Ensuring Clean Code: A Look at Python, Parameterized


In this post, I’m going to talk about what I consider to be the most important technique or pattern in producing clean, Pythonic code—namely, parameterization. This post is for you if:

  • You are relatively new to the whole design patterns thing and perhaps a bit bewildered by long lists of pattern names and class diagrams. The good news is there is really only one design pattern that you absolutely must know for Python. Even better, you probably know it already, but perhaps not all the ways it can be applied.
  • You have come to Python from another OOP language such as Java or C# and want to know how to translate your knowledge of design patterns from that language into Python. In Python and other dynamically typed languages, many patterns common in statically typed OOP languages are “invisible or simpler,” as the author Peter Norvig put it.

In this article, we’ll explore the application of “parameterization” and how it can relate to mainstream design patterns known as dependency injection, strategy, template method, abstract factory, factory method, and decorator. In Python, many of these turn out to be simple or are made unnecessary by the fact that parameters in Python can be callable objects or classes.

Parameterization is the process of taking values or objects defined within a function or a method, and making them parameters to that function or method, in order to generalize the code. This process is also known as the “extract parameter” refactoring. In a way, this article is about design patterns and refactoring.

The Simplest Case of Python Parameterized

For most of our examples, we’ll use the instructional standard library turtle module for doing some graphics.

Here is some code that will draw a 100x100 square using turtle:

from turtle import Turtle turtle = Turtle() for i in range(0, 4): turtle.forward(100) turtle.left(90)

Suppose we now want to draw a different size square. A very junior programmer at this point would be tempted to copy-paste this block and modify. Obviously, a much better method would be to first extract the square drawing code into a function, and then make the size of the square a parameter to this function:

def draw_square(size): for i in range(0, 4): turtle.forward(size) turtle.left(90) draw_square(100)

So we can now draw squares of any size using draw_square. That’s all there is to the essential technique of parameterization, and we’ve just seen the first main usage—eliminating copy-paste programming.

An immediate issue with the code above is that draw_square depends on a global variable. This has lots of bad consequences, and there are two easy ways to fix it. The first would be for draw_square to create the Turtle instance itself (which I’ll discuss later). This might not be desirable if we want to use a single Turtle for all our drawing. So for now, we’ll simply use parameterization again to make turtle a parameter to draw_square:

from turtle import Turtle def draw_square(turtle, size): for i in range(0, 4): turtle.forward(size) turtle.left(90) turtle = Turtle()
draw_square(turtle, 100)

This has a fancy name—dependency injection. It just means that if a function needs some kind of object to do its work, like draw_square needs a Turtle, the caller is responsible for passing that object in as a parameter. No, really, if you were ever curious about Python dependency injection, this is it.

So far, we’ve dealt with two very basic usages. The key observation for the rest of this article is that, in Python, there is a large range of things that can become parameters—more than in some other languages—and this makes it a very powerful technique.

Anything That Is an Object

In Python, you can use this technique to parameterize anything that is an object, and in Python, most things you come across are, in fact, objects. This includes:

  • Instances of built-in types, like the string "I'm a string" and the integer 42 or a dictionary
  • Instances of other types and classes, e.g., a datetime.datetime object
  • Functions and methods
  • Built-in types and custom classes

The last two are the ones that are the most surprising, especially if you are coming from other languages, and they need some more discussion.

Functions as Parameters

The function statement in Python does two things:

  1. It creates a function object.
  2. It creates a name in the local scope that points to that object.

We can play with these objects in a REPL:

>>> def foo():
... return "Hello from foo"
>>>
>>> foo()
'Hello from foo'
>>> print(foo)
<function foo at 0x7fc233d706a8>
>>> type(foo)
<class 'function'>
>>> foo.__name__
'foo'

And just like all objects, we can assign functions to other variables:

>>> bar = foo
>>> bar()
'Hello from foo'

Note that bar is another name for the same object, so it has the same internal __name__ property as before:

>>> bar.__name__
'foo'
>>> bar
<function foo at 0x7fc233d706a8>

But the crucial point is that because functions are just objects, anywhere you see a function being used, it could be a parameter.

So, suppose we extend our square drawing function above, and now sometimes when we draw squares we want to pause at each corner—a call to time.sleep().

But suppose sometimes we don’t want to pause. The simplest way to achieve this would be to add a pause parameter, perhaps with a default of zero so that by default we don’t pause.

However, we later discover that sometimes we actually want to do something completely different at the corners. Perhaps we want to draw another shape at each corner, change the pen color, etc. We might be tempted to add lots more parameters, one for each thing we need to do. However, a much nicer solution would be to allow any function to be passed in as the action to take. For a default, we’ll make a function that does nothing. We’ll also make this function accept the local turtle and size parameters, in case they are required:

def do_nothing(turtle, size): pass def draw_square(turtle, size, at_corner=do_nothing): for i in range(0, 4): turtle.forward(size) at_corner(turtle, size) turtle.left(90) def pause(turtle, size): time.sleep(5) turtle = Turtle()
draw_square(turtle, 100, at_corner=pause)

Or, we could do something a bit cooler like recursively draw smaller squares at each corner:

def smaller_square(turtle, size): if size < 10: return draw_square(turtle, size / 2, at_corner=smaller_square) draw_square(turtle, 128, at_corner=smaller_square)

Illustration of recursively drawn smaller squares as demonstrated in python parameterized code above

There are, of course, variations of this. In many examples, the return value of the function would be used. Here, we have a more imperative style of programming, and the function is called only for its side effects.

In Other Languages…

Having first class functions in Python makes this very easy. In languages that lack them, or some statically typed languages that require type signatures for parameters, this can be harder. How would we do this if we had no first class functions?

One solution would be to turn draw_square into a class, SquareDrawer:

class SquareDrawer: def __init__(self, size): self.size = size def draw(self, t): for i in range(0, 4): t.forward(self.size) self.at_corner(t, size) t.left(90) def at_corner(self, t, size): pass

Now we can subclass SquareDrawer and add an at_corner method that does what we need. This python pattern is known as the template method pattern—a base class defines the shape of the whole operation or algorithm and the variant portions of the operation are put into methods that need to be implemented by subclasses.

While this may sometimes be helpful in Python, pulling out the variant code into a function that is simply passed as a parameter is often going to be much simpler.

A second way we might approach this problem in languages without first class functions is to wrap our functions up as methods inside classes, like this:

 class DoNothing: def run(self, turtle, size): pass def draw_square(turtle, size, at_corner=DoNothing()): for i in range(0, 4): turtle.forward(size) at_corner.run(turtle, size) t.left(90) class Pauser: def run(self, turtle, size): time.sleep(5) draw_square(turtle, 100, at_corner=Pauser())

This is known as the strategy pattern. Again, this is certainly a valid pattern to use in Python, especially if the strategy class actually contains a set of related functions, rather than just one. However, often all we really need is a function and we can stop writing classes.

Other Callables

In the examples above, I’ve talked about passing functions into other functions as parameters. However, everything I wrote was, in fact, true of any callable object. Functions are the simplest example, but we can also consider methods.

Suppose we have a list foo:

foo = [1, 2, 3]

foo now has a whole bunch of methods attached to it, such as .append() and .count(). These “bound methods” can be passed around and used like functions:

>>> append_to_foo = foo.append
>>> append_to_foo(4)
>>> foo
[1, 2, 3, 4]

In addition to these instance methods, there other types of callable objects—staticmethods and classmethods, instances of classes that implement __call__, and classes/types themselves.

Classes as Parameters

In Python, classes are “first class”—they are run-time objects just like dicts, strings, etc. This might seem even more strange than functions being objects, but thankfully, it is actually easier to demonstrate this fact than for functions.

The class statement you are familiar with is a nice way of creating classes, but it isn’t the only way—we can also use the three argument version of type. The following two statements do exactly the same thing:

class Foo: pass Foo = type('Foo', (), {})

In the second version, note the two things we just did (which are done more conveniently using the class statement):

  1. On the right-hand side of the equals sign, we created a new class, with an internal name of Foo. This is the name that you will get back if you do Foo.__name__.
  2. With the assignment, we then created a name in the current scope, Foo, which refers to that class object we just created.

We made the same observations for what the function statement does.

The key insight here is that classes are objects that can be assigned names (i.e., can be put in a variable). Anywhere that you see a class in use, you are actually just seeing a variable in use. And if it’s a variable, it can be a parameter.

We can break that down into a number of usages:

Classes as Factories

A class is a callable object that creates an instance of itself:

>>> class Foo:
... pass
>>> Foo()
<__main__.Foo at 0x7f73e0c96780>

And as an object, it can be assigned to other variables:

>>> my_class = Foo
>>> my_class()
<__main__.Foo at 0x7f73e0ca93c8>

Going back to our turtle example above, one problem with using turtles for drawing is that the position and orientation of the drawing depend on the current position and orientation of the turtle, and it can also leave it in a different state which might be unhelpful for the caller. To solve this, our draw_square function could create its own turtle, move it to the desired position, and then draw a square:

def draw_square(x, y, size): turtle = Turtle() turtle.penup() # Don't draw while moving to the start position turtle.goto(x, y) turtle.pendown() for i in range(0, 4): turtle.forward(size) turtle.left(90)

However, we now have a customization problem. Suppose the caller wanted to set some attributes of the turtle or use a different kind of turtle that has the same interface but has some special behavior?

We could solve this with dependency injection, as we had before—the caller would be responsible for setting up the Turtle object. But what if our function sometimes needs to make many turtles for different drawing purposes, or if perhaps it wants to kick off four threads, each with its own turtle to draw one side of the square? The answer is simply to make the Turtle class a parameter to the function. We can use a keyword argument with a default value, to keep things simple for callers that don’t care:

def draw_square(x, y, size, make_turtle=Turtle): turtle = make_turtle() turtle.penup() turtle.goto(x, y) turtle.pendown() for i in range(0, 4): turtle.forward(size) turtle.left(90)

To use this, we could write a make_turtle function that creates a turtle and modifies it. Suppose we want to hide the turtle when drawing squares:

def make_hidden_turtle(): turtle = Turtle() turtle.hideturtle() return turtle draw_square(5, 10, 20, make_turtle=make_hidden_turtle)

Or we could subclass Turtle to make that behavior built in and pass the subclass as the parameter:

class HiddenTurtle(Turtle): def __init__(self, *args, **kwargs): super().__init__(*args, **kwargs) self.hideturtle() draw_square(5, 10, 20, make_turtle=HiddenTurtle)

In Other Languages…

Several other OOP languages, like Java and C#, lack first class classes. To instantiate a class, you have to use the new keyword followed by an actual class name.

This limitation is the reason for patterns like abstract factory (which requires the creation of a set of classes whose only job is to instantiate other classes) and the Factory Method pattern. As you can see, in Python, it is just a matter of pulling out the class as a parameter because a class is its own factory.

Classes as Base Classes

Suppose we find ourselves creating sub-classes to add the same feature to different classes. For example, we want a Turtle subclass that will write out to a log when it is created:

import logging
logger = logging.getLogger() class LoggingTurtle(Turtle): def __init__(self, *args, **kwargs): super().__init__(*args, **kwargs) logger.debug("Turtle got created")

But then, we find ourselves doing exactly the same thing with another class:

class LoggingHippo(Hippo): def __init__(self, *args, **kwargs): super().__init__(*args, **kwargs) logger.debug("Hippo got created")

The only things varying between these two are:

  1. The base class
  2. The name of the sub-class—but we don’t really care about that and could generate it automatically from the base class __name__ attribute.
  3. The name used inside the debug call—but again, we could generate this from the base class name.

Faced with two very similar bits of code with only one variant, what can we do? Just like in our very first example, we create a function and pull out the variant part as a parameter:

def make_logging_class(cls): class LoggingThing(cls): def __init__(self, *args, **kwargs): super().__init__(*args, **kwargs) logger.debug("{0} got created".format(cls.__name__)) cls.__name__ = "Logging{0}".format(cls.__name__) return cls LoggingTurtle = make_logging_class(Turtle)
LoggingHippo = make_logging_class(Hippo)

Here, we have a demonstration of first class classes:

  • We passed a class into a function, giving the parameter a conventional name cls to avoid the clash with the keyword class (you will also see class_ and klass used for this purpose).
  • Inside the function, we made a class—note that every call to this function creates a new class.
  • We returned that class as the return value of the function.

We also set cls.__name__ which is entirely optional but can help with debugging.

Another application of this technique is when we have a whole bunch of features that we sometimes want to add to a class, and we might want to add various combinations of these features. Manually creating all the different combinations we need could get very unwieldy.

In languages where classes are created at compile-time rather than run-time, this isn’t possible. Instead, you have to use the decorator pattern. That pattern may be useful sometimes in Python, but mostly you can just use the technique above.

Normally, I actually avoid creating lots of subclasses for customizing. Usually, there are simpler and more Pythonic methods that don’t involve classes at all. But this technique is available if you need it. See also Brandon Rhodes’ full treatment of the decorator pattern in Python.

Classes as Exceptions

Another place you see classes being used is in the except clause of a try/except/finally statement. No surprises for guessing that we can parameterize those classes too.

For example, the following code implements a very generic strategy of attempting an action that could fail and retrying with exponential backoff until a maximum number of attempts is reached:

import time def retry_with_backoff(action, exceptions_to_catch, max_attempts=10, attempts_so_far=0): try: return action() except exceptions_to_catch: attempts_so_far += 1 if attempts_so_far >= max_attempts: raise else: time.sleep(attempts_so_far ** 2) return retry_with_backoff(action, exceptions_to_catch, attempts_so_far=attempts_so_far, max_attempts=max_attempts)

We have pulled out both the action to take and the exceptions to catch as parameters. The parameter exceptions_to_catch can be either a single class, such as IOError or httplib.client.HTTPConnectionError, or a tuple of such classes. (We want to avoid “bare except” clauses or even except Exception because this is known to hide other programming errors).

Warnings and Conclusion

Parameterization is a powerful technique for reusing code and reducing code duplication. It is not without some drawbacks. In the pursuit of code reuse, several problems often surface:

  • Overly generic or abstracted code that becomes very difficult to understand.
  • Code with a proliferation of parameters that obscures the big picture or introduces bugs because, in reality, only certain combinations of parameters are properly tested.
  • Unhelpful coupling of different parts of the codebase because their “common code” has been factored out into a single place. Sometimes code in two places is similar only accidentally, and the two places should be independent of each other because they may need to change independently.

Sometimes a bit of “duplicated” code is far better than these problems, so use this technique with care.

In this post, we’ve covered design patterns known as dependency injection, strategy, template method, abstract factory, factory method, and decorator. In Python, many of these really do turn out to be a simple application of parameterization or are definitely made unnecessary by the fact that parameters in Python can be callable objects or classes. Hopefully, this helps to lighten the conceptual load of “things you are supposed to know as a real Python developer” and enables you to write concise, Pythonic code!

Further reading:

In a parameterized function, one or more of the details of what the function does are defined as parameters instead of being defined in the function; they have to be passed in by the calling code.

Luke Plant, Turkey
With a background in various programming languages—in both open source and commercial environments—Luke became a Django core developer in 2006. Since then, he has worked as a freelance developer, primarily using Python/Django with a full-stack experience but focusing on server-side technologies. His biggest project to date has been leading the development of a rapidly growing eCommerce platform, including scaling both the team and technologies. [click to continue...]