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Functional Javascript: The Good Parts

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Functional Javascript: The Good Parts

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Functional programming encourages us to organize our code well and helps us create code that is easier to reason about. The less we reinvent the wheel and use a well-tested tool, the easier it is to maintain our application code.

"Pure" functions return a result based only on what you pass in. You never have to worry it is going to do something unexpected. Higher order functions (functions that take other functions as parameters) let us reuse code in places we wouldn't expect, like loops. Composition allows you to create larger tools from smaller ones.

Javascript is a great functional language, but some ideas are harder to implement than others, and some aren't worth using in JS at all! After having wandered the Functional JS wastes for a few years, I will tell you stories of the dangers that lurk, as well as the rewards that await you if you apply Functional JS wisely.

About Me

Sean Hess

Programmer, Inventor, Startup Advisor. Solve hard problems, build productive teams.

What is Functional Programming?

In computer science, functional programming is a programming paradigm, a style of building the structure and elements of computer programs, that treats computation as the evaluation of mathematical functions and avoids state and mutable data. — Wikipedia

Wait, What?

The alternative: Imperative Programming

Series of instructions to the computer to access & modify memory.

// I understand how every line of this works!
var totalAge = 0
for (var i = 0; i < users.length; i++) {
    totalAge += users[i].age

Functional Programming

Functions as high-level tools you combine to do something. Math!

// don't know how this works, but it's clear what it does
var totalAge =

History - a separate track:

  • 1930 Lambda Calculus
  • 1958 Lisp and friends, John McCarthy
  • 1977 FP and composition. John Backus
  • 1978 ML
  • 1987 Haskell
  • 2004+ Scala, F#, Clojure
  • 2010+ Popularity? [1]

Why functional programming?

What instead of How

Guarantees mean we can make nifty assumptions. Easier maintenance.

More code is reusable. Toolbox to Workshop

More expressive. Orders of magnitude smaller.

Tradeoffs: Bigger Vocabulary


Failing to convince people at I.TV

Tradeoffs: New Concepts

Learning languages is so easy. I speak both English and Pig latin! - Programmers

Concepts: Pure Functions

Elevate the pure functions from the impure, lest they drag your whole codebase into the mire. — Saint Curry (not the spice)

Pure functions return the same result given the same arguments. Calling them does not cause side effects like mutation or IO.

Example: Isaac Netwon

class Apple {
    constructor(gravity) {
        this.y = 0
        this.gravity = -9.8
        this.velocity = 0

    // fall depends on this.gravity, and this.y, which can change. 
    // this is the right equation, I think...
    // what happens if I call this twice?
    fall(dt) {
        this.y += this.gravity * dt

Separate out the pure calculation:

// look at this nice function I found on NPM!
// I guess my function was totally wrong
function doPhysics(a, v0, dt) {
    return v0*dt + (a*dt^2)/2

var distance = doPhysics(apple.gravity, apple.velocity, dt)

apple.y += distance

Pure: Referential Transparency

The output is ONLY a function of the inputs. Swap it out.

  • Optimizations - concurrency, memoization
  • Easier to test and refactor
  • Encourages reuse - independent of any classes (Apple vs fall vs doPhysics)

Pure: No Side Effects

It doesn't mess anything else up. It won't change your arguments, global state, or the file system.

  • Safe and Predictable - less brain space

Separate the Pure from the rest

You still need IO and have state. Find the pure calculations and keep them separate

Concepts: Higher Order Functions

Higher Order Functions take a function as a parameter, or return a function. They let us reuse code in places we wouldn't expect, like loops.

Example: Older is better

var bestProgrammer;
for (var i = 0; i < programmers.length; i++) {
    if (!bestProgrammer || programmers[i].age > bestProgrammer.age) {
        bestProgrammer = programmers[i]

What is reusable about the above? Everything but .age.

function maximum(items, toValue) {
    var maxItem
    for (var i = 0; i < items.length; i++) {
        if (!maxItem || toValue(items[i]) > toValue(maxItem)) {
            maxItem = items[i]
    return maxItem

The above belongs in an NPM module, and is no longer a part of our code base. POOF!

bestProgrammer = maximum(programmers, function(person) {
    return person.age

// ES6 version
bestProgrammer = maximum(programmers, (person) => person.age) 

This is much easier to read. Maximum is most likely maintained by someone else in the community and becomes well-tested. We can forget about how it works.

See for many common higher order functions.

Concepts: Composition

"I like tiny programs that do one thing well and one thing only. Which hypothetical reusable modules would make the task at hand trivial?" — substack

Build very focused tools, then use them to do something bigger. Here's our totalAge code from before.

// Yay, I understand how every line of this works!
var totalAge = 0
for (var i = 0; i < users.length; i++) {
    totalAge += users[i].age

First we need some new tools. converts each item in an array to something else:

[1,2,3].map(function(n) { 
    return n*2 
// -> [2,4,6]

Array.reduce aggregates data from an array into a single value

[1,2,3].reduce(function(total, n) {
    return total + n
}, 0)
// -> 6

Let's make a sum function, which does the same thing as +. as well as a function that gives the users' age

function sum(a, b) { return a + b }
function getAge(object) { return object.age }

That's 4 new tools in our toolbox: map, reduce, sum, and getAge. With all 4 of these, our original code becomes trivial.

// don't know HOW this works, but it's clear WHAT it does
var totalAge =

Our composed application code is very unlikely to be buggy. Any bugs are probably in the individual functions, most of which come from well-tested 3rd party libraries.


  • do one thing, do it well
  • most basic parameter possible
  • someone already wrote it

Instead of Inheritance

Example: Front-end components

Composition-Driven Development

Start writing the application code as if the functions exist. Start with What. Go back and write the new tools you need later.

function solveWorldHunger(population) {

    // hmm, this seems hard, but if I break it down...

    var food = getSoylent(population * MUCHO)
    var shipping = efficientDistribution(food)
    var economy = fixWorldEconomy(Time.MaybeTomorrow)
    return combine(shipping, economy)

Application Agnostic

What is reusable about your code but not specific to your application? Write it and be famous. Oh wait, someone already did.

Recompose to override things

3rd party libraries: make your most important calculations available as focused functions! You can't anticipate everything!

A map through the functional JS wastes

Consider using lambdas for clarity.

[1,2,3].map((n) => sum(n, 2))  // more clear
[1,2,3].map(sum.bind(null, 2)) // way too noisy

var sumc = _.curry(sum)
[1,2,3].map(sumc(2))           // confusing if people don't know about curry

The compose function is not really worth the confusion. Just use lambdas.

function greet(name) {
    return "Hello ", + name

function excitedly(message) {
    return message+"!"

var welcome = _.compose(excitedly, greet)      // what type is welcome?
var welcome = (name) => excitedly(greet(name)) // easier to understand

Crazy recursive loops

function eatAndDisgest(array) {
    var item = array.pop()
    return item + eatAndDisgest(array) // the stack hates you

Use a type system! Compose

We all Win

If we focus on composable code we can all build off each other's work.

What instead of How. Smaller code bases. Refactoring. Maintenance

It's Over!

Contact Me: @seanhess

Open Source Agenda is not affiliated with "Seanhess Functional Javascript" Project. README Source: seanhess/functional-javascript
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