Is Learning Functional Programming a Good Thing?

Those folks who follow this blog or http://octopusgrabbus.wordpress.com might come to the conclusion that I’ve abandoned Python, but that is not the case. I started learning Python in 2009 by writing some applets to perform database housekeeping, and then eventually implemented an application in 2010 for our water department. This application, which includes a Django-powered web site was written almost exclusively in Python.

I have been interested in functional programming for a few years now, and started looking at Haskell a couple of years ago. As the deadline to start designing our water department application loomed closer,  I did not know Haskell well enough to use it. Also, as a language, Haskell did not appear to have the broad library support enjoyed by Python. So, I chose Python as the implementation language for this project.

Earlier this year I came across a description of The Joy of Clojure at my favorite book sellers — http://softpro.com — and started learning more about Clojure. Having never programmed in a functional programming language or a Lisp dialect, I am finding Clojure a little daunting. However, a project has presented itself, which involves a faster way of processing our billing data through address verification.

A project is like a carrot and stick; that is it provides cause to use extraordinary effort to learn something new quickly or solve a particularly difficult problem. The project will require more than a Clojure program. Some 4GL and bash scripts will be used. However, the Clojure program will be substantial enough to get me familiar with the language and will have required enough effort to start writing code.

One of the things that has attracted me to functional programming (FP) languages is the same thing that attracted me to object oriented languages when I first learned C++ in the 1990s. Learning C++ improved my overall programming skills, whether I was writing object-oriented software or not. With learning C++, my analogy was it was like rotating your mind 90 degrees. With Clojure it is that and more.

Just one of the ways that learning Clojure has made me think differently is using the various sequence functions. Most of what I want to do with billing data fits well into Clojure’s strengths. That is you can apply the same functions to all the data and sort out data easily that does not fit your needs. At the moment, I do not see a use for using Clojure in a multi-process/multi-threaded environment.

I am also appreciating providing for data at the beginning, binding in Clojure, declaring variables in imperative languages like C. Python’s strength in the the ability to declare an object anywhere is also in my opinion a weakness that can lead to sloppy style, and I know this from direct experience.

So my conclusion is this. If I never write another line of Clojure code after my current project, my time will not have been wasted. Clojure requires a different way of thinking. It never hurts to take a different point of view, especially with problem solving. However, I think more Clojure projects will be forthcoming.

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2 Comments on “Is Learning Functional Programming a Good Thing?”

  1. Jim Duey says:

    Doc,
    Clojure is awesome for multi-threaded stuff. That’s one of it’s key selling points actually.

    Also, I did a talk at CodePaLOUsa about functional programming. It uses Java for the code examples, but that’s just a detail to help people understand concepts. I would not suggest using Java for FP.
    http://www.infoq.com/presentations/Functional-Programming-A-Pragmatic-Introduction

    Jim

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