Daniel Westheide

on making software

Functional Programming Principles in Scala: A Wrap-up

For the past seven weeks, I have been participating in the online class “Functional Programming Principles in Scala” provided by Martin Odersky, the EPFL, and Coursera. This has not only reignited my more or less dormant passion for the Scala language, but has also been tremendously fun and instructive at the same time. Having just finished the final assignment, let me tell you why.

First of all, of course, the chance of attending a class on a programming language and paradigm that is conducted by the very designer of that language, a distinguished expert in their field, is all kinds of amazing in itself. It’s great to live in a time in which attending such a class online and for free is possible for thousands of interested students who would otherwise not have had the opportunity at all, or who otherwise have to make do with the often times mediocre lecturers at their own university.

This was my first ever online class, and I must say I didn’t really miss the physical presence of a meatspace university class at all. In each of the seven weeks, the programme consisted of numerous video lectures, sessions of five to 25 minutes, altogether between one and two hours a week. These video lectures were accompanied by weekly (or sometimes biweekly) programming assignments in which students had to transfer and apply what they learned to a new problem. Usually, this meant to implement several pre-defined functions, with the groundwork already laid for you.

During the first couple of weeks, the course was focused a lot on the basic principles of functional programming, while keeping the amount of Scala syntax and library code used to an absolute minimum. This changed in the second half, when a bunch of important Scala concepts were introduced, like for comprehensions and pattern matching.

I found the course to be challenging at just the right level, and the assignments had just about the right mixture of highly abstract problems and ones with interesting practical relevance, like analyzing a feed of tweets or implementing a solver for an interesting Flash game. I have already had my share of experience with functional programming in general, and Scala in particular, so some small parts of assignments were just a finger exercise, and I assume I haven’t had to think about getting my Scala code syntactically right or more idiomatic as much as students new to the language.

Thankfully, such experience didn’t make solving the assignments a cakewalk altogether. I noticed that I wasn’t used to thinking in the abstract any more as much as I had thought, so having to reflect on these problems to come up with a solution was not always easy and took a while, but was also one of most important profits I drew from the class. I literally felt like a student again, back in the days, and enjoyed this very much.

The Coursera Scala course is highly recommended if you want to delve into the world of functional programming or you want to learn Scala. I don’t know any other up-and-coming language with such high-quality, educational and fun learning material, so I can imagine Scala gaining some traction from it.

Have you attended the course, too? If so, tell me about your experience!