The Dangers of Anonymous Apex and the Developer Console

The Developer Console and Anonymous Apex seem like appealing ways to learn, to do ad-hoc exploration of the system, to perform quick fixes, and to prototype ideas in Apex. Unfortunately, the low barrier to entry with these tools masks some very subtle complications that can turn into traps, especially for learners and early-career Salesforce developers for whom that low barrier to entry may carry the most value. Here’s why, and some thoughts on achieving the same objectives in a safer way.

User Mode and the Tooling API

It’s easy to imagine that the Developer Console’s “Execute Anonymous” feature or sfdx force:apex:execute just … runs your code, in some straightforward fashion analogous to how your other triggers and classes are run. The reality is slightly more complicated, and comes with subtle consequences for the behavior of your code.

Under the hood, all Anonymous Apex tools make a Tooling API call to the run Anonymous Apex endpoint. And that comes with a critical environmental difference from almost everywhere else you’ll run Apex:

Unlike classes and triggers, anonymous blocks execute as the current user and can fail to compile if the code violates the user’s object- and field-level permissions.

The API enforces CRUD, FLS, and record-level sharing against the code you’re running - it runs in user mode, not the system mode you’re used to for triggers and other Apex automation. But further, CRUD and FLS is actually enforced at compile time.

If you attempt to Execute Anonmyous code that references a field or object to which you do not have FLS or CRUD, you obtain an error that can be very confusing:

for (Account a: [SELECT Id, Star_Helix_Liaison__c FROM Account]) {
    // Do some work.
}

SELECT Id, Star_Helix_Liaison__c FROM Account ^ ERROR at Row:1:Column:12 No such column ‘Star_Helix_Liaison__c’ on entity ‘Account’. If you are attempting to use a custom field, be sure to append the ‘__c’ after the custom field name. Please reference your WSDL or the describe call for the appropriate names.

It’s easy to end up tearing your hair out as you stare at Object Manager in another tab, the field Star_Helix_Liaison__c manifestly existing on the Account object. But it’s FLS that’s the real problem here: you can’t read that field, and that results in a compile-time error in Anonymous Apex.

Anonymous Apex always runs with sharing, enforcing record-level access. This behavior can also be quite surprising; code snippets that usually run in a without sharing context in a trigger handler, for example, silently manifest very different behavior when run in an anonymous context.

Because this default with sharing context isn’t explicit in the code, you have to know that that’s how Anonymous Apex behaves in order to explain the behavior you observe. It’s easy to mistake for bugs in the code.

The Invisible Outer Class

Suppose you’re testing a class structure like this, perhaps as a data-transfer object for deserializing a JSON message:

class TransitRequest {
    class ShipManifest {
        Integer tonnage;
    }
}

If you include this code in an Anonymous Apex body, you’ll get a compile-time error:

Inner types are not allowed to have inner types.

But we only have one inner type here! That’s perfectly legal in Apex… except when we’re in the Execute Anonymous context. Here, the entire code block is wrapped in an anonymous outer class by the system, of which TransitRequest is an inner class. That means that in Execute Anonymous, but not anywhere else we use this code, ShipManifest is an illegal inner class of an inner class.

(You could move ShipManifest out of the context of TransitRequest to allow it compile in Anonymous Apex, but it’s a better plan to switch to different tools for testing an exploration, such as writing Apex unit tests).

For the same underlying reason, you cannot use the static keyword on a method defined in a class in your Anonymous Apex: inner classes cannot use the static keyword, and every class in Anonymous Apex is an inner class.

Persistence of User Context

“Why is Miller showing up as the Last Modified By on thousands of records every day?” an admin might wonder. “And the time stamps are all in the middle of the night!”

Miller likely forgot something critical: if one uses Anonymous Apex in the Developer Console to schedule an Apex class, including a batch class, the class retains the original user context indefinitely.

System.schedule(
    'ErosMonitor',
    '0 0 23 * * ?',
    new StationMonitor(Station.EROS)
);

When the system executes StationMonitor every night at 11 pm, the class runs as the user who scheduled it via Anonymous Apex. Any actions taken by that class, including DML, also reflect that user context (In that sense, it’s not anonymous at all!)

This feature doesn’t apply only to Anonymous Apex, of course: anywhere you schedule Apex, you’ll find the same behavior. But it’s easy to let that knowledge slip, especially when you’re trying to fix a problem quickly. Always make sure to schedule Apex and run batch Apex using the context user that should own the actions of that class.

When System.debug() Tricks You

It seems like the most natural thing in the world to run System.debug() in Anonymous Apex while you explore the system. But there’s a trick - well, multiple tricks.

Account a = new Account(Name = 'Transport Union');
insert a;
Contact c = new Contact(FirstName = 'Camina', LastName = 'Drummer', AccountId = a.Id);
insert c;

System.debug([
    SELECT LastName, Account.Name, Email FROM Contact WHERE Id = :c.Id
]);

Look what you get back:

22:41:15:000 USER_DEBUG [6] DEBUG (Contact:{LastName=Drummer, AccountId=0011R00002pCh07QAC, Id=0031R00002fBlWOQA0})

We queried Email, but it’s not here at all - not even as null, which is what its value should be. And where’s the Account.Name value? Is it null? Did we do something incorrect in the data setup?

No, it’s not null; the value’s exactly what you think it is. But System.debug() does not represent fields across relationships in its output, and it does not represent null values at all, even if they’re queried on an sObject.

This behavior can be insidious. If you’re trying to track down a problem, you might look at your System.debug() output, see values that are not what you expected, and go on a wild-goose chase after a bug that’s not real - while missing the real bug that caused the problem with which you started!

sObject output behavior is not the only place that System.debug() can be deceptive to the unwary. Take this example:

List<String> stations = new List<String>{
    'Ceres', 'Pallas', 'Tycho', 'Ganymede',
    'Vesta', 'Medina', 'Eros', 'Phoebe',
    'Iapetus', 'Laconia', 'Callisto', 'Draper'
};

System.debug(stations);

You’d expect to see twelve items in your debug output, right? No such luck:

22:47:53:004 USER_DEBUG [8] DEBUG (Ceres, Pallas, Tycho, Ganymede, Vesta, Medina, Eros, Phoebe, Iapetus, Laconia, …)

System.debug() truncates collection output (note the ellipsis, ...), and does not by default output the collection size. You’ll find the same behavior with Map and with List.

It’s also important to know what it is you’re seeing. It’s not JSON, or any other parseable format. Rather, it’s the result of String.valueOf(yourCollection). (You can demonstrate this for yourself in, where else, Anonymous Apex!) You shouldn’t ever migrate this representation elsewhere, or store it in your database. It’s not useful.

If you want a clearer representation that you can both store safely and inspect within the debug logs, use JSON.serialize() or JSON.serializePretty() to turn the collection into JSON first, or iterate over the collection to inspect its items.

Using JSON doesn’t mean you can log arbitrary amounts of data: the system will still truncate the string in your logs to the first 501 characters. However, it’s generally a more readable representation, and likely gives you more to look at in the debug log.

Better Approaches and Conclusions

It’s not at all my intention to say “One should never use the Developer Console”, or tools like sfdx force:apex:execute that run Anonymous Apex”. My takeaways, rather, are these:

It’s a good idea to be suspicious of the apparent ease and low barrier to entry of the Developer Console and Anonymous Apex tooling. You’re still interacting with a complex software system and need to fully understand the context of the actions that you take, which can be highly unintuitive with these specific tools. In particular, if you’re an Apex learner or early-career Salesforce developer, these tools may confuse you more than they help you learn. Pathologies that you observe in Anonymous Apex may not occur in real use, and vice versa; code that works fine in production may not even compile in Anonymous Apex!

While these tools still have a place in debugging and hands-on exploration, use them very carefully, and keep the key context differences in mind.

And lastly: if you need to debug a problem or prove out behavior in the system, just write tests. The barrier to entry is a little bit higher, true, but the explicit control tests give you over the code environment means you have better odds of success, and you’ll come away from the process with validations you can deploy and use again and again.

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