How functional programming helps me write clean code


I have been writing code for several years now. One thing that I have realized is that I have spent much more time in reading code than writing code. Hence, as a part of continuous improvement, I invest a lot of time in learning new techniques to write clean code. By clean code I mean, code that is easy to read and easy to reason about.

Till now, I have mostly written code using object oriented programming techniques. Lately I have been learning functional programming techniques. These techniques, when mixed the techniques from object oriented style, have helped me a great deal in writing cleaner code. In this article, I will be showing what improvements can been brought into code by using these techniques. Also I will be providing a small explanation for each of the techniques shown.

Always code as if the guy who ends up maintaining your code will be a violent psychopath who knows where you live.

  • John Woods

Ability to write code having single responsibility

Functional programming talks about writing pure functions, which means that the output produced by a function should not change for a given set of inputs.

Not all functionality can be coded using pure functions as IO operations are inherently impure. As an example, consider you are writing logs to a file. Every time you write to a file the state of the file is changed. On the contrary computations that happen in memory are good candidates to be represented as pure functions.

To be able to write pure functions, I am forced to break down the problem in small parts, separating out the pure and impure parts. Breaking down into small parts leads to functions which have single responsibility. For IO operations (impure functions), monads are used, which I will be explaining later in the article.

Below are two snippets of code that show pure vs impure functions.

 // sum(1, 2) will always return 3, hence pure
var sum = (a, b) => a + b;

// sumImpure(1) will return different results based on the value of globalVar, hence impure
var globalVar = ... ;
var sumImpure = (a) => a + globalVar;

Ability to easily understand the problem being solved

Functional programming uses techniques like chaining and composition clubbed along with small pure functions that allow you to write code at a higher level of abstraction. These abstractions generally represent standard verbs or verbs related to your domain making it easy for you to understand the problem . This style is also referred to as declarative programming where your focus in on what rather than on how.

Most of the functionality, you need while writing programs, are provided as small pure functions by a functional language or a functional tool/library. Using chaining or composition you combine them in different ways to build functions customized for your needs.

Composition

Let’s see an example of composition in JavaScript using a library Ramda. This example has been taken from it’s documentation. The point worth noting is that there are no intermediate variables defined. Due to this there are less distractions and the main focus is on just understanding the order of combination logic. The below code be understood as follows:

  • Two numbers will be used to calculate the powered number
  • The result of previous step will be negated
  • The result of previous step will be incremented by 1
// composition - evaluated right to left
var f = R.compose(R.inc, R.negate, Math.pow);
f(3, 4); // -(3^4) + 1

// another form of composition with left to right evaluation
var g = R.pipe(Math.pow, R.negate, R.inc);

g(3, 4); // -(3^4) + 1

Chaining

Chaining is another form of combining small functions using a Builder Pattern. Mostly a container is used to hold the functions being combined. These containers can use techniques like lazy evaluation, short-circuiting or loop fusion to optimize the computation and thus offsetting the overhead that may be caused due to coding at higher level of abstraction.

As an example see the below code that has been using Java 8. The code has been written in a declarative fashion using chaining methods on the IntStream object.

int sum = IntStream.rangeClosed(1, 10)
    .filter(number -> number % 2 == 0) // 2 + 4 + 6 + 8 + 10
    .sum(); // 30

Ability to reuse code

Code reuse leads to lesser lines of code, which then leads to less chances of error when you have to make modifications to code. This is known as DRY principle. Functional programming provides techniques like function composition, higher order functions, currying and partial functions which helps reuse code.

Higher Order Functions

In the previous snippet, the filter method takes a function, which accepts any type of value but returns a boolean. Such functions are called predicates. A function which takes another function as an argument is called a higher order function. The important thing to note is that the filter is defined once and the behaviour changes based on the predicate provided to the filter method. This is the kind of reusability provided by higher order functions.

Partial Functions

Sometimes you have functions which take more than one argument. By applying a different set of arguments you can derive multiple functions out of the same function. The below snippet has been taken from a JavaScript library lodash. Note how the greet function is reused to create functions sayHelloTo and greetFred.

var greet = (greeting, name) => greeting + ' ' + name;

var sayHelloTo = _.partial(greet, 'hello');
sayHelloTo('fred'); // 'hello fred'

// Partially applied with placeholders.
var greetFred = _.partial(greet, _, 'fred');
greetFred('hi'); // 'hi fred'

Currying

Currying is somewhat similar to partial function. Though both help in function reuse, the difference are in the usage. It becomes evident when you have 3 or more arguments on a function. If you create a partial function by providing one argument initially, then you have to provide the remaining two arguments together whenever you use the partial function. However in case of currying, arguments can be provided in multiple steps. See the example below which is again taken from the lodash library documentation.

var abc = (a, b, c) => [a, b, c];

var curried = _.curry(abc);

// calling with three arguments separately
curried(1)(2)(3); // [1, 2, 3]

// calling with 2 arguments and then with 1 argument
curried(1, 2)(3); // [1, 2, 3]

// calling with all three arguments together
curried(1, 2, 3); // [1, 2, 3]

// Curried with placeholders.
curried(1)(_, 3)(2); // [1, 2, 3]

Ability to write robust code

There is hardly any program which do not interact with outside systems. Examples of interacting with outside systems can be reading from file or a database or a user trying to save or query for some information. Outside systems can also be other programs. In such cases, either unavailability of the system or unexpected or missing data can make your system brittle. You make your system robust by handling exceptions using try-catch, doing checks like null checks or performing validations using if-else blocks. Using these try-catch and if-else blocks make it difficult to use the functional concepts I mentioned before. This is where Monads come into picture.

Monads

These are containers that encapsulate the functionality of, lets say, null checking, validation or exception handling while still allowing you to write code using the functional concepts mentioned before. Let’s see this in action using a Try monad from a functional library in Java named Javaslang. Note that in the snippet below you are able to code in functional style and still be able to write robust code.

// if you want to handle all exceptions in the same way
Try.of(() -> bunchOfWork()).getOrElse(other);

// if you want to provide different handling per exception type
A result = Try.of(this::bunchOfWork)
    .recover(x -> Match(x).of(
        Case(instanceOf(Exception_1.class), ...),
        Case(instanceOf(Exception_2.class), ...),
        Case(instanceOf(Exception_n.class), ...)
    ))
    .getOrElse(other);

Another example of a monad encapsulating null checks can be found at this link.

Summary

I have covered only a small set of techniques which I have found beneficial. If you are not accustomed to using functional style, I would recommend you to invest time in learning it. This will surely be a good addition to your toolkit. I will end this article with a quote from Michael Feathers.

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