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Types are Small

(Scott Wlaschin is really smart.)

December 29, 2017Filed under Tech#functional programming#software developmentMarkdown source

I’ve been reading through Scott Wlaschin’s really excellent book Domain Modeling Made Functional and this quote (from his chapter introducing the idea of types in typed functional programming) crystallized something for me:

A type in functional programming is not the same as a class in object-oriented programming. It is much simpler. In fact, a type is just the name given to the set of possible values that can be used as inputs or outputs of a function.

A lot of times when I’m trying to explain how I use types in a typed functional programming style, this is a serious point of confusion—both for the Java or C♯ OOP programmer and for the programmers coming from dynamic languages. When people think of “types” they tend to think of classes and interfaces and methods, oh my!1

One is the big heavy class. The other is a nice little LEGO block. The difference is huge in my day to day experience, but I’ve never been able to express it so clearly as Wlaschin’s quote.

I suspect that when I’m talking to most people coming from dynamically typed languages or from the standard OOP languages, they hear “Write three interfaces and six classes” when I say “using types to help me with my program.” But what I mean is “Write three tiny little shapes, and then one more that shows how they snap together in a slightly bigger one.” Types aren’t big heavy things. They’re just the shapes I want to flow through my program, written down like documentation for later… that gets checked for me to make sure it stays up to date, and lets me know if I missed something in my description of the shape of the data, or tried to do something I didn’t mean to before.

You can write a language like F♯ or TypeScript or Elm like you would C♯, but it’s generally not going to be an especially happy experience (and it’ll be less happy the more “purely functional,” a la Elm, you go). But you don’t have to! Types are just tiny little descriptions of the shapes you plan to deal with in a particular spot—more concise and more dependable than writing a JSDoc or something like that.

Types are small. You can build big things with them, but types are small.

  1. In fact, nearly every “I’m just not into types” or even “I think types are worse for most things” talks I’ve seen—including this recent and popular one by Rich Hickey—tend to conflate all type systems together. But the experience of writing TypeScript is very different from the experience of writing C♯. (You’ll note that in that talk, for example, Hickey freely jumps back and forth between Java-style types and Haskell-style types when it suits his purposes, and he entirely skips past the structural type systems currently having something of a heyday.) In many cases, I suspect this is simply a lack of deep experience with the whole variety of type systems out there (though I’d not attribute that to any specific individual).