Small Functions


In this post I’m going to go through some of the reasonings why small functions are usually better than large ones. Favouring “Small” is a reoccurring theme in software development. It is an axiom of problem solving that the way you solve large problems is to break them down into smaller ones. When it comes to creating user stories, the “S” in the INVEST mnemonic stands for Small. It is the “micro” in micro-services. Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery are not possible without keeping changes small. It is the 4th in the four rules of simple design.

Despite being so prevalent, “Small” isn’t really a core principle of code quality. It is more a code smell, that indicates there may be a problem. By looking for cases of large functions, these often identify code that lacks symmetry, lacks expressiveness, has misleading comments, erodes trust, has too much coupling, lacks cohesion, or has too much duplication.

Let’s jump into some code. First the small version:

  public void PersonSubscribesToNewspaper_AddsPersonToNewspaperSubscribers()
    var newspaper = CreateNewspaper();
    var reader = CreatePerson();

Next the large version:

  public void PersonSubscribesToNewspaper_AddsPersonToNewspaperSubscribers()
    Newspaper newspaper;
    Person reader;
    using (var db = _unitOfWork.GetDatabaseMock())
      newspaper = new Newspaper();
      newspaper.Id = Guid.NewGuid();
      newspaper.Name = "The Daily Chronicle";
      reader = new Person();
      reader.Id = Guid.NewGuid();
      reader.FirstName = "Alice";
      reader.LastName = "Smith";

So you may guess that I’m going to take the position that the first, smaller method is better than the second. Here’s why:


When writing code there is always level of technical detail in that writing. Code can be written at a high level, for example “walk from point A to point B”. Or it can be written at a low level, “place left foot in front of right foot, lean forward until the body’s center of gravity is over the right foot, …”.

The property of symmetry is that all the code in a function has the same level of technical detail (aka abstraction). The high-level functions read at a higher level of abstraction. Each time you step into a function you are stepping down a level of abstraction.

There are two reasons why symmetry is important, and ultimately makes the team more productive.


Mixing up high level and low-level code forces the brain to work on two different wave lengths at the same time.

As a writer, you want the reader to focus in on a single concept at a time. The reader can read it once, easily understand what the program is doing, commit it to memory, then move onto the next concept.

Forcing the reader to switch between two levels of abstraction creates a context switch in the brain. The reader needs to jump between these levels. It is forcing the brain to multitask instead of focusing on a single task. When reading the large function, the reader will probably make this switch multiple times. The reader needs to sift through the low-level details and constantly recommit to memory their updated understanding of what the program is doing at a high level. The writer failed to provide a high-level map to the reader at the start, so the burden is on the reader to constantly redraw this map at each stage as their understanding of the code grows.

Let me stop there and address some of the counterarguments. But “I’m great at multi-tasking”. No, you are not. Multitasking is a fallacy. You will be more productive and produce higher quality of work by single tasking. Go ahead and search for “Fallacy of Multitasking”. Here is one link to get you started.

“I’m clever enough to read the code, why aren’t you”? See my previous post on KISS and clever code.

Fewer Bugs

The second (and most important) reason why symmetry is great is because…

Good symmetry in a code base leaves nowhere for bugs to hide.

Doesn’t that sound great! It is true. Many times, working with my own code or in code reviews, I have found bugs simply refactoring the code to increase symmetry.

By applying good symmetry, functions tend focus on a single thing. This allows functions to “do one thing and do it well”. It is hard to see the imperfections in the trees if you are focusing on the forest.

And vice versa, sometimes while focusing on getting some technical minutiae correct, the writer can lose focus on getting the high-level details correct. It can be easy to focus too much on “building the thing right” instead of “building the right thing”. Separation makes sure that both of those concepts get the attention they deserve.


Let’s go back to the example code above. In the small function there are only 4 lines of code. The Arrange block has 2 lines of code. This code creates a Newspaper and it creates a Person.

The details of how to create those objects is not important to what the writer is trying to convey. The method is an automated test method. Its purpose is to describe (or assert) the effect the production code (called from the Act block) should have.

The Arrange block of the code is important. It sets the scene for the test method, much like a movie or book will set the scene before the action starts. Although this context is important, the author should not spend a great deal of time on this. Like all writing, this section should be succinct. It should only describe the context that is relevant to the action that is about to happen. The author should not describe every irrelevant blade of grass in the scene.

There may be quite of a bit of work that needs to be done to create those two test objects. That is evident in the large version of the function. The test uses a database mock as a factory to create these objects. The Newspaper and the Person have some required fields, like Name and ID, that must be set, even though their values are not relevant to the high-level test. Those low-level details are not important to the high-level functionality of the test. Reading the small function, what we are testing is that a Newspaper should have access to the list of its subscribers.

Expressing code in high level functions, is not that different than expressing code in high level languages. We code in languages like C# and Java instead of assembly for the same reasons we write high- and low-level functions in the same program. We favour high level languages because the better express what we are trying to do and make us more productive in the process.

When writing low-level functions, there comes great responsibility. The one and only thing that the low-level function contributes to the code of the high-level function is the name of the low-level function.


These function names are like comments that express what the code is doing. However, they are much better than comments. Comments tend to get stale. Often people will update the functionality of a piece of code with forgetting to update the comment. This is far less likely if function names are used to document the code. Favour creating a well named function over commenting a block of code.

Surprise and Trust

It is critically important these functions are named well. When drilling down into lower level functions there should never be any surprises. If you are accustomed to reading large functions changing to a paradigm of small functions can be jarring. Trust is earned.

One of the biggest complains about small functions is that the reader wants to get at those low-level details quickly, because that is what they are used to reading and it is familiar. IDEs have good tools for this, like in Visual Studio’s Go To Definition (F12), Navigate Back (Ctrl+-), and Peek Definition (Alt+F12). If the program is written well, drilling down into the low-level functions should not have any surprises. It should be boring, as boring as reading assembly code. When the reader drills down they should say to themselves, yes that is exactly what I expected that function to do. Eventually they will learn to trust the low-level functions and the desire to peek into them will ebb away. This will keep the code maintainer working at a higher level for longer periods. This makes them more productive, the same as high level programming languages are more productive than assembly.

When people try to make the paradigm shift to smaller functions and there are a lot of surprises this can quickly derail the entire process. The surprises erode trust. There can be a quick reversal. “I told you small functions were a bad idea, let’s go back to large functions”. All the benefits I outline in this post are lost. Instead of reverting back to large functions, consider the root reasons why there is a lack of trust. How can that be improved?

Often this just comes from finding a better name for the function, a name that better expresses what it does. This isn’t easy, naming is hard.

Another possibility is the breakdown of functions isn’t quite right. There may be side effects in the functions that aren’t expressed. Yes, you can start by renaming the function so that the side effect isn’t surprising (e.g. DoWorkAndDoSideEffect();). However, often this leads down a path of teasing apart side effects from core functionality, which leads to a much better software design.

I believe there are parallels between a team of coders that learn to trust each other’s small functions, and an organization where all colleagues can delegate work to each other, trust it is completed properly, without a need to micro-manage each other.

Coupling & Cohesion

When separating out code, this must be done intelligently. Small functions don’t yield better code just because they are small. Programs with smaller functions, when separated properly, do have a better design.

First an example. Let’s say you have a gasoline powered car. You want to redesign it so that the car is less dependent on the gasoline.

One way to redesign the car it to attach a trailer to the car then move the gas tank from under the car to the trailer. Finally run a hose from the gas tank in the trailer to the engine in the front of the car.

In this design you haven’t made the car any less depend on the gasoline. Yes, the car weighs less with the gas tank removed (it is smaller), but it is not better designed. All that has been done is made it more likely to explode.

To truly make the car less dependent on the gasoline, the car must be designed so that the engine that still depends on the gasoline is also easily separated from the car. The gasoline tank and the gasoline engine are, and always will be, tightly coupled. The car shouldn’t be orchestrating how to get gasoline from the tank to the engine. The car should just be asking an engine for power and let the engine worry about were it gets that power from. If the car doesn’t like how the engine produces its power the car can replace it with another engine.


A great advantage of separating high- and low-level functions is that the high-level functions get to delegate to the low-levels to do some work. The high levels don’t care how that work is done.

The high-level functions should truly be delegating, not orchestrating or micromanaging. The high-level function doesn’t tell the low levels to put one foot in front of the other in a walking motion, the high level delegates the responsibility of moving from point A to point B.

When this is done properly, the separation of concerns should be truly separate. That will yield a highly decoupled design. Because the high levels don’t know or care how the low levels get their work done, the low levels are free to change their implementation or technology stack when they want.

As you are separating, pay close attention to the parameters that need to be passed around between the functions. Separating out a 100-line function into two isn’t actually the proper thing to do if you have to pass 50 parameters between them.

A simple way to pass fewer parameters is to use class level fields or properties. As you do this, you will probably notice that the low-level functions all tend to use the same fields. Move the fields vertically closer to the functions that use them. What often happens is the high-level functions and their fields are at the top of the file and the low-level fields and functions are at the bottom. Once the code is grouped like this it may be possible to move the low-level functions into a separate class.

As you maximize cohesion you are identifying and separating out bits of code that are tightly coupled. Increasing cohesion, reduces coupling.

Remove Duplication

Breaking large functions into smaller ones is a great way to identify and eliminate duplication. A lot of developers don’t even realize how much duplication there is in their code until they start trying to tease it apart. Just like how small functions doesn’t leave any place for bugs to hide, there is no place for duplication to hide either.

I’m not going to go into an exhaustive analysis on how small functions remove duplication. When you remove duplication, the code becomes more expressive as a side effect; when you make the code more expressive, duplication will be removed as a side effect. One leads to another in a tight feedback loop. J.B. Rainsberger explains this very well here.

While moving duplicate code into functions, the code becomes reusable and this lowers the maintenance costs of the code base. However, I do want to point out is that code reuse is not the only reason to create small functions. Some will argue that if a function is only called once that there is no point is separating it and should be in-lined. In-lining these functions avoids unnecessary jumping around when trying to read the code.

I respectfully disagree with this. Single-use functions are extremely useful in a code base. The function name adds to the expressiveness and symmetry of the code base and eliminates the need for comments. It adds structure to the program, which leads to a better design. These considerations also lead to a lower maintenance cost on a code base, even if there is no code reuse.

In conclusion, large functions are a code smell that if fixed nudges the code a better design. Small functions enhance the symmetry, expressiveness, cohesion, and reuse of a code base. All of this results in a lower maintenance cost.