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Understanding the Concept of Functional Programming

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Understanding the Concept of Functional Programming

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What is Functional Programming?

Functional programming is a specific way to look at problems and model their solutions. Pragmatically, functional programming is a coding style that exhibits the following characteristics:

  • Power and flexibility. We can solve many general real-world problems using functional constructs
  • Simplicity. Most functional programs exhibit a small set of keywords and concise syntax for expressing concepts
  • Suitable for parallel processing. Via immutable values and operators, functional programs lend themselves to asynchronous and parallel processing.

In functional programming, programs are executed by evaluating expressions, in contrast with imperative programming where programs are composed of statements which change global state when executed. Functional programming typically avoids using mutable state. Everything is a mathematical function. Functional programming languages can have objects, but generally those objects are immutable -- either arguments or return values to functions. There are no for/next loops, as those imply state changes. Instead, that type of looping is performed with recursion and by passing functions as arguments.

Functional Programming vs. Imperative Programming:

We can think of imperative programming as writing code that describes in exacting detail the steps the software must take to execute a given computation. These steps are generally expressed as a combination of statement executions, state changes, loops and conditional branches. Many programming languages support programming in both functional and imperative style but the syntax and facilities of a language are typically optimised for only one of these styles, and social factors like coding conventions and libraries often force the programmer towards one of the styles. Therefore, programming languages may be categorized into functional and imperative ones.

Why Functional Programming?

While you can develop concurrent, scalable and asynchronous software without embracing functional programming, it's simpler, safer, and easier to use the right tool for the job. Functional programming enables you to take advantage of multi-core systems, develop robust concurrent algorithms, parallelize compute-intensive algorithms, and to readily leverage the growing number of cloud computing platforms. Imagine you've implemented a large program in a purely functional way. All the data is properly threaded in and out of functions, and there are no truly destructive updates to speak of. Now pick the two lowest-level and most isolated functions in the entire codebase. They're used all over the place, but are never called from the same modules. Now make these dependent on each other: function A behaves differently depending on the number of times function B has been called and vice-versa. 

In addition, if you've not already explored non-imperative programming, it's a great way to expand your problem solving skills and your horizons. The new concepts that you'll learn will help you to look at many problems from a different perspective and will help you to become a better and more insightful OO programmer. I encourage everyone who wants to be a better programmer: consider learning a functional language. Haskell and OCaml are both great choices, and F# and Erlang are pretty good as well. It won’t be easy, but that is probably a good sign. Try and identify the difficult concepts you encounter and see if other people are leveraging them; frequently you can break through a mental roadblock by finding out what the intent of an unfamiliar abstraction really is.

While you’re learning, do be careful not to take it too seriously. Like anything that requires time and effort, there is a danger of becoming over-invested in FP. Falling into this cognitive trap will ruin your investment. It’s easy to forget how many models of computation there are out there, and even easier to forget how much beautiful software has been written with any of them.

It’s a narrow path to walk down, but on the other side, you emerge with more core concepts and models to leverage in your everyday programming. You will almost certainly become more comfortable with denser code, and will certainly gain new insights into how to be a better software engineer.

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