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Every function is a little program

When I first started getting deep into Clojure development, my friend Tom Marble taught me a very good lesson with a single sentence. I’m not sure if he’s the originator of this idea, but he told me to think of writing functions as though “every function is a small program”. I’m not really sure what I thought about functions before I heard this, but it all made sense the very moment he told me this.

Why write a function as if it were its own program? Because both a function and a program are created to handle a specific set of problems, and this method of thinking allows us to break down our problems into a simpler group of problems. Each set of problems might only need a very limited collection of functions to solve them, so to make a function that fits only a single problem isn’t really any different from writing a small program to get the very same result. Some might even call this the Unix philosophy, in the sense that you’re trying to build small, extendable, simple, and modular code.

A pure function

What are the benefits of a program-like function? There are many benefits to this approach of development, but the two clear advantages are that the debugging process can be simplified with the decoupling of task, and this approach can make our code more modular. This approach also allows us to better build pure functions. A pure function isn’t dependent on any variable outside the function. Anything other than the arguments passed to the function can’t be realized by a pure function. Because our program will cause side effects as a result of execution, not all of our functions can be truly pure. This doesn’t mean we should forget about trying to develop program-like functions. Our code inherently becomes more modular because pure functions can survive on their own. This is key when needing to build flexible, extendable, and reusable code components.

Floor to roof development

It is also known as bottom-up development and is the concept of building basic low- level pieces of a program and then combining them to build the whole program. This approach leads to more reusable code that can be more easily tested because each part of the program acts as an individual building block and doesn’t require a large portion of the program to be completed to run a test.

Each function only does one thing

When a function is written to perform a specific task, that function shouldn’t do anything unrelated to the original problem it’s needed to solve. For example, if you were to write a function named parse-xml, the function should be able to act as a program that can only parse XML data. If the example function does anything else other than parse lines of XML input, it is probably badly designed and will cause confusion when trying to debug errors in our programs. This practice will help us keep our functions to a more reasonable size and can also help simplify the debugging process.


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