Zac Anger's Blog

Thoughts On Learning Functional Programming


Tags: fp, js

Functional programming is the new hotness these days. It's also the old hotness. It's just pretty hot, really. Everyone wants to have a more functional codebase, and that's a good thing. Less side-effecty, easier to hold in your head, etc.; the benefits of FP have been thoroughly espoused elsewhere. I just have a couple of things to add about learning functional programming, especially if you're coming from another paradigm or a mixed-paradigm language (like JS).

You (Probably) Don't Need To Learn Another Language

Languages like Haskell are really neat. They'll change the way you think about writing code. But you don't need to learn a classically functional language to learn functional programming.

module Main where
import System.Environment

main :: IO ()
main = do
  args <- getArgs
  putStrLn ("Hello " ++ args !! 0)

If a block of code like that looks pretty foreign, that's okay. You can program functionally in whatever language is most familiar to you. Probably. If you're a C# dev or Rubyist or something, maybe you should look into something a little less strictly OO, but if you already write JS (for example), you don't need to go learn about abstract algebra and what stuff like Foo :: [Bar] -> Baz Quux means. Which leads into thought number two:

A Better Type System Doesn't Make A Language Functional

Yeah, languages like Idris and Haskell and other super mathy things are great for functional programming, but you don't need super complex type systems to program functionally. They're just, y'know, pretty nice. Look at Racket, for example. You can have static typing (with #lang typed/racket) but you don't have to. Similarly, you can program functionally just fine in plain old JS, and you can write super imperative code in TypeScript. My point is, type systems don't make a language more functional, they make a language have a different type system.

Lots Of Languages Have A REPL

LISP people like to talk about their REPL a lot. Same with Haskell folks, they'll tell you to go experient in GHCI. That's great, it really is. The REPL, for any given language, should be one of the primary tools you use to figure things out. But most languages have one. If you do Python, you're probably familiar with it. Same with Ruby (irb or pry). Node's REPL, while a little limited compared to GHCI, is still pretty fantastic. Racket's is very basic, but if you (require xrepl) it ends up being very pleasant. Having a decent REPL isn't a functional language feature, it's just a language ecosystem feature.

Scheme Is Really Nice

I'm not a LISPer. I've just started learning Racket, which I chose because it's very compact compared to, say, ClojureScript (which also looks fantastic, by the way). But coming primarily from JavaScript, Scheme (Racket is a Scheme) is a really good way to get into FP in another language. Haskell, ML, Idris, etc., are all awesome languages, but Scheme might be a better way to break into functional languages for a lot of folks. Give it a shot sometime.

If You're Brand New To FP

Check out these links.