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Dylan Maccora
Dylan Maccora

Posted on • Originally published at maccoda.github.io

Valuable functional programming basics every developer should know

For a long time there was an idealistic divide between functional and object oriented programming and this was manifested in the languages that came through. In the current landscape however you are spoilt for choice with languages and this divide is closing with a lot of the most popular languages available taking the best aspects of both paradigms. Kotlin is a great example of this where it is initially based on the JVM and follows OO principles with classes, etc but also introduces a lot of functional principles such as first class functions and the scary monad (I am no expert in this but there are a lot of easy to understand properties that you can make use of). Another example is Rust where it cannot easily be classified as either paradigm but uses functional elements such as using the Result type to promote functions always return a result, as well as object oriented notions such as the dot notation of functions on a type.

Monad Concepts

Monad is a term used a lot in functional programming and especially in the vast theory behind it. I did not wish to delve into such theory here but rather the useful functions that become available because we can treat some objects as a monad. Of particular interest is working with collections or streams of elements. The main reason I personally find these incredibly powerful is that they provide a common language for which we can describe the intention of common functions that can be combined together to achieve our end result. A lot of these functions you can use in place of a for loop so next time you are looking at iterating over a collection with a for loop consider if one of the following constructs are what you need.

map

The map function is a transformation of each element from type X to type Y. Depending on the language you are using this may modify the elements in place or create a new collection of the mapped values (in true functional style).

An easy example is say I have a collection of blog posts and I want to obtain the titles of all these, we can achieve this by:

val blogPosts: Collection<BlogPost> = listOf(BlogPost(title = "post 1"),
                                             BlogPost(title = "post 2"))
val blogPostTitles: Collection<String> = blogPosts.map { it.title } // ["post 1", "post 2"]
// Without the syntactic sugar
// val blogPostTitles: Collection<String> = blogPosts.map { post -> post.title }
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Let's break this example down a bit to what is happening here. The map
function takes a function as a parameter which we will call our transform
function
. This function maps the input type to some other type (this can the
same as the input type). The map function then iterates through the input list
and creates a new list applying this function to each element.

flatMap

The flatMap function is actually a combination of the above map function and the flatten function (not covered in this post). The flatten function takes a container of containers type and flattens it to just a container type.
This is quite abstract so lets take a simple example. Say you have a List<List<String>> and you want a List<String>, this in the broad sense what the flatten function does. In this example the container is the List type.

Knowing this it is quite simple to describe the flatMap function although it may still be difficult to wrap your head around in actual applications. The flatMap function will apply the transformation specified to the element in the
container and then flatten it. This is typically required when the transformation function returns the same type as the initial type.

As an example say we have a type that represents the books a customer has read and we want to print all of the books a group of customers have read (we are not concerned about duplicates). Such data may be present as:

data class BookCustomer(val booksRead: List<String>)

val bookCustomers: List<BookCustomer> = ...
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The end type we are wanting is a List<String> containing all the book titles. Let us first try this without flatMap to aide in seeing when to consider using it.

val bookCustomers: List<BookCustomer> = ...

val booksRead: MutableList<String> = mutableListOf()

for (customer: BookCustomer in bookCustomers) {
  val booksTitles: List<String> = customer.booksRead
  booksRead.addAll(booksTitles)
}
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The key thing that using these functional paradigms provides is built in immutability. In the above example we are needing to create a mutable list to get the result. We will see in the below version this is not required.

val bookCustomers: List<BookCustomer> = ...

val bookRead: List<String> = bookCustomers.flatMap { it.booksRead }
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The transformation we are performing is mapping the BookCustomer to the list of book titles they have read, then the flatten part of flatMap handles to reduction of the list of lists into a single list. This leads us into the next section on reduce which is the general pattern of flatten.

reduce or fold

The reduce and fold functions are more general functions to reduce a container, typically a collection, to a singular value. A simple example we can explore is reducing a collection of integers to their sum.

Firstly, the difference between the two functions is primarily in the arguments that the functions take. The function signatures are below to make it simple to reference.

fun <T, R> Iterable<T>.fold(
    initial: R,
    operation: (acc: R, T) -> R
): R

fun <T, R> Iterable<T>.reduce(
    operation: (acc: R, T) -> R
): R
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The primary difference between the two functions is that one takes the initial value of the resulting type and one does not. It instead uses the first value as the initial value. This subtle difference results in the reduce function requiring a non-empty collection to work on whereas fold can work on an empty list and just return the initial value.

A simple example to show how these functions work is by implementing a summation function that operates on a collection of integers.

fun sumReduce(input: Iterable<Int>): Int {
  input.reduce { acc, cur -> acc + cur }
}


fun sumFold(input: Iterable<Int>): Int {
  input.fold(0) { acc, cur -> acc + cur }
}
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The interesting element of these is the closure passed of the form (acc: R, cur: T) -> R. This function is essentially and accumulation function that combines the elements of the collection to the final result. It takes two arguments:

  • acc which is the current accumulated result up to the current element
  • cur which is the current element

Putting this in action:

val numbers = listOf(1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

val sum: Int = sumFold(numbers)
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The accumulation function is applied to each element and then the accumulated value is updated and passed along. Stepping through the above example would look like this:

Note this is for fold, if using reduce the first row would be omitted as there is no initial value

acc cur Accumulation function result
0 1 1
1 2 3
3 3 6
6 4 10
10 5 15

More use cases

The power of these functions is how flexible they are, any accumulator function can be provided allowing you to work with any type. If you were inclined you could spend more time studying functional programming and see how this is the basis of a lot of incredibly power combinator functions. For example we can create flatMap using reduce and map. Since this is typically handled in the standard library we will look at a more likely scenario to find in a project.

The example we will go through is that of some validation framework which leverages the following:

interface Validation {
  fun validate(input: Input): ValidationResult
}

enum class ValidationResult {
  VALID, INVALID
}
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Imagine we have a collection of validators and we wish to implement some functionality that requires that all validators to run on the Input object and it returns VALID if all validators return VALID otherwise if even one returns INVALID it returns INVALID. The reduce function can do exactly this as we can evaluate all the validators and then reduce them to a single result.

val validators: List<Validation> = ...
val input: Input = ...

val result: ValidationResult = validators
                                  .reduce { acc, cur -> if(acc == ValidationResult.VALID) it.validate(input) else ValidationResult.INVALID }
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filter

The filter function is another helpful function to work with collections which filters the collection based on a provided predicate. If the term predicate is new, it is simply a function that takes an input object and returns a boolean.

Using another book example let's assume we have the below data type for a book and we want to obtain the list of all books we read, this can be done as below:

data class Book(val title: String, val read: Boolean)

val books: List<Book> = ...

val booksRead: List<Book> = books.filter { it.read }
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Not quite must knows

The above functions and types are extremely valuable in most modern languages. The below types are useful to know but depending on your language choice you may not actually use it but understanding the concept is valuable regardless as it can still have a positive impact on the way you write your code.

Option/Maybe Type

It is common to have to represent the possibility of some data not being present. Commonly in languages this is represented by some null value but in pure functional programming this is actually represented by a type possibly
called Option (such as in Rust) or Maybe (such as in Haskell). The core of this type is to be able to reflect the absence of a value in the type system. This can also be achieved with languages still supporting null such as Kotlin as it surfaces the nullability to the type level.

Having a container type to represent the absence of a value allows the client of the data to act on it safely without needing to check whether the data is present or not, which is something unable to be achieved with a basic null value alone.

let data = Some(2)
let no_data = None
let result_some = data.map(|x| x + 3) // Some(5)
let result_none = no_data.map(|x| + 3) // None
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Result/Either Type

In an OO landscape it is typical to handle errors through exception handling. Pure functional languages require this to be represented in the type system, which is quite a powerful model. This is again named differently depending on the language but it is a container type that has two possible representations. If it is called Either then this will have a Left and Right type, this is more generic than the Result type as you are able to represent any arbitrary
type that is a union of two possible types. A more focused point is the Result type used in Rust to represent explicitly an error as it does not have exceptions. The two types of this union are Ok and Err (for error).

Again this notion of a type may not be largely applicable in the OO domain but it does promote you to think of handling errors and state in a different manner and representing this in the type system. This concept can easily be implemented
in Kotlin using sealed classes and does not need to just be used for error handling but can be used to create any container class that a client can act on. Again the goal here is having the container class allows the client to work with
the data irrespective of the underlying state.

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