Changing the Way I Write Software

Posted on 4 April 2016

Every day we all have new experiences. When we practice a profession or hobby, the new things we learn can affect the way we continue to do old things. As a software developer, when I’m exposed to new programming languages, libraries, and tools, the way I use those, which I already know, changes. Until about three years ago, I was only familiar with imperative programming. In almost every line of code, I was giving the machine an instruction about what to do.

Three years ago I started working with Ruby. Of course Ruby is still an imperative programming language, but it has a lot of features that promote and facilitate functional programming. When I started using Ruby I used almost none of them.

Then a half year later I started learning Clojure. Clojure promotes quite a bit of functional and declarative programming. That is: programming which respects the mathematical definition of a function and declares what data is instead of specifying instructions to generate it. In Clojure you still have parts of your code where you do a lot of imperative operations with possible side effects (this term will be explained in this post), but generally Clojure is designed to promote declarative programming, and the code I wrote in Clojure at the time was more declarative and functional than any code I had written until that time.

Around the time I started learning Clojure was the same time I started doing professional Ruby work. The result was interesting. After experiencing Clojure, the amount of declarative code I wrote increased significantly. Of course there were still some side effects in there (mostly the database), so you can’t say I was writing functional code, but I was starting to learn how to really use higher order functions to explain what my data is instead of how it should be computed.

About a year and a half ago I went a step further: I added a strong type system to my code and eliminated side effects. That is, I learned and began to use Haskell. Some people think Haskell is an extremely complicated and theoretical language which has no practical application, but complicated is subjective. If you can get through a mathematics course and an entire computer science degree, there’s no reason you can’t understand how to write Haskell code. That it has no practical application is completely wrong, and Haskell’s practical application can be seen by the vast amount of libraries that exist for the language and by the fact that it is used commercially by companies such as Facebook, Google, Intel, NVIDIA, Siemens, and Microsoft. Therefore I’ve naturally found quite a few practical applications of the programming language.

In addition, these programming languages have taught me how to write code differently in other programming languages… almost all of them. From time to time (and in my work) I use programming languages that do not enforce or encourage functional purity, or those with weak type systems. Despite this drawback, the way I write software in those programming languages has changed a lot. I would like to reflect on these changes and share them.

Write Declarative Code

Many programming languages allow you to change data behind a name. For example, you can set foobar = 0 and then in the next line change the value of foobar, possibly using its existing value in this calculation. This is called mutability. Mutability can of course be somewhat intuitive to the way we think about some problems: particularly if we think about graph theory.

It turns out uncontrolled mutability can be dangerous though. You could, for example, have a segment of code that calculates some value and stores it in some variable and another segment of code that uses this value to come to a conclusion. Later, another developer finds a reason to insert some code between both of these segments. In this code, the variable is modified. If attention to detail isn’t paid, the conclusion could be incorrectly determined. This is usually very avoidable if you’re dealing with one procedure’s scope (although it still happens a lot…), but when you’re dealing with object/class scope, things could become messy.

Immutability interestingly doesn’t completely destroy the ability to change values (as weird as this sounds). One possibility is to declare your changed data under a different symbol name and use this. Any references to the original data will still refer to exactly that data. You can even take it a step further and use structures such as state monads in conjunction with syntactical features of some programming languages to simplify controlled mutability.

Of course I’m not implementing state monads in C++, Java, or Ruby, but I do pay close attention to mutability and state I introduce into my code and try to keep it controllable. By not allowing the mutability and state that I introduce to get too complex, and by documenting scenarios that do become complex (so that they are not easily passed over by other developers), the code becomes more durable to future changes. Here’s a small (possibly trivial) example in Java:

public class MutabilityAndImmutability {
  public String withUnnecessaryMutability() {
    String result = "Result is: ";
    // Start adding some code here and modify result however you want.
    if (someCalculation()) {
      result += "Good";
    } else {
      result += "Bad";
    return result;

  public String withoutMutability() {
    final String constOutput = "Result is: ";
    if (someCalculation()) {
      return constOutput + "Good";
    } else {
      return constOutput + "Bad";

  // someCalculation defined somewhere here.

It might seem trivial, but you must directly modify a line involved in declaring data in the second example, while you can simply add new lines of code in the first example and make a valid change which may break the result. Imagine what this could become in a non-trivial example.

Null Is Rubbish

The null object pattern has become very popular in programming languages over the past few decades. It sometimes seems hard to find programming languages without this concept of null, and therefore it’s understandable why many software developers can’t imagine a world without it. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that null is dangerous, especially considering the amount of times most of us have seen NullPointerException, NoMethodError due to nil:NilClass, call to member function on a non-object, and segmentation faults, sadly even in production code.

Is all of this really necessary? This concept of null is usually used to represent the lack of something. Something is missing, or an error occurred that made it impossible to generate the data we want. Of course we need a way to represent nothingness, but null is NOT the solution.

“I call it my billion-dollar mistake. It was the invention of the null reference in 1965. […] This has led to innumerable errors, vulnerabilities, and system crashes, which have probably caused a billion dollars of pain and damage in the last forty years.”
- Tony Hoare, inventor of the null object pattern

The idea here is not to get rid of nothingness but to restrict what things can be “nothing”. One common solution is the option type. It’s a very simple solution. Imagine first of all that null is gone. An option type contains either something of some type, or it contains nothing. The developer can then query whether there actually is something or not, and then use it. You also can build a range of convenience functions to work on your option type. It is important though that you cannot treat your option type the same as you would treat the content inside. You must consider the case in which there is nothing, and things that are not contained in an option type cannot be nothing (they must always contain a value).

Consider the example of a contact. Within this contact type you require a phone number. Optionally you can have a fax number. You would therefore say that a contact (Contact) has a phone number entry (PhoneNumber) and an option of a fax number (Option<FaxNumber>). The beauty here is that if you have a Contact you definitely have a PhoneNumber, no questions asked. And although you may not have a FaxNumber, code using a Contact cannot assume that a FaxNumber is present. It must first query the Option for its FaxNumber, and in doing so, the case in which there is none is handled. We explicitly defined what things are required and what things can be nothingness. This is much safer than if everything could be null or not, leaving it up to interpretation to decide what things we should check for null and what things we shouldn’t.

If I’m dealing with a codebase that uses null and it is impractical to begin using an option type in the project, there is something else I’ve learned I can do: I think about what I want to return (is there a case where I may actually want to return null or do I always want a value to be returned?), I ensure that I am only returning what I want, and I properly document cases where null actually is returned and explain in what cases that occurs. This might not provide a lot of security, but at least it’s something.

Consider Your Complete Domain and Codomain

In mathematics a function is nothing more than a map. You have a domain, or the set of all things that can be passed to your function, and a codomain, the set of all things that can come out of it. A function of type String -> Bool -> Int, or int f(string x, bool y), has a domain containing all possible strings that can be formed paired with all possible boolean values that can be formed (obviously simply true and false) and a codomain of every integer from -∞ to ∞. An important word associated with functions is totality. A total function can produce a value in its codomain for every value in its domain. This means if we can’t produce an integer for every combination of strings and booleans, we have written a partial function. Partial functions are dangerous.

We have a lot of partial functions that software developers frequently use, often without noticing. Think of the function std::vector::front() in C++. For std::vector<T> it should return a reference to a T. Can you think of a case where this T cannot be produced? If you guessed the empty vector, your answer is right. Or as the code I just compiled to test this example says during runtime: Segmentation fault (core dumped). Imagine how much fun that would be in production code! The solution here is for front to return std::experimental::optional<T>, a proposed extension to the C++ language (the null problem is a difficult one to avoid; it even pops up in this section).

Handle Side Effects With Care

In the functional programming world, people talk a lot about “launching the missiles”. There are even jokes about this in package repositories. This expression is usually used to describe how dangerous code that interacts with the outside world can be. To be clear, interacting with the outside world is not a side effect, but it can (and often is) implemented as one. A side effect is anything that breaks functional purity. Functional purity is the idea that a function is nothing more than its mathematical definition: a map from a domain (its input) to a codomain (its return value). The PHP function file_get_contents is definitely not a pure function. Reading that file is implemented as a side effect. I can call $a = file_get_contents('test.txt');, replace the file, call $b = file_get_contents('test.txt'); again, and $a === $b will not be true. This is not a valid map. One key goes to two values.

            ----> "contents that were in the file"
            ----> "contents that are now in the file"

One reason we tend to implement I/O as a side effect is because at first it seems like it’s the only way. Results from the outside world are not something about which we can make many statements at compile time. We can implement I/O without side effects though, and a great example is the IO monad. I will not go into length explaining it, but simplified: you pass an action and a handler function (describing what will be done with the result of this action) to a bind function and get a representation of this action paired with this handler. Passing the same action and the same handler function to bind will always map to the same pair.

This isn’t particularly easy to put into practice in programming languages that are not built with monads in mind (trust me, the syntax gets very ugly very fast, although it is possible). There is something we can take away from the IO monad and use in other programming languages though. The wonderful thing about the IO monad is that the fact that I/O is happening is represented in the return type. A function that does not have IO in its return type cannot perform I/O or call any other function that does so. This prevents your int addTwoNumbers(int x, int y) from suddenly deleting System32 or launching Russia’s nuclear arsenal (I’m not claiming you or I have such a procedure that can do either of those things). This is because it doesn’t have IO in its return type.

If we’re using side effects instead of something like an IO monad though, we can’t really define this in the return type. Therefore we need to fall back to plan B. When the type system doesn’t let us specify something, we document it! In general what this taught me is that if it is not obvious that a procedure in some language will perform I/O (or sometimes even if it is obvious), I should document the procedure with information about the interaction it is making with the outside world.


I’m probably missing a few things I’ve learned here, but that’s not a problem. My goal is to share what I’ve learned and how I’ve changed the way I write software. I encourage others (such as you, the reader) to learn a new programming language with a different programming paradigm from that with which you are familiar. It will probably do the same for you that it did for me. You will find the advantages of this new language or paradigm and try to integrate it into your existing work.

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