All you need is data and functions

It's really easy to tend towards complexity as engineers. I think on some level, we love complexity. There are obviously bad types of complexity, but I think there are other types of it that we seek out, because there's something satisfying about wrapping your head around it; and I think a lot of that kind of complexity ends up in our programming languages.


Over the last year, I've been fairly involved with a young programming language named Gleam. It's designed around a functional programming style, and the core language is simple enough to wrap your head around in only a day or two. People like to say that a lot, and I've heard it a lot about languages like Go and Zig (that definitely didn't click for me right away), but Gleam really seems to be the kind of language that people can just pick up and start being productive with.

The language is simple to the point where it's a bit of a point of contention; although "language complexity" almost always is. Gleam doesn't even have if conditions, and instead encourages you to use pattern matching. There are some things that might come along eventually, like optional arguments and a hygienic macro system, but there are other things that have been explicitly omitted from the language, like traits.

I find trait systems like Rust's to be incredibly intuitive. They enable your code to be quite generic and composable, in a way that I personally think feels quite nice. Interfaces in languages like Go or C# fill very similar needs. The exact details vary slightly, but the idea is simple: give developers a way to talk about shared behavior across different types.

For quite a while, I felt like traits were a glaring omission from the language, and I brought it up in the Gleam Discord several times. It would end pretty much the same way every time. "They don't allow you to express anything new, and they'd add a lot of complexity to the language." I always found this a bit frustrating. Every time I thought I had a compelling enough use case for traits, it was never enough to sway the others. It was pretty defeating, because I never really understood what the alternative was. How can I express myself generically in a language like Gleam, with a nominal typing system and no support for traits or interfaces?

...are just types.

Let's take a simple Rust trait for example, Display. If you've written any amount of Rust at all, you should recognize this trait. For those who haven't, it's a core trait in the language similar to Show in Haskell, or any object with a toString method in JavaScript. It just allows you to describe how you could convert some value into human-readable text. For example...

struct Friend {
  name: String,

impl Display for Friend {
  fn fmt(&self, formatter: &mut fmt::Formatter) -> fmt::Result {
    write!(formatter, "Hi, my name is {}!",

Hopefully everyone can understand what's going on here. We're just saying "given something to write to, and a formatter provided by the language as our intermediary, write this text."

We can now use this implementation like so...

let louis = Friend { name: "Louis" };
println!("{}", louis); write the text "Hi, my name is Louis!" to stdout! The Rust compiler knows that any instance of Friend can work with println! by using the implementation of the Display trait that we provided it, so how might you express the same thing in Gleam?

pub type Friend {
  Friend(name: String)

pub fn to_string(self: Friend) -> String {
  "Hi, my name is " <> <> "!"

...and usage would look like...

let louis = friend.Friend("Louis")
io.println(louis |> friend.to_string())

It might not be immediately obvious (I know it wasn't for me), but I think this example can help you begin to pull away the veil: traits are just types. Our Display trait in this example, can be represented by the String type, and a function which converts from our original type to a String.

Wait, what?

I imagine that plenty of people won't be convinced by this. Display provides more functionality than just converting to a string after all, it also allows you to specify details about how that string should look! But a function can do that as well!

pub type DisplayOptions {
    precision: Int,
    alignment: Alignment,
    // ...and so on

pub fn format(self: Friend, options: DisplayOptions) -> String {

If you want it to look more like a Rust trait, you could shuffle this just a little and introduce a new Display type to make you feel more at home.

pub type Display {
  Display(formatter: fn(DisplayOptions) -> String)

pub fn format(self: Display, options: DisplayOptions) -> String {

...and a function to convert from our Friend type to this new Display type.

pub fn to_display(self: Friend) -> Display {
  Display(fn(options: DisplayOptions) { ... })

Now to put it to use, you'd just do something like...

let louis = friend.Friend("Louis") |> friend.to_display()
io.println(louis |> display.format(DisplayOptions(...)))

It requires a few more moving pieces, but it also looks quite a bit more like the traits you might be used to. If you're still not convinced, let's look at another example.

No, really, they're just types.

Obviously I'm being a bit simplistic when I say that traits are just types, but they're really not all that different. Take for example the Iterator trait in Rust and the Iterator type in Gleam. They both accomplish the same thing, just in slightly different ways; and honestly it has more to do with the fact that data is immutable in Gleam than the fact that it's a type instead of a trait.

We'll start again with Rust, and we'll do our comparison by defining an iterator which produces the Fibonacci sequence.

struct Fib(u64, u64);

impl Default for Fib {
  fn default() -> Self {
    Self(0, 1)

impl Iterator for Fib {
  type Item = u64;

  fn next(&mut self) -> Option<Self::Item> {
    (self.0, self.1) = (self.1, self.0 + self.1);

You could use this like so...

let fib = Fib::default()
println!("fib: {:?}", fib);

Simple enough! We defined a type to represent our state, and a function which mutates our state into the next state and returns our iterator value.

In Gleam, our implementation looks like...

fn next(state: #(Int, Int)) -> #(Int, Int) {
  let #(a, b) = state
  #(b, a + b)

pub fn new() -> iterator.Iterator(Int) {
  #(0, 1)
  |> iterator.iterate(next)

The important difference here, is that our next function doesn't mutate state, and instead returns the next state. Because our state requires two integers, and we want our output to only be one integer per iteration, we use to transform from our internal state to our external interface. Like I warned before, this has much less to do with traits vs types, and much more to do with immutability.

You could use this iterator like so...
|> iterator.take(10)
|> iterator.to_list()
|> io.debug()

Note how similar that usage is to the Rust version! We still get to provide nice, generic interfaces for using our type to anyone who is able to convert from their own type to our Iterator type (like take), and we didn't need a trait system to accomplish it.

The biggest difference between most trait/interface systems and trait-types is that the language is essentially doing implicit conversions for you, from your data-type to the trait-type.

What about composition?

Hopefully by now you're convinced that individually, types have as much to offer as traits. But one of the most important aspects of traits is their ability to be composed.

Say for example, you have a function which should be able to accept any iterable object that yields values which are Display. In Rust, you can use traits together to describe more complex mixtures of behavior while still remaining generic. You could express this by saying...

fn print_things_from_an_iterator<I>(iter: I)
  I: Iterator,
  I::Item: Display,
  for it in iter {
    println!("{}", it);

You might expect this kind of generic program to be harder in Gleam without traits, but honestly it isn't. Just define a function that expects your trait-types!

fn print_things_from_an_iterator(
  iter: iterator.Iterator(Display),
) {
  use it <- iterator.each(iter)
    |> display.format(DisplayOptions(...))
    |> io.println()

Which we can use by doing something like...

["Louis", "Hayleigh", "Kayla"]
|> iterator.from_list()
|> print_things_from_an_iterator()

Compare this to Rust's...

let names = ["Louis", "Hayleigh", "Kayla"];
let friends = names.iter()
  .map(|name| Friend { name });

Really the only difference is that we manually convert from Friend to Display in Gleam, where Rust already knows how to use Friend as a Display.


Instead of a trait, just make a type that implements the generic behavior you want, and then write a function to convert your data-type into your trait-type. If you need some data-type specific logic, then pass around functions as necessary (usually from your conversion function).

Traits make sense in Rust, because the alternative I've proposed wouldn't work well with Rust's memory model or focus on performance, and using functions in this first-class manner would be much more complicated. For a language like Gleam, that doesn't have those concerns, but that is very concerned with being simple and keeping concept count low, they don't make as much sense. After all, all you really need is data and functions. :^)

If you've never heard of Gleam, you should check it out! It's a neat little language with a lovely community around it. Come hang out with all of us in Discord!


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