In the absence of anything worthwhile of my own to write here at the moment, I thought I’d instead highlight a couple of interesting blog posts that I’ve discovered recently by id Software’s John Carmack.
I read Carmack’s thoughts on static analysis a few weeks ago and his reports on the effectiveness of tools for analysis of C++ code chimed with my own experiences with Java tools such as FindBugs and IntelliJ IDEA.
The first step is fully admitting that the code you write is riddled with errors. That is a bitter pill to swallow for a lot of people, but without it, most suggestions for change will be viewed with irritation or outright hostility. You have to want criticism of your code.
Automation is necessary. It is common to take a sort of smug satisfaction in reports of colossal failures of automatic systems, but for every failure of automation, the failures of humans are legion. Exhortations to “write better code” plans for more code reviews, pair programming, and so on just don’t cut it, especially in an environment with dozens of programmers under a lot of time pressure. The value in catching even the small subset of errors that are tractable to static analysis every single time is huge.
In the other article, which I only read today, Carmack espouses the virtues of pure (i.e. side-effect-free) functions. His is a pragmatic approach concerned with how to exploit purity in mainstream languages, where it is entirely optional, as opposed to advocating jumping ship to Haskell. Even when 100% purity is impractical there are still benefits in minimising impurity.
A large fraction of the flaws in software development are due to programmers not fully understanding all the possible states their code may execute in. In a multithreaded environment, the lack of understanding and the resulting problems are greatly amplified, almost to the point of panic if you are paying attention. Programming in a functional style makes the state presented to your code explicit, which makes it much easier to reason about, and, in a completely pure system, makes thread race conditions impossible.
My experiences with Haskell have informed how I approach coding in other languages. In certain cases I’ve ended up taking the functional approach to such extremes that I’ve been left questioning my original choice of implementation language.
No matter what language you work in, programming in a functional style provides benefits. You should do it whenever it is convenient, and you should think hard about the decision when it isn’t convenient.