Don't be a Hero, join a League


Recently, I experimented with SYB (Scrap Your Boilerplate) in the Haskell programming language for a master’s course. The plan was for me to make a toy example of one of the professor’s ideas using this library because of its power and generality.

Prior to this project, I presented the subject for the class based on the original paper published by Simon and Ralf [1]. My impression after the reading, which is also the one that I attempted to portray to my peers, is that the usefulness of the method came at the cost of complexity of understanding and the use of unsafe operations. My experiment confirmed this hypothesis, and I am here to share the lesson.


Scrap Your Boilerplate is a set of functions that explore polymorphism in order to remove boilerplate-like functions from your code. The best use case for it is when you have heterogenous data structures. Your ADTs are mutually recursive and you commonly need to traverse them in order to do some sort of transformation, e.g., update the values on specific nodes, query values out of them, or do some sort of effect related to them. Below, here is an example of such a situation:

data Company = C [Dept]
data Dept = D Name Manager [SubUnit]
data SubUnit = PU Employee | DU Dept
data Employee = E Person Salary
data Person = P Name Address
data Salary = S Float
type Manager = Employee
type Name = String
type Address = String

In order to do a simple operation on this set, such as increasing the salary of the employees, you would have to write:

increase :: Float -> Company -> Company
increase k (C ds) = C (map (incD k) ds)

incD :: Float -> Dept -> Dept
incD k (D nm mgr us) = D nm (incE k mgr) (map (incU k) us)

incU :: Float -> SubUnit -> SubUnit
incU k (PU e) = PU (incE k e)
incU k (DU d) = DU (incD k d)

incE :: Float -> Employee -> Employee
incE k (E p s) = E p (incS k s)

incS :: Float -> Salary -> Salary
incS k (S s) = S (s * (1+k))

As your domain expands and requirements change, this boilerplate grows in complexity and it is easy to get it wrong, even with the type system as support. The alternative then is to jump higher on the type level — we will explore polymorphism in a way that allows us to ask a value what is its type. Java programmers should keep the instanceof function in the back of their heads. This is about to get wild.


The same function increase can be re-written using SYB in the following way:

increase :: Float -> Company -> Company
increase k = everywhere (mkT (incS k))

I will briefly give some intuition about the functions everywhere and mkT. For the sake of this post’s lesson, these two will suffice my point. The outline is: the function everywhere keeps the knot of recursion, whilst mkT does verification on the type of interest. Let’s start with the latter. This function is based on the cast function:

cast :: (Typeable a, Typeable b) => a -> Maybe b

Although its name probably is not the best, cast asks a value what is its type and if affirmative it will return its value wrapped in a Just and Nothing otherwise. Here are some examples:

Prelude> (cast 'a') :: Maybe Char
Just 'a'
Prelude> (cast 'a') :: Maybe Bool
Prelude> (cast True) :: Maybe Bool
Just True

Thus, mkT uses it in order to apply a function cirurgically. It checks first if the type is the specific target to apply identity or the given transformation:

mkT :: (Typeable a, Typeable b)
    => (b -> b) -> a -> a
mkT f = case cast f of
          Just g -> g
          Nothing -> id

Intuition can be grasped via some examples:

Prelude> (mkT not) True
Prelude> (mkT not) 'a'

After understanding how we will apply a function to specific nodes in the data structure, it remains to see how this traverse is being done. The definition of the function everywhere is below:

everywhere :: Term a
           => (forall b. Term b => b -> b)
           -> a -> a
everywhere f x = f (gmapT (everywhere f) x)

This function is a little bit convoluted to be understood by itself. The intuition, however, is that a mutual recursion will happen between everywhere and gmapT. The latter is a one-layer traverse, i.e., we will apply a function to the level immediately below the current node. The following example should clarify:

instance Term Employee where
  gmapT f (E per sal) = E (f per) (f sal)

By using mutual recursion with the knot of recursion separate, the authors were able to have control over how the recursion will travel the data structure, i.e., if it will follow a top-down or bottom-up approach. The function everywhere' is the top-down version of everywhere:

everywhere' :: Term a
            => (forall b. Term b => b -> b)
            -> a -> a
everywhere' f x = gmapT (everywhere' f) (f x)


The explained approach uses some tricks in order to do its magic. Aside from the typeclasses Term and Typeable, the function cast actually only verifies the type of some value during run-time. At compile-time, the only guarantee you will have is the existence of the typeclasses implementation. And this leads us to the main issue.

During my short experiment with it, I had problems because my trust in the compiler was very low. The sensation that your project works if it type checks is nothing more than a meme in the community, because types can’t guarantee the semantics of your program, i.e., you can do wrong things even if the type aligns. This means that something like a type system can’t save you completely from making mistakes and ruining your own life. It can, however, decrease the chances of that happening.

When debugging SYB problems, I had the feeling that I have transported myself into the world of Javascript or Python within Haskell’s shell. I didn’t know where my program was wrong, because I am too used to having help from the compiler’s type system. This compiler-assisted debugging and refactoring became my standard and, when I lost it, the despair of being on uncharged waters hit me. I started testing piece by piece of my program until finally, I encountered something. A function being used in my SYB code was causing the issue due to some sort of restriction on pattern matching. Until now, I have no clue why this is the case, but clearly, I lack some sort of knowledge on how SYB manages its laziness and thunk evaluation.


This experience gave me some insights into the process of programming with different tools/paradigms/mindsets.

Back in the Fortran and C days, programmers were held as the ones that understand programs in their entirety and are completely responsible for their debugging. Pointer manipulations and state management were all controlled via the mind of the maintainers and its burden and complexity would be solely tangled with the developers’ understanding. When a change happens in the design, it is up to the coders to remember which areas of the program need to reflect such change. In languages like C, you have a tiny bit of help from the compiler but nothing extraordinary. Adding casts and void pointers completely diminishes that little amount of help from the compiler. The conclusion is that at the beginning of times, there was a strong tendency towards centralization of correctness in our programs. There were a few heroes that would save (or not) the day because they completely hold the responsibility. Tests were the only sidekick to this hero because it has some ability to validate a few mistakes that the programmer may have done.

Further on the line, mindsets and systems have been created to decentralize this scenario. Type systems, effect systems, and the principle of immutability are just a few examples of the heroes that were born to share this burden of assessing the correctness of our programs. We reached a point in which the complexity of our applications is too big for most human beings to tackle by themselves. We chose to pay higher upfront, by developing systems and paradigms, in order to prevent a bigger cost in the longer run. This sort of long-term investment became a mandatory tool for critical systems, in which every small detail missed is millions of dollars in cost. With the tendency of every system to become more critical and more responsive to demands, the need to increase and/or maintain the league of entities will or at least should skyrocket. The programmer will not be replaced, but will work alongside these other support heroes, giving him time and space to think about more complicated parts of the system; he would take care of the parts that need him the most rather than everything using him as the central pillar.


The enhancement of this league does not come for free. Every time a new system is brought to the table, the same debate of its worthiness comes with questions like: Is this worth learning? Could you show me a practical use case for it? Wouldn’t this be too complex for newcomers to learn? Why do I have to battle with the compiler every single time? All of these questions are valid and they should keep being asked.

However, the main point of adding extra layers is to attempt to add protection/guarantees, hence removing some of the left burdens on the developer. When fighting the compiler, you are having a conversation with your development partner. The compiler is not there to make you take more time to get your stuff done, it is there to validate to the best of its implementation what you have done wrong. As it gets more complicated to do a specific validation, the worse the error messages will become, and it is our job to address this problem of error messages — it is not a problem with the idea of having a partner to help you explore a jungle of errors and potential impossible, but allowed, states of the program.

Programming languages with strong systems, such as Haskell and Rust, seem to prove that as we scale our programs to solve problems with higher and higher complexity it becomes less easy to have effective communication with our partners. We start to struggle when talking to the lazy system and the borrow checker because their complexity in implementation start to reflect in their communication ability — these two aspects seem to depend on each other. In an unexpected way, this can be related to the Brook’s Law [2] prediction that communication costs of a project rise in terms of the square of the number of developers. In contrast with that scenario, here the costs depend on the number of entities involved, because some of the members of the development process are not human beings, but software-based beings. Again, however, this is not due to the idea of having layers of protection, but related to our ability to implement it in such a way that separates the concern of validation from the concern of informing the validation to the developer.

A great idea/model is not bad per say because its implementation in the real world is bad. It is a human struggle, in all general senses, to have great ideas and models that suffer from poor and/or problematic implementations.


  1. Ralf Lämmel and Simon Peyton Jones. 2003. Scrap your boilerplate: a practical design pattern for generic programming. SIGPLAN Not. 38, 3 (March 2003), 26–37.
  2. Eric S. Raymond and Tim O’Reilly. 1999. The Cathedral and the Bazaar (1st. ed.). O’Reilly & Associates, Inc., USA.