide how to overwrite them if there are collisions.

Sometimes you want a value defined and used at file scope. To define a value with Groovy type inference, use def:

def config = "Configuration"

task x {
    println config

String useConfig() {
    return config  // Fails: can't see 'config'

Functions are defined using def if they don’t return anything, otherwise you give the return type. Here, useConfig() returns a String.

While config is visible within task x, it is not visible inside the function useConfig(). I’m not sure why this is, but to work around it you create a class containing static properties, which work in both tasks and functions:

class Vals {
    static def config = "Configuration"

task x1 {
    doLast {
        println "x1: ${Vals.config}"

String useConfig() {
    return Vals.config  // Succeeds

task x2 {
    doLast {
        println "x2: ${useConfig()}"

task all {
    dependsOn tasks.matching {"x") }

Notice that all depends on all tasks with names beginning with x, so running all will execute both x1 and x2.

This has only scratched the surface of what’s there but undiscovered.

6. The Lifecycle

It’s easy to make mistakes if you don’t understand the lifecycle. For example, suppose you accidentally put code inside a task lambda like this:

task a {
    println "task a"

Running it sort of seems to be OK:

>gradle a

> Configure project :
task a

It displays task a like I told it to. There’s that extraneous > Configure project : but I do know that there’s a project configuration phase so it’s probably that.

What it’s trying to tell you is that the println is being called during that configuration phase, and not when the a task is being executed. Unfortunately this can actually achieve the desired effect some of the time.

To tell it to run the code when the task executes you can use either doFirst or doLast, like this:

task a {
    doFirst {
        println "task a doFirst"
    println "task a initialization"
    doLast {
        println "task a doLast"

Now the output shows initialization as well as the task executing:

>gradle a

> Configure project :
task a initialization

> Task :a
task a doFirst
task a doLast

There are numerous things like this that you need to know or else you will experience surprises.

Other Issues

  • The Gradle documentation assumes you already know a lot. It is not a tutorial as much as a core dump. I now understand why, because to do anything you have to understand everything. But this assumption makes it challenging for the newcomer.

  • Slow startup times. Over the years they’ve worked to speed it up but if you run Gradle a lot, the startup time becomes annoying. In contrast, make is extremely fast. Even all the build tools I’ve created in Python can often finish in the time it takes Gradle to start.

  • It’s not that easy to discover Gradle’s abilities, and there are so many abilities that you often don’t know what’s possible or what might already exist to solve your problem. It can be easy to flounder for quite awhile before discovering there’s already a solution (or there isn’t).

Now That I Get It

I can finally start to understand my existing scripts, which is one of the things that kept me from considering the switch to Kotlin for Gradle scripts. But now that I have the big picture it’s clear that I can do it and that I want to. In particular, IntelliJ IDEA support for Groovy often can’t infer types, which is necessary for the IDE to look up available properties and methods for an object. This alone makes it worth moving to Kotlin (which, like Groovy, is another language). I think it will certainly make it appealing to Kotlin programmers using Gradle for builds.

If you’ve been struggling to formulate a mental model for Gradle, I hope this post has provided some insights.