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The Evolution of a JavaScript Function

The Evolution of a JavaScript Function

A hypothetical (but realistic) example of how an ordinary JavaScript function can evolve over time

Photo by Orlova Maria on Unsplash

Code evolves over time. JavaScript in particular has evolved a lot in the last couple years. It can be hard to keep up with all the new features in the language! It helps to see concrete examples. In this blog post, I will walk through a hypothetical (but realistic) example of how an ordinary ES3 JavaScript function, subjected to the harsh environment of β€œchanging requirements,” can utilize ES2015+ JavaScript features to become the ultimate version of itself!

Say Hello to My Little Function

function greet (firstname, lastname) {
    return "Hello " + firstname + " " + lastname;
}

This was good enough for Imaginary Company’s website in the early 2000s. But now Imaginary Company has gone global, and the boss has asked us to update the greet function. She wants greet to automatically be translated into the correct language for the user. We are resourceful, but also lazy, so we decide to use Google Translate.

Imagination.
Imagination.

Promise Me You’ll Say Hello

(Before you ask, yes β€˜google-translate-api’ is a real package on npm. I told you this would be realistic!)

const translate = require('google-translate-api');
async function greet (firstname, lastname, lang) {
    let greeting = await translate('Hello', {to: lang});
    return greeting + " " + firstname + " " + lastname;
}

Here is the first big change: the Google Translate function returns a Promise. Our boss already told us to stop using callbacks, so that means our greet function must also return a Promise. Luckily, working with Promises is not as difficult these days thanks to async functions which were added to JavaScript officially in ES2017.

Asynchronous calls are contagious β€” once you introduce an asynchronous function into your code, everything that uses that function becomes asynchronous! So I suggest you embrace that early on in your design. Even if your function is actually synchronous, you can tack async in front of it and now you’ve future-proofed it. If you ever need to change the implementation and it becomes asynchronous, no big deal because all your existing code already is calling it with await.

Now the boss comes to us with another request. Sometimes the user’s native language isn’t known. She tells us the function needs to default to English if the language parameter is undefined.

Undefined is not a problem

You got it!__

You got it!

async function greet (firstname, lastname, lang = 'en') {
...

That was easy! JavaScript has supported default parameters since ES2015.

It used to be you needed code like this in your function to implement default values:

arg = arg || 'foo'

But that had the unfortunate edge case of not working if arg was 0 or false. So to be safe, we were told to do fancier checks like:

arg = typeof arg!=="undefined" && arg!==null ? arg : 'foo'

which of course most people never did. But it is easy now! Setting the default values in the function declaration is nice for readability and IDEs will show that information as well.

Just as we’re feeling clever, the boss adds a new requirement. Some languages use a different name order convention. First name and last name are out, she says. Now it is β€œgiven name” and β€œfamily name” and we’ll determine which is first and which is last based on a flag.

Ordering and Chaos

When one thing disappears, another appears…__

When one thing disappears, another appears…

async function greet (given, family, lang = 'en', reverse = false) {
...

Unfortunately, our naive solution has resulted in a problem. There are two ways to generate correct-looking names:

greet(given, family, 'en', false) // correct
greet(family, given, 'en', true) // correct

but also two ways to screw up:

greet(given, family, 'en', true) // wrong
greet(family, given, 'en', false) // wrong

Our development team is spread over the world, and some developers are used to listing family name before given name, and some given name before family name. Thus they have trouble remembering whether true means family name first or given name first.

Our boss is displeased. For any given instance of the greet function, she can’t tell without consulting the documentation whether the arguments are correct. We are given a new challenge: make the greet function fool-proof.

The Object of Destructuring

Some languages like Python have named arguments. Named arguments are super-cool because you don’t have to remember what order the arguments are in, and it’s obvious to whoever has to read the code what the arguments are (what some might brazenly call β€œself-documenting code”). Using JavaScript’s object destructuring, we can achieve something very similar to named arguments.

async function greet ({given, family, lang='en', reverse=false}) {

All we did is add a pair of curly braces but suddenly the nature of the function has changed. It now takes a single argument, and that argument is an object:

greet({given: 'John', family: 'Smith'}) // 'Hello John Smith'
greet({family: 'Smith', given: 'John'}) // also 'Hello John Smith'

The boss loves this! It is easier to read, and no one is mixing up given name and family name anymore.

Highfive!__

Highfive!

At first, the other developers complain that this new syntax is verbose. But then they discover a neat trick: if they name their variables the same as their properties, they can use the shorthand literal syntax:

let given = 'John'
let family = 'Smith'
let lang = 'en'
let reversed = false

greet({ lang, given, family, reversed }) // 'Hello John Smith'

They feel quite clever. The boss loves that everyone is starting to use the same variable names for data throughout the app; the desire to keep the code β€œDRY” has finally motivated the other developers to update old code that still used variables called firstname and lastname or firstName and lastName to use given and family.

But now there’s the potential new kind of error. If either lang or reversed are misspelled, then greet won’t see those properties and will silently use the default value instead. You realize you’ve traded worrying about what order arguments are in to worrying about how the arguments are spelled.

No rest for the misspelled

Sometimes we make typos…__

Sometimes we make typos…

We can solve this problem using another ES2018 feature: rest properties!

async function greet ({
    given,
    family,
    lang = 'en',
    reverse = false,
    ...misspellings
}) {

Here …misspellings will catch any arguments NOT matched by the rest of the destructuring. We can then add a simple runtime check to make sure the function is called correctly:

misspellings = Object.keys(misspellings)
if (misspellings.length > 0) {
  throw new Error('Unrecognized arguments: ' +
                  misspellings.join(','))
}

Now if a developer misspells one of the arguments, the function will throw an error:

greet({ lang, given, family, reserved })
// Error: Unrecognized arguments: reserved

The function, evolved

Another kind of evolution…

Another kind of evolution…

In this blog post, I’ve tried to show how a simple function

function greet (firstname, lastname) {
    return "Hello " + firstname + " " + lastname;
}

can evolve in response to the demands to add new features and satisfy new requirements.

Here is the final result:

const translate = require('google-translate-api');
async function greet ({
    given,
    family,
    lang = 'en',
    reverse = false,
    ...misspellings
}) {
    // Check arguments
    misspellings = Object.keys(misspellings)
    if (misspellings.length > 0) {
      throw new Error('Unrecognized arguments: ' +
                      misspellings.join(','))
    }
    // Await translation from Google
    let greeting = await translate('Hello', {to: lang});
    // Determine name order
    if (reverse) {
        return greeting + " " + family + " " + given;
    } else {
        return greeting + " " + given + " " + family;
    }
}

Our final function takes advantage of many modern JavaScript β€œsuper powers”:

  • async functions
  • default parameters
  • object destructuring
  • rest properties

I’ve started to write all my functions using these features because they provide a flexible foundation for the function to adapt to whatever new requirements come its way. What does your ultimate function look like?

P.S. If JavaScript is your thing, Stoplight is hiring!