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Pride and Prejudice

My last post was in support of functional programmers. This post tries to get to the nub of the ‘Arrogance’ issue. Where does it come from? What sustains it? Why Functional Programmers in Particular?

There are real problems. There are enthusiasts who are hostile to newcomers. There are newcomers who are hostile to functional programming. I’m going to ignore these extremes. I’m interested in people who engage in good faith, but don’t manage to connect.

There’s seems to be a kind of dual reality happening. Newcomers and the enthusiasts can have different perspectives of the same interaction. Some of this confusion plays out in a world of anonymous forums and 140 character tweets. We are not designed to deal with complex issues through these new media. Things escalate, fast.

Here are a few of the more common disagreements.

Functional Programmers moralise about side effects and purity.

Functional programmers are cast as the vegetarians of programming. Side effects and mutable variables are off the menu. Some go full vegan and learn Haskell.

To a newcomer this can seem a bit puritanical. “Thou Shalt Not” lectures don’t sit well with programmers.

This is where we touch on the difference between easy and simple. Easy is a close cousin of familiar. Adding a lock around mutable state is easy if that’s what you know how to do.

Simplicity is the absence of complexity. Learning new skills to eliminate mutable state is hard, but the resulting solution can be simpler. As familiarity increases, difficulty decreases and you get simple AND easy.

If you learn a new paradigm, you are by definition ok with the unfamiliar. You have a different perspective than some of the newcomers that you are trying to convince.

That difference may lead newcomers to see you as puritanical, and may lead you to see newcomers as lazy. In that situation, everybody loses.

Functional Programmers Dismiss OO, which has served us well.

Every functional programming enthusiast I know has a background in Object Oriented programming. Many will admit to having struggled to do OO well.

The deeper they get into functional programming the simpler it seems by comparison. That is one of it’s big attractions.

It’s not uncommon to equate OO with the familiar complex solutions I describe above. And to think of functional programming as the unfamiliar but simpler alternative.

I’ve been guilty of thinking in those terms. It’s understandable. You’ve struggled with OO. You find a paradigm that seems to address your specific issues. It’s all too easy to think you’ve found ‘a better paradigm’.

Presenting functional as a better alternative to OO doesn’t sit well with people who know and like OO. It’s hostile, and it’s wrong in any case. Just as it’s wrong for newcomers to claim that OO is better or more intuitive.

I think of OO and functional as the longitude and latitude of software development. When you learn both you don’t explore two different paths, you explore an entire area mapped out by two axes.

Functional programmers obsess over clever unreadable code

Some programmers enjoy exercises like ‘Code Golf’. They cram entire algorithms into a single tweet. These recreational programming challenges are popular with with both functional and imperative/OO programmers.

Functional code does tend to be terse. If it’s unfamiliar to you, it can look a lot like a code golf exercise. The gleeful reactions of programmers to such code don’t help.

Idiomatic functional code is at a level of abstraction above imperative code. It tends to avoid loops, conditionals and temporary variables. It has unfamiliar concepts like pattern matching, sum types and partial application.

It can be a shock to see actual abstraction done well. Most of what we call abstraction is just indirection.

Object Oriented code done well should also offer abstraction over imperative code. That’s a story for another day.

Yes, code golf happens, there’s nothing wrong with it. But, not all programmers cackling over some terse code are playing code golf. They are not all smug and obsessed with their own cleverness.

Sometimes they’re writing good production code. They’re delighted to see abstraction working like it should. Every programmer, regardless of paradigm should celebrate that.

I just don’t get it / Functional Programmers are smug because they “get it”

Most programmers with a bit of experience can pick up a new language in a few days. It’ll take longer to understand it’s peculiarities. But you should see progress in days, if not hours.

We can do this because languages have common roots. This won’t happen if you try to learn a new paradigm.

Learning a new paradigm is akin to learning programming all over again. You’ll feel lost. For some, that is evidence that functional programming is “not intuitive”.

There is debate about whether OO is ‘intuitive’ because it models the real world? Or whether it’s just ‘familiar’ after years as the dominant paradigm?

For me, the lost feeling is the best part. I’m back to the days when new knowledge came in BIG jumps. When unconnected ideas joined together and unlocked completely new ideas.

It can be hard to articulate “how” you learned functional programming. It’s easy to give newcomers the impression that it is something that you just “get”. Try not to do that. There are eureka moments, but they come after working though that lost feeling.

Functional Programmers ramble on about maths and lambda calculus

I missed two years of school which left me with some big gaps in my maths knowledge.

Trust me when I say, you don’t need maths to grasp functional programming. But, functional programming can be a gateway drug to maths.

If functional programmers seem enthusiastic about maths it’s because maths is cool. When mathematical ideas start to make sense, it’s the same rush that we get from programming.

To work in a new paradigm and see it not only make sense, but tie back to mathematical underpinnings. It’s exciting.

Getting Involved

If you are interested in learning functional programming, the one piece of advice I would offer above all others is make contact with real people. Stay away from forums.

Watch talks, read blogs, follow people on twitter, see who they follow in turn. Get a sense of the personalities, the sense of humour etc.

People who are enthusiastic about functional programming will be glad to help anyone who shows a genuine interest. They will also be able to suggest others who can also help you.

We all tend to mirror the people we interact with. If you are enthusiastic and genuine in your enquiries you will find people who are enthusiastic an genuine in their efforts to help.

Comments

Steve Gilham
Reply

Concentrating on the big immutable hammer misses the thing that seems to be the real stumbling block to picking up functional languages — the strong type systems that most of them have. Strong types may mean that a program is far more likely to be correct if it compiles, but when your program fails to compile with a message that about as comprehensible as a C++ template failure, it can be very discouraging.

If anything, the big shift in thinking patterns for the strong typed languages is in moving the debugging step earlier in the flow than has been familiar.

While I’m a mathematician by background, that was always in Applied — crunching differential equations or re-casting multiple integrals as Fourier transforms. My own experience with FP came after reading an article sometime over a decade ago asserting that Erlang would be the new Java in the multi-core era, and picking up Joe Armstrong’s PragProg book on the strength of it.

I found that despite its pure immutable nature, that Erlang had a very low barrier to the program after “Hello world!” Writing non-trivial programs (a few hundred lines of networking code) that accomplished and outperformed what had taken me thousands of lines in ‘C’ was easy. Yes, there were compilation errors along the way, but those were mostly simple syntax (putting the correct punctuation marks at the ends of lines), and I debugged at run-time as usual.

Then I found out that this F# language was not Fortran.net, and gave it a whirl. And I felt like an utter dunce who “didn’t get it” for months while I figured out the compile time type constraints and what these bizarre arrow-filled compile failures were about.

Craig Tataryn
Reply

“Most programmers with a bit of experience can pick up a new language in a few days […] This won’t happen if you try to learn a new paradigm.”

This is exactly the reason I gave this talk:

Learning Scala? Learn the fundamentals first.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ugHsIj60VfQ

I had that exact same feeling of being “lost” when I first approached Scala and then I realized it was because I couldn’t just “jump in” to Scala. Some had suggested you can “start coding Scala like you would Java” but it’s bad advice. I do also remember feeling “lost” when learning OOP back in high school. I had been a crack Pascal coder, but with Turbo Pascal 5.5 I tried to learn me some OOP and I just couldn’t wrap my head around it! I actually avoided OOP for most of University (back in the days where that was a possibility) and it wasn’t until entering the workforce that I got myself up to snuff.

So you are bang on -> paradigms != programming languages. Great article.

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