Functional programming is a ghetto

| July 24, 2012

This was originally posted by Michael O'Church on his blog.


Functional programming is a ghetto.

Before any flamewars can start, let me explain exactly what I mean. I don’t mean “functional programming sucks”. Far from it. The opposite, actually. Not all ghettos are poor, crime-ridden, and miserable. Jewish ghettos existed for centuries in Europe, from the Renaissance to World War II, and many were intellectual centers of the world. Some were quite prosperous. Harlem was, at one time, an upper-middle-class African-American community at the center of some of America’s most important artistic contributions. The same is true of functional programming. It’s the underappreciated intellectual capital of the programming world, in that its ideas (eventually) trickle down into the rest of the industry, but it’s still a ghetto. A ghetto is the urban analog of a geographic enclave: it’s included in the metropolis, but culturally isolated and usually a lot smaller than the surrounding city. It often harbors those who’ve struggled outside of it. Those who become too used to its comforts view the outside world with suspicion, while those on the outside have a similar attitude of distrust toward those within. Ghettos usually imply that there’s something involuntary about being there, but that’s often not the case. Chinatowns are voluntary ghettos, in the non-pejorative sense, as are some religious communities like monasteries. “Functional programming” is, likewise, a voluntary ghetto. We’ve carved out an elite niche in the software industry, and many of us refuse to work outside of it, but we’re all here by choice.

What is functional programming? Oddly enough, what I’m about to talk about is not functional programming in the purist sense, because most “functional programmers” are not averse to using side effects. The cultural issues surrounding functional programming are not about some abstract dislike of computational effects, but rather an understanding of the necessity of managing the complexity they create, and using tools (especially languages) that make sane development possible. Common Lisp, Scala, and Ocaml are not purely functional languages, but they provide native support for the abstractions that make functional programming possible. What real functional programmers do is “multi-paradigm”– mostly functional, but with imperative techniques used when appropriate. What the debate comes down to is the question of what should be the primary, default “building block” of a program. To a functional programmer, it’s a referentially-transparent (i.e. returning the same output every time per input, like a mathematical function) function. In imperative programming, it’s a stateful action. In object-oriented programming, it’s an object, a more general construct that might be a referentially-transparent function, might represent an action in a hand-rolled domain-specific language (DSL) or might be something else entirely. Of course, most “object-oriented programming” becomes a sloppy mix of multiple styles and ad-hoc DSLs, especially as more than one developer comes to work on an object-oriented project. That’s a rant for later.

In general, functional programming is right. The functional approach is not right forevery problem, but there is a right answer regarding the default abstractions for building most high-level programs: immutable data, and referentially transparent functions should be the default, except in special cases where something else isclearly more appropriate. Why? A computational action is, without more knowledge, impossible to test or reason about, because one cannot control the environment in which it exists. One needs to be able to know (and usually, to control) the environment in which the action occurs in order to know if it’s being done right. Usually, the tester wants to be able to cover all special cases of this action, in which case knowing the environment isn’t enough; controlling it is also necessary. But at this point, the state of the environment in which the test happens is an implicit parameter to the action, and making it explicit would make it a referentially-transparent function. In many cases, it’s better to do so– when possible. It might not be. For example, the environment (e.g. the state in a computer cluster database) might be too large, complex, or volatile to explicitly thread into a function. Much of real-world functional programming is not about eliminating all state, but about managing what state is intrinsic, necessary or appropriate.

For a concrete example, let’s say I have a blackboard, face down, with a number (state) on it, and I ask someone to read that (call it n) and erase the number, then write n+1 on the blackboard. I’m assuming he won’t lie to me, and that he’s physically capable of lifting the board; I want to determine if he can carry out this operation. If I don’t know n, and only see what is written after he is done, I have no hope of knowing whether the person carried out my order correctly. Of course, I could control the testing enviroment and write 5 on the blackboard before asking him to do this. If he writes 6, then I know he did what I asked him to do. At that point, though, the blackboard isn’t necessary. It’s more lightweight to just ask him, “what is 5 + 1?” I’ve moved from an imperative style of testing to a functional one: I’m determining whether his model of the addition function gives the right answer, rather than putting him through an exercise (action) and checking the state after it is done. The functional alternative is a unit test. I’m not trying to assess whether he knows how to turn over a blackboard, read it, erase it, and write a new number on it, because I only care about whether he can add. If I want to assess all of those as well, then I need to make an integration test of it. Both types of test are necessary in real-world software engineering, but the advantage of unit tests is that they make it easy to determine exactly what went wrong, facilitating faster debugging.

Testing, debugging, and maintenance are a major component of real-world software engineering, and functional programming gives us the tools to tackle these problems in a tractable way. Functions should be referentially transparent and, ideally, small (under 20 lines when reasonable). Large functions should be broken up, hierarchically, into smaller ones, noting that often these small components can be used in other systems. Why is this desirable? Because modularity makes code reuse easier, it makes debugging and refactoring much simpler (fixes only need to be made in one place) and, in the long term, it makes code more comprehensible to those who will have to modify and maintain it. People simply can’t hold a 500-line object method in their heads at one time, so why write these if we can avoid doing so?

The reality, for those of us who call ourselves functional programmers, is that we don’t always write stateless programs, but we aim for referential transparency or for obvious state effects in interfaces that other programmers (including ourselves, months later) will have to use. When we write C programs, for example, we write imperative code because it’s an imperative language, but we aim to make the behavior of that program as predictable and reasonable as we possibly can.

Functional programming, in the real world, doesn’t eschew mutable state outright. It requires mindfulness about it. So why is functional programming, despite its virtues, a ghetto? The answer is that we tend to insist on good design, to such a degree that we avoid taking jobs where we’re at risk of having to deal with bad designs. This isn’t a vice on our part; it’s a learned necessity not to waste one’s time or risk one’s career trying to “fix” hopeless systems or collapsing companies. Generally, we’ve come to know the signs of necrosis. We like the JVM languages Clojure and Scala, and we might use Java-the-language when needed, but we hate “Java shops” (i.e. Java-the-culture) with a passion, because we know that they generate intractable legacy messes in spite of their best efforts. Say “POJO” or “Visitor pattern”, and you’ve lost us. This seems like arrogance, but for a person with a long-term view, it’s necessary. There are a million “new new things” being developed at any given time, and 995,000 of them are reincarnations of failed old things that are going to crash and burn. If I could characterize the mindset of a functional programmer, it’s that we’re conservative. We don’t trust methodologies or “design patterns” or all-purpose frameworks promising to save the world, we don’t believe in “silver bullets” because we know that software is intrinsically difficult, and we generally believe that the shiniest IDE provides us enough to compensate for its shortfalls and false comforts. For example, an IDE is useless for resolving a production crisis occurring on a server 3,000 miles away. We’d rather use vim or emacs, and the command line, because we know they work pretty much everywhere, and because they give us enough power in editing to be productive.

From a functional programmer’s perspective, it’s easy to mistake the rest of the software industry for “the ghetto” (especially considering the pejorative association, which I am trying to disavow, with that word). Our constructions are stable and attractive, and we do such a good job of cleaning up after ourselves that there’s not much horseshit on our streets. Outside our walls are slums with rickety, fifteen-story tenements that are already starting to lean. The city without is sloppy and disease-ridden and everything built in out there will be burned down, to kill the plague rats, in ten years. We don’t like to go there, but sometimes there are advantages of doing so– for one thing, it’s fifty times larger. If we lose awareness of size and scale and what this means, we can forget that we are in the ghetto. That’s not to say we shouldn’t live in one, for it’s a prosperous and intellectually rich ghetto we inhabit, but a ghetto it is.

I think most functional programmers only get a full awareness of this when we’re job searching, and thanks to most of us being in the top 5% of programmers, our job searches tend to be short. Still, I’ve lost count of the number of times over the past five years that I’ve found a job listing that looked interesting, except for its choice of language. “5 years of experience in Java, including knowledge of design-pattern best practices.” Nope. It might be a good company writing bad copy, but its technical choices look exactly the same as those of the bad firms, so how can I be sure? The process quickly becomes depressing. It’s not that Java or C++ are “dirty” languages that I would never use. It’s that any job that involves using these languages full-time is so likely to suck that it’s hardly worth investigating. Occasionally, C++ and Java are the right tools for the job, but no one should try to build a company on these languages. Not in 2012. Java isn’t a language that peoplechoose to use, not for primary development. Not if they’ve used three or four languages in their career. It’s a language that people make other people use. Usually, it’s risk-averse and non-technical managers making that call. A Java Shop is almost always a company in which non-engineers call the shots.

What we call functional programming is somewhat of a shibboleth for good-taste programming. We prefer the best programming languages, like Ocaml and Clojure, but we don’t actually restrict ourselves to writing functional programs. Do we use C when it’s the right tool for the job? Hell yeah. Do we put mutable state into a program when it makes it simpler (as is sometimes the case)? Hell yeah. On the other hand, we trust the aesthetic and architectural decisions made by brilliant, experienced, gray-bearded engineers far more than we trust business fads. We have a conservative faith in simplicity and ease-of-use over the shifting tastes of mainstream managerial types and the superficial attractiveness of silver bullets and “methodologies”. We roll our eyes when some fresh-faced MBA tells us that structuring our calendar around two-week “iterations” will solve every software problem known to humankind. Unfortunately, this insistence (often in the face of managerial authority) on good taste makes us somewhat unusual. It stands out, it can be unpopular, and it’s not always good for one’s career. Few stand with us. Most leave our camp, either to become managers (in which case, even a Java Shop is a plausible employer) or to accept defeat and let bad taste win. It’s hard to live in a ghetto.

Now, I have little faith in the stereotypical average programmer, the one who never thinks a technical thought after 5:01 pm, and who doesn’t mind using Java full-time because the inevitable slop is the problem of some “maintenance guy”. That person probably shouldn’t be programming. On the other hand, we’re about 2 percent of the software industry, if that, right now. We can reach out. We can do better. We’re not so brilliant that the other 98% of programmers have no hope of joining us. Not even close. There are many IDE-using, Java-hacking, semi-bored developers who are just as smart as we are but haven’t seen the light yet. It’s our job to show it to them, and if we fail to convince them that they could become 2 to 10 times more productive than they ever dreamed of being, and that programming can become funagain, then we’re the ones to blame. We must reach out, and we can probably bring 10, 20, maybe even 30 percent of programmers over to the light side, bringing about dramatic changes in the software industry.

I think the integrity of our industry depends on our ability and willingness to figure out how to do this.


This was originally posted by Michael O'Church on his blog.

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