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How Scala Changed My Programming Style
by Bill Venners
First Published in Parleys Magazine at Devoxx, December 2008
Reprinted on Artima, April 29, 2009

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Summary
Learning a new programming language sometimes influences how you code in other languages, too. In this essay, Bill Venners shares how learning Scala influenced his programming style.

Each time I learn a new language, I learn something about programming. When I learned Java as a C++ programmer, for example, Java's interface construct taught me the value of multiply inheriting from pure abstract base classes. Although this style of programming was possible in C++, I didn't think about multiple inheritance this way in my C++ days, and I didn't use abstract base classes much in my C++ designs. Once I began programming in Java, however, I started using the style all the time. Learning about Java—in particular, its interface construct—changed how I approached OO design.

A similar effect has happened as I've learned to program in Scala. In the past two years I've worked quite a bit with Scala, a new statically typed language for the Java Platform that fuses object-oriented and functional programming concepts. Scala allows me to write code that's almost as concise as Ruby or Python. I can call into Java libraries, including my existing Java libraries, from Scala as easily as I can from Java. Given that Scala is statically typed, I enjoy the benefits of static typing such as types as documentation, code completion in IDEs, deterministic refactoring, and execution speed. (The performance of Scala programs is about the same as Java programs.) But Scala also gives me concise and type-safe ways of accessing some of the benefits traditionally associated with dynamic languages, such as the ability to add new methods to existing classes, or to pass types that don't share a common hierarchy to a method.

How did Scala change how I think about programming? In short: I learned to appreciate the functional style. The functional style of programming emphasizes immutable objects, variables that can be initialized but not reassigned (final variables in Java), transformation of data structures, and methods and control constructs that result in a value but have no side effects. At the other end of the spectrum is the imperative style, which is characterized by mutable objects, variables that can be reassigned (normal variables in Java), indexing through data structures, and methods and control constructs with side-effects.

Although Scala is often touted as a functional programming language, it is not exclusively functional. Scala supports both functional and imperative styles. You can, if you choose, program in Scala much the same way you program in Java, which is likely a predominantly imperative style. This helps ease the Scala learning curve, but as you get more familiar with Scala, you might find yourself preferring functional alternatives. I did. Why? I discovered that functional style code tends to be more concise and less error prone than the corresponding imperative style code. Functional style code is often higher level, which makes it quicker to write and easier to read. As an example, consider this Java code, which determines whether a string contains an upper case character:

boolean nameHasUpperCase = false; // This is Java
for (int i = 0; i < name.length(); ++i) { 
    if (Character.isUpperCase(name.charAt(i))) { 
        nameHasUpperCase = true; 
        break; 
    }	
}

The imperative style is in evidence here, because the nameHasUpperCase variable is reassigned as a side effect of the for loop, which iterates through the characters in the string by indexing. You can achieve the same result more concisely in Java like this:

boolean nameHasUpperCase = !name.toLowerCase().equals(name);

This line of Java code exhibits a more functional style, because it transforms immutable data: the name string is transformed to another, different string that is all lower case, then that value is transformed to a boolean result. In addition, the nameHasUpperCase variable is initialized, but at least in this snippet of code, not reassigned. It would be more clearly functional if the variable were final.

In Scala, you could write code similar to the previous two examples, but the most idiomatic way to write this in Scala is:

val nameHasUpperCase = name.exists(_.isUpperCase) 

The nameHasUpperCase variable is declared as a val, a variable that can be initialized but not reassigned (similar to a final variable in Java). Even though no explicit type annotations appear in this example, Scala's type inference mechanism assigns type Boolean to nameHasUpperCase. The exists method iterates through a collection of objects and passes each element in turn to the passed function object. Here, the name string is being treated as a collection of characters, so exists will pass each character of the string to the function. The _.isUpperCase syntax is a function literal in Scala, a shorthand way to write a bit of code that can be passed around and invoked. The underscore stands for the function's lone parameter. You can think of the underscore, therefore, as a blank that's filled in each time the function is invoked. If the exists method finds that the function returns true for one of the passed characters—i.e., that one of the characters is upper case—it returns true. Otherwise it returns false.

Although the last one-liner may look cryptic to someone not familiar with Scala, once you know Scala, you'll be able to see at a glance the purpose of this code. By contrast the other two versions will take just a bit more study. Another difference to note is that a potential off-by-one error exists in the imperative example, because you must explicitly indicate the upper index to which to iterate. This error can't happen in the functional versions, and in this way, the functional versions are less error prone.

Lastly, I want to point out that I did not turn "completely functional" when I went to Scala. Although I've found that functional style code is most often more concise, clearer, and less error prone, I've also found that that sometimes the imperative style leads to clearer, more concise code. In such cases I use it. Scala allows me to use both imperative and functional styles easily, to combine them in the way I find most optimal for the clarity of the code.

Share Your Opinion:

Have an opinion on how one learning a new language can influence your general coding style? Discuss this article in the Articles Forum topic, How Scala Changed My Programming Style.

Resources

front cover Programming in Scala Bill Venners is coauthor of Programming in Scala:
http://www.artima.com/shop/programming_in_scala

Bill Venners is also creator of ScalaTest, a general-purpose testing framework written in Scala:
http://www.scalatest.org

The Scala programming language website is at:
http://www.scala-lang.org

For a good overview of what Scala programming is all about, watch The Feel of Scala video on Parleys.com:
http://tinyurl.com/dcfm4c



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