To become a software crafter…Or die in the attempt.

OOP, FP and the expression problem

As a software developer, you will probably have at least once a month a discussion about Functional Programming (FP) vs Oriented Object Programming (OOP). Of course, it’s always about the context, I already talked about it.
But thanks to Samir Talwar, I had new insights recently on this topic that I would like to share with you.
To give more context, I’m working more and more with F# for 3  years, hence have more and more practical feedback about it. And in the last weeks I came to the conclusion that I feel much more comfortable with FP for mid term code maintenance, and here is why.

OOP in theory

On my current gig, I had to switch back mainly to C# (even if some part of the code are in F#). I recently had a challenging refactoring on the core domain to do, and it leads me to this tweet.

My thought at this moment was that OOP can indeed be beautiful in theory, but I rarely see it beautiful in practice. Not because lack of practice or bad code, just because it’s almost impossible to keep it beautiful in time.
At first the design is really clear, a few nouns, a few actions (aka verbs), sometimes a nice inheritance between objects, and it all sounds good. But of course, after a while the specifications evolve, and you need to add new objects and/or behavior.

OOP in practice

What I usually observe is that evolution of the domain forces you to refine your abstraction. It makes sense, because you improve your knowledge about the domain while you’re working on it. In practice it means that you try to add objects in your inheritance hierarchy, with behaviors that might be slightly different of what you had thought at first.
That’s where the design starts to slide out of control. Maybe we could just add a boolean here instead of multiplying the class implementations? Maybe we’ll keep this inheritance because there are so many shared behaviors in the base class that we don’t want to spread in most classes, just because one implementation doesn’t need this behavior. And so on…
That’s why I usually find OOP using composition rather than inheritance easier to maintain in the long term. But even with that, it’s hard to keep data and behavior together and maintainable.
Hence I somehow feel like I prefer the constraints of FP rather than the constraints of OOP, with separation of data and behaviors, but it was hard for me to explain clearly why.
That’s where Samir’s wisdom shows me the light…

The expression problem

Here is Samir’s answer to my tweet:

That’s it. You can change behaviors (verbs) easily or you can change nouns (classes) easily, but you can’t have both. It is known as the expression problem. FP focus on changing verbs easily whereas OOP focus on changing/adding nouns easily. Samir takes the time to write in detail about it.
I think a lot about that in the last years, but never see it so shortly and clearly explained than in this tweet. And to be fair when you see it so simply explained, you wonder why you need years to think about it!
Despite the expression problem seems to be a well-known issue in software industry, it is rarely cited in any debate about FP vs OOP, as far as I know.

OOP or FP?

I’ll rather let Samir answer if you don’t mind:

I totally agree with him, and this explains I guess why most people who jump from OOP to FP never looked back, even if it could be hard to tell exactly why.
It’s not better by design, it just has different pros and cons, but these pros tend to make the evolution of the software easier, if the verbs of your domain change more than your nouns.
In Samir’s experience it’s usually the case, in mine too, what’s your experience about it?

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