Side Effects and Composition

Compose code as it was lego Photo by Ryan Yoo on Unsplash

Functional Programing is amazing. It limits the things you can do (no nulls, no exceptions, no side effects…) and in return you get some benefits. Some benefits of FP are easy to explain and some not so much. I have been playing with FP for more than a year and only few weeks ago, when I started reading Functional Programming in Scala, I found an amazing example the benefits of pure functions.

The problem

Building a software for a Coffee Shop. For the initial MVP the requirements are:

  • Sell coffee
  • Pay with a card

so the first draft of the code looks like this:

import coffee.*

fun buyCoffee(cc: CreditCard): Coffee {
    val cup = Coffee()
    return cup

The buyCoffee function receives a CreditCard as an input and returns a Coffee as an output. It creates a Coffee object, then executes a charge and returns the Coffee object.


The call cc.charge uses an SDK/API to talk to the credit card company. It involves authorization, network call(s), persisting a record in the DB. The buyCoffee function returns a Coffee and the charging happens on the side hence the terms “side effect”.

The side effect makes buyCoffee hard to test in isolation. It would be nice (and cheaper) to run tests without actually talking to the credit card company and doing an actual charge. One could also argue that a CreditCard should not know how it’s being charged.

The testability problem can be fixed using Dependency Injection.

fun buyCoffee(cc: CreditCard, p: Payments): Coffee {
    val cup = Coffee()
    p.charge(cc, cup.price)
    return cup

The logic of charging the credit card is extracted into the Payments object. In production code the real Payments implementation is used and a mock version is injected for tests.

New requirements

After a few weeks in business new requirements arrive. Some people buy more than one coffee so the next version of the software has additional requirements:

  • Buying N coffees
  • Single charge per Credit Card


The problem of buying a single coffee is already solved with buyCoffee. It would be nice to reuse the code for one coffee to buy multiple coffees. The code is complex (could be), tested and debugged. Reusing the existing solution would also save time.

Buying multiple coffees

The first draft of buyCoffees looks like this:

fun buyCoffees(
    cc: CreditCard,
    p: Payments,
    n: Int
): List<Coffee> = List(n) { buyCoffee(cc, p) }

it takes an additional parameter (compared to buyCoffee), the number of coffees to buy. It returns a List<Coffee> as expected. It uses buyCoffee to fill a list with n coffees.

Unfortunately this code charges the credit card multiple times. That is bad both for the customer and the business (each transaction costs money).

Again the problem is the side effect.

p.charge(cc, cup.price) // <-- Side effect

Side Effects and Referential Transparency

I mentioned the word side effect multiple times. It’s time to explain what it is. A side effect is something that breaks referential transparency (RT). Which leads to the question: What is referential transparency?

An expression is called referentially transparent if it can be replaced with its corresponding value without changing the program’s behavior. - Wikipedia

RT Example

Given this version of buyCoffee:

fun buyCoffee(cc: CreditCard, p: Payments): Coffee {
    val cup = Coffee()
    p.charge(cc, cup.price)
    return cup

RT means that the coffeeA can be replaced with it’s result a Coffee without altering the program.

val coffeeA: Coffee = buyCoffee(cc, p)	// returns Coffee()

val coffeeB: Coffee = Coffee()

coffeeA and coffeeB are not equivalent. With coffeeA your credit card is charged, with coffeeB you get a free coffee. That means buyCoffee is not referentially transparent.

Solving the problem

I can push the problem to the payment processor. I can create BatchPaymentsProcessor that batches the payments before executing. This opens questions like:

  • How long does it wait
  • How many payments do it batch
  • Is buyCoffee responsible for indicating start/end batch

BatchPaymentsProcessor solves the code reuse problem but brings a whole set of new problems to the table. Can we do better?

Removing the Side Effect

The side effect is preventing composition. If I remove it maybe I can regain composition.

fun buyCoffee(cc: CreditCard): Pair<Coffee, Charge> {
    val cup = Coffee()
    val charge = Charge(cc, cup.price)
    return Pair(cup, charge)

The side effect is gone now, so is the Payments object. The return type changed to Pair<Coffee, Charge>. A Charge object is returned in addition to the Coffee. The Charge object is a pure value (a data class) indicating a charge should be made. The Charge also contains the information needed to execute it like CC number and price.

The buyCoffee function is only responsible for creating the Charge which is pure (no side effects). The responsibility of executing it is in another part of the program.

Combining charges

Since Charge is a regular value it can easily be combined.

fun combine(c1: Charge, c2: Charge): Charge =
    if ( == Charge(, c1.price + c2.price)
    else throw IllegalArgumentException(
        "Can't combine charges with different cc"

two charges, given they have the same Credit Card are combined by adding their price.

Buying multiple coffees revisited

I can now implement the buyCoffees function in terms of the pure buyCoffee like this:

fun buyCoffees(
    cc: CreditCard,
    n: Int
): Pair<List<Coffee>, Charge> {
    val purchases: List<Pair<Coffee, Charge>> =
        List(n) { buyCoffee(cc) }
    val (coffees, charges) = purchases.unzip()
    val charge = charges.reduce { c1, c2 -> combine(c1, c2) }
    return Pair(coffees, charge)

The return type is Pair<List<Coffee>, Charge> containing a list of purchased coffees and a single charge for all of them. To create this the buyCoffee function is used to populate a list with n coffee items. The unzip function is used to separate the coffees from the charges. Charges are combined using the combine function defined above.

Again the concern of executing the purchase is pushed to another part of the program.

The benefits gained are:

  • Better testability - the functions are testable without mocks
  • Composition - the bigger function is implemented in terms of the smaller
  • Separation of concerns - decision of purchase is separate of purchase execution


By doing a simple thing like separating the decision of making a side effect and executing it the code is much more composable and reusable. This also improves testability as pure functions can be tested without using mocks. Being aware of the way side effects influence composition helps writing composable code.

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