This post was written by Federico Pereiro, JavaScript Developer for Toptal.

Declarative programming is, currently, the dominant paradigm of an extensive and diverse set of domains such as databases, templating and configuration management.

In a nutshell, declarative programming consists of instructing a program on what needs to be done, instead of telling it how to do it. In practice, this approach entails providing a domain-specific language (DSL) for expressing what the user wants, and shielding them from the low-level constructs (loops, conditionals, assignments) that materialize the desired end state.

While this paradigm is a remarkable improvement over the imperative approach that it replaced, I contend that declarative programming has significant limitations, limitations that I explore in this article. Moreover, I propose a dual approach that captures the benefits of declarative programming while superseding its limitations.

CAVEATThis article emerged as the result of a multi-year personal struggle with declarative tools. Many of the claims I present here are not thoroughly proven, and some are even presented at face value. A proper critique of declarative programming would take considerable time, effort, and I would have to go back and use many of these tools; my heart is not in such an undertaking. The purpose of this article is to share a few thoughts with you, pulling no punches, and showing what worked for me. If you’ve struggled with declarative programming tools, you might find respite and alternatives. And if you enjoy the paradigm and its tools, don’t take me too seriously.

If declarative programming works well for you, I’m in no position to tell you otherwise.

You can love or hate declarative programming, but you cannot afford to ignore it.
You can love or hate declarative programming, but you cannot afford to ignore it.

The Merits Of Declarative Programming

Before we explore the limits of declarative programming, it is necessary to understand its merits.

Arguably the most successful declarative programming tool is the relational database (RDB). It might even be the first declarative tool. In any case, RDBs exhibit the two properties that I consider archetypical of declarative programming:

  • A domain specific language (DSL): the universal interface for relational databases is a DSL named Structured Query Language, most commonly known as SQL.
  • The DSL hides the lower level layer from the user: ever since Edgar F. Codd’s original paper on RDBs, it is plain that the power of this model is to dissociate the desired queries from the underlying loops, indexes and access paths that implement them.

Before RDBs, most database systems were accessed through imperative code, which is heavily dependent on low-level details such as the order of records, indexes and the physical paths to the data itself. Because these elements change over time, code often stops working because of some underlying change in the structure of the data. The resulting code is hard to write, hard to debug, hard to read and hard to maintain. I’ll go out a limb and say that most of this code was in, all likelihood, long, full of proverbial rats’ nests of conditionals, repetition and subtle, state-dependent bugs.

In the face of this, RDBs provided a tremendous productivity leap for systems developers. Now, instead of thousands of lines of imperative code, you had a clearly defined data scheme, plus hundreds (or even just tens) of queries. As a result, applications had only to deal with an abstract, meaningful and lasting representation of data, and interface it through a powerful, yet simple query language. The RDB probably raised the productivity of programmers, and companies that employed them, by an order of magnitude.

What are the commonly listed advantages of declarative programming?

Proponents of declarative programming are quick to point out the advantages. However, even they admit it comes with trade-offs.
Proponents of declarative programming are quick to point out the advantages. However, even they admit it comes with trade-offs.
  1. Readability/usability: a DSL is usually closer to a natural language (like English) than to pseudocode, hence more readable and also easier to learn by non-programmers.
  2. Succinctness: much of the boilerplate is abstracted by the DSL, leaving less lines to do the same work.
  3. Reuse: it is easier to create code that can be used for different purposes; something that’s notoriously hard when using imperative constructs.
  4. Idempotence: you can work with end states and let the program figure it out for you. For example, through an upsert operation, you can either insert a row if it is not there, or modify it if it is already there, instead of writing code to deal with both cases.
  5. Error recovery: it is easy to specify a construct that will stop at the first error instead of having to add error listeners for every possible error. (If you’ve ever written three nested callbacks in node.js, you know what I mean.)
  6. Referential transparency: although this advantage is commonly associated with functional programming, it is actually valid for any approach that minimizes manual handling of state and relies on side effects.
  7. Commutativity: the possibility of expressing an end state without having to specify the actual order in which it will be implemented.

While the above are all commonly cited advantages of declarative programming, I would like to condense them into two qualities, which will serve as guiding principles when I propose an alternative approach.

  1. A high-level layer tailored to a specific domain: declarative programming creates a high-level layer using the information of the domain to which it applies. It is clear that if we’re dealing with databases, we want a set of operations for dealing with data. Most of the seven advantages above stem from the creation of a high-level layer that is precisely tailored to a specific problem domain.
  2. Poka-yoke (fool-proofness): a domain-tailored high-level layer hides the imperative details of the implementation. This means that you commit far fewer errors because the low-level details of the system are simply not accessible. This limitation eliminates many classes of errors from your code.

Two Problems With Declarative Programming

In the following two sections, I will present the two main problems of declarative programming: separateness and lack of unfolding. Every critique needs its bogeyman, so I will use HTML templating systems as a concrete example of the shortcomings of declarative programming.

The Problem With DSLs: Separateness

Imagine that you need to write a web application with a non-trivial number of views. Hard coding these views into a set of HTML files is not an option because many components of these pages change.

The most straightforward solution, which is to generate HTML by concatenating strings, seems so horrible that you will quickly look for an alternative. The standard solution is to use a template system. Although there are different types of template systems, we will sidestep their differences for the purpose of this analysis. We can consider all of them to be similar in that the main mission of template systems is to provide an alternative to code that concatenates HTML strings using conditionals and loops, much like RDBs emerged as an alternative to code that looped through data records.

Let’s suppose we go with a standard templating system; you will encounter three sources of friction, which I will list in ascending order of importance. The first is that the template necessarily resides in a file separate from your code. Because the templating system uses a DSL, the syntax is different, so it cannot be in the same file. In simple projects, where file counts are low, the need to keep separate template files may duplicate or treble the amount of files.

I open an exception for Embedded Ruby templates (ERB), because those are integrated into Ruby source code. This is not the case for ERB-inspired tools written in other languages since those templates must also be stored as different files.

The second source of friction is that the DSL has its own syntax, one different from that of your programming language. Hence, modifying the DSL (let alone writing your own) is considerably harder. To go under the hood and change the tool, you need to learn about tokenizing and parsing, which is interesting and challenging, but hard. I happen to see this as a disadvantage.

How can one vizualise a DSL? It’s not easy, but let’s just say a DSL is a clean, shiny layer on top of low-level constructs.
How can one vizualise a DSL? It’s not easy, but let’s just say a DSL is a clean, shiny layer on top of low-level constructs.

You may ask, “Why on earth would you want to modify your tool? If you are doing a standard project, a well-written standard tool should fit the bill.” Maybe yes, maybe no.

A DSL never has the full power of a programming language. If it did, it wouldn’t be a DSL anymore, but rather a full programming language.

But isn’t that the whole point of a DSL? To not have the full power of a programming language available, so that we can achieve abstraction and eliminate most sources of bugs? Maybe, yes. However, most DSLs start simple and then gradually incorporate a growing number of the facilities of a programming language until, in fact, it becomes one. Template systems are a perfect example. Let’s see the standard features of template systems and how they correlate to programming language facilities:

  • Replace text within a template: variable substitution.
  • Repetition of a template: loops.
  • Avoid printing a template if a condition is not met: conditionals.
  • Partials: subroutines.
  • Helpers: subroutines (the only difference with partials is that helpers can access the underlying programming language and let you out of the DSL straightjacket).

This argument, that a DSL is limited because it simultaneously covets and rejects the power of a programming language, is directly proportional to the extent that the features of the DSL are directly mappable to the features of a programming language. In the case of SQL, the argument is weak because most of the things SQL offers are nothing like what you find in a normal programming language. At the other end of the spectrum, we find template systems where virtually every feature is making the DSL converge towards BASIC.

Let’s now step back and contemplate these three quintessential sources of friction, summed up by the concept of separateness. Because it is separate, a DSL needs to be located on a separate file; it is harder to modify (and even harder to write your own), and (often, but not always) needs you to add, one by one, the features you miss from a real programming language.

Separateness is an inherent problem of any DSL, no matter how well designed.

We now turn to a second problem of declarative tools, which is widespread but not inherent.

Another Problem: Lack Of Unfolding Leads To Complexity

If I had written this article a few months ago, this section would have been named Most Declarative Tools Are #@!$#@! Complex But I Don’t Know Why. In the process of writing this article I found a better way of putting it: Most Declarative Tools Are Way More Complex Than They Need To Be. I will spend the rest of this section explaining why. To analyze the complexity of a tool, I propose a measure called the complexity gap. The complexity gap is the difference between solving a given problem with a tool versus solving it in the lower level (presumably, plain imperative code) that the tool intends to replace. When the former solution is more complex than the latter, we are in presence of the complexity gap. By more complex, I mean more lines of code, code that’s harder to read, harder to modify and harder to maintain, but not necessarily all of these at the same time.

Please note that we’re not comparing the lower level solution against the best possible tool, but rather against no tool. This echoes the medical principle of “First, do no harm”.

Signs of a tool with a large complexity gap are:

  • Something that takes a few minutes to describe in rich detail in imperative terms will take hours to code using the tool, even when you know how to use the tool.
  • You feel you are constantly working around the tool rather than with the tool.
  • You are struggling to solve a straightforward problem that squarely belongs in the domain of the tool you are using, but the best Stack Overflow answer you find describes a workaround.
  • When this very straightforward problem could be solved by a certain feature (which does not exist in the tool) and you see a Github issue in the library that features a long discussion of said feature with +1s interspersed.
  • A chronic, itching, longing to ditch the tool and do the whole thing yourself inside a _ for- loop_.

I might have fallen prey to emotion here since template systems are not that complex, but this comparatively small complexity gap is not a merit of their design, but rather because the domain of applicability is quite simple (remember, we’re just generating HTML here). Whenever the same approach is used for a more complex domain (such as configuration management) the complexity gap may quickly turn your project into a quagmire.

That said, it is not necessarily unacceptable for a tool to be somewhat more complex than the lower level it intends to replace; if the tool yields code that is more readable, concise and correct, it can be worth it t. It’s an issue when the tool is several times more complex than the problem it replaces; this is flat-out unacceptable. Brian Kernighan famously stated that, “Controlling complexity is the essence of computer programming.” If a tool adds significant complexity to your project, why even use it?

The question is, why are some declarative tools so much more complex than they need be? I think it would be a mistake to blame it on poor design. Such a general explanation, a blanket ad-hominem attack on the authors of these tools, is not fair. There has to be a more accurate and enlightening explanation.

Origami time! A tool with a high-level interface to an abstract lower level has to unfold the higher level from the lower one.
Origami time! Origami time! A tool with a high-level interface to an abstract lower level has to unfold the higher level from the lower one.

My contention is that any tool that offers a high level interface to abstract a lower level must unfold this higher level from the lower one. The concept of unfolding comes from Christopher Alexander’s magnum opus, The Nature of Order – in particular Volume II. It is (hopelessly) beyond the scope of this article (not to mention my understanding) to summarize the implications of this monumental work for software design; I believe its impact will be huge in years to come. It is also beyond this article to provide a rigorous definition of unfolding processes. I will use here the concept in a heuristic way.

An unfolding process is one that, in a stepwise fashion, creates further structure without negating the existing one. At every step, each change (or differentiation, to use Alexander’s term) remains in harmony with any previous structure, when previous structure is, simply, a crystallized sequence of past changes.

Interestingly enough, Unix is a great example of the unfolding of a higher level from a lower one. In Unix, two complex features of the operative system, batch jobs and coroutines (pipes), are simply extensions of basic commands. Because of certain fundamental design decisions, such as making everything a stream of bytes, the shell being a userland programand standard I/O files, Unix is able to provide these sophisticated features with minimal complexity.

To underline why these are excellent examples of unfolding, I would like to quote a few excerpts of a 1979 paper by Dennis Ritchie, one of the authors of Unix:

On batch jobs:

… the new process control scheme instantly rendered some very valuable features trivial to implement; for example detached processes (with &) and recursive use of the shell as a command. Most systems have to supply some sort of special batch job submissionfacility and a special command interpreter for files distinct from the one used interactively.

On coroutines:

The genius of the Unix pipeline is precisely that it is constructed from the very same commands used constantly in simplex fashion.

UNIX pioneers Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson created a powerful demonstration of unfolding in their OS. They also saved us from a dystopian all-Windows future.
UNIX pioneers Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson created a powerful demonstration of unfolding in their OS. They also saved us from a dystopian all-Windows future.

This elegance and simplicity, I argue, comes from an unfolding process. Batch jobs and coroutines are unfolded from previous structures (commands run in a userland shell). I believe that because of the minimalist philosophy and limited resources of the team that created Unix, the system evolved stepwise, and as such, was able to incorporate advanced features without turning its back on to the basic ones because there weren’t enough resources to do otherwise.

In the absence of an unfolding process, the high level will be considerably more complex than necessary. In other words, the complexity of most declarative tools stem from the fact that their high level does not unfold from the low level they intend to replace.

This lack of unfoldance, if you forgive the neologism, is routinely justified by the necessity to shield the user from the lower level. This emphasis on poka-yoke (protecting the user from low level errors) comes at the expense of a large complexity gap that is self-defeating because the extra complexity will generate new classes of errors. To add insult to injury, these classes of errors have nothing to do with the problem domain but rather with the tool itself. We would not go too far if we describe these errors as iatrogenic.

Declarative templating tools, at least when applied to the task of generating HTML views, are an archetypical case of a high level that turns its back on the low level it intends to replace. How so? Because generating any non-trivial view requires logic, and templating systems, especially logic-less ones, banish logic through the main door and then smuggle some of it back through the cat door.

Note: An even weaker justification for a large complexity gap is when a tool is marketed as magic, or something that just works, the opaqueness of the low level is supposed to be an asset because a magic tool is always supposed to work without you understanding why or how. In my experience, the more magical a tool purports to be, the faster it transmutes my enthusiasm into frustration.

But what about the separation of concerns? Shouldn’t view and logic remain separate? The core mistake, here, is to put business logic and presentation logic in the same bag. Business logic certainly has no place in a template, but presentation logic exists nevertheless. Excluding logic from templates pushes presentation logic into the server where it is awkwardly accommodated. I owe the clear formulation of this point to Alexei Boronine, who makes an excellent case for it in this article.

My feeling is that roughly two thirds of the work of a template resides in its presentation logic, while the other third deals with generic issues such as concatenating strings, closing tags, escaping special characters, and so on. This is the two-faced low level nature of generating HTML views. Templating systems deal appropriately with the second half, but they don’t fare well with the first. Logic-less templates flat out turn their back on this problem, forcing you to solve it awkwardly. Other template systems suffer because they truly need to provide a non-trivial programming language so their users can actually write presentation logic.

To sum up; declarative templating tools suffer because:

  • If they were to unfold from their problem domain, they would have to provide ways to generate logical patterns;
  • A DSL that provides logic is not really a DSL, but a programming language. Note that other domains, like configuration management, also suffer from lack of “unfoldance.”

I would like to close the critique with an argument that is logically disconnected from the thread of this article, but deeply resonates with its emotional core: We have limited time to learn. Life is short, and on top of that, we need to work. In the face of our limitations, we need to spend our time learning things that will be useful and withstand time, even in the face of fast changing technology. That is why I exhort you to use tools that don’t just provide a solution but actually shed a bright light on the domain of its own applicability. RDBs teach you about data, and Unix teaches you about OS concepts, but with unsatisfactory tools that don’t unfold, I’ve always felt I was learning the intricacies of a sub-optimal solution while remaining in the dark about the nature of problem it intends to solve.

The heuristic I suggest you to consider is, value tools that illuminate their problem domain, instead of tools that obscure their problem domain behind purported features.

The Twin Approach

To overcome the two problems of declarative programming, which I have presented here, I propose a twin approach:

  • Use a data structure domain specific language (dsDSL), to overcome separateness.
  • Create a high level that unfolds from the lower level, to overcome the complexity gap.


A data structure DSL (dsDSL) is a DSL that is built with the data structures of a programming language. The core idea is to use the basic data structures you have available, such as strings, numbers, arrays, objects and functions, and combine them to create abstractions to deal with a specific domain.

We want to keep the power of declaring structures or actions (high level) without having to specify the patterns that implement these constructs (low level). We want to overcome the separateness between the DSL and our programming language so that we are free to use the full power of a programming language whenever we need it. This is not only possible but straightforward through dsDSLs.

If you asked me a year ago, I would have thought that the concept of dsDSL was novel, then one day, I realized that JSON itself was a perfect example of this approach! A parsed JSON object consists of data structures that declaratively represent data entries in order to get the advantages of the DSL while also making it easy to parse and handle from within a programming language. (There might be other dsDSLs out there, but so far I haven’t come across any. If you know of one, I would really appreciate your mentioning it in the comments section.)

Like JSON, a dsDSL has the following attributes:

  1. It consists of a very small set of functions: JSON has two main functions, parse and stringify.
  2. Its functions most commonly receive complex and recursive arguments: a parsed JSON is an array, or object, which usually contains further arrays and objects inside.
  3. The inputs to these functions conform to very specific forms: JSON has an explicit and strictly enforced validation schema to tell valid from invalid structures.
  4. Both the inputs and the outputs of these functions can be contained and generated by a programming language without a separate syntax.

But dsDSLs go beyond JSON in many ways. Let’s create a dsDSL for generating HTML using Javascript. Later I will touch on the issue of whether this approach may be extended to other languages (spoiler: It can definitely be done in Ruby and Python, but probably not in C).

HTML is a markup language composed of tags delimited by angle brackets (< and >). These tags may have optional attributes and contents. Attributes are simply a list of key/value attributes, and contents may be either text or other tags. Both attributes and contents are optionals for any given tag. I’m simplifying somewhat, but it is accurate.

A straightforward way to represent an HTML tag in a dsDSL is by using an array with three elements: – Tag: a string. – Attributes: an object (of the plain, key/value type) or undefined (if no attributes are necessary). – Contents: a string (text), an array (another tag) or undefined (if there’s no contents).

For example, <a href="views">Index</a> can be written as ['a', {href: 'views'}, 'Index'].

If we want to embed this anchor element into a div with class links, we can write: ['div', {class: 'links'}, ['a', {href: 'views'}, 'Index']].

To list several html tags at the same level, we can wrap them in an array:

   ['h1', 'Hello!'],
   ['a', {href: 'views'}, 'Index']

The same principle may be applied to creating multiple tags within a tag:

['body', [
   ['h1', 'Hello!'],
   ['a', {href: 'views'}, 'Index']

Of course, this dsDSL won’t get us far if we don’t generate HTML from it. We need a generate function which will take our dsDSL and yield a string with HTML. So if we run generate (['a', {href: 'views'}, 'Index']), we will get the string <a href="views">Index</a>.

The idea behind any DSL is to specify a few constructs with a specific structure which is then passed to a function. In this case, the structure that makes up the dsDSL is this array, which has one to three elements; these arrays have a specific structure. If generate thoroughly validates its input (and it is both easy and important to thoroughly validate input, since these validation rules are the precise analog of a DSL’s syntax), it will tell you exactly where you went wrong with your input. After a while, you’ll start to recognize what distinguishes a valid structure in a dsDSL, and this structure will be highly suggestive of the underlying thing it generates.

Now, what are the merits of a dsDSL in contraposition to a DSL?

  • A dsDSL is an integral part of your code. It leads to lower line counts, file counts, and an overall reduction of overhead.
  • dsDSLs are easy to parse (hence easier to implement and modify). Parsing is merely iterating through the elements of an array or object. Likewise, dsDSLs are comparatively easy to design because instead of creating a new syntax (that everybody will hate) you can stick with the syntax of your programming language (which everybody hates but at least they already know it).
  • A dsDSL has all the power of a programming language. This means that a dsDSL, when properly employed, has the advantage of both a high and a low level tool.

Now, the last claim is a strong one, so I’m going to spend the rest of this section supporting it. What do I mean by properly employed? To see this in action, let’s consider an example in which we want to construct a table to display the information from an array named DATA.

var DATA = [
   {id: 1, description: 'Product 1', price: 20,  onSale: true,  categories: ['a']},
   {id: 2, description: 'Product 2', price: 60,  onSale: false, categories: ['b']},
   {id: 3, description: 'Product 3', price: 120, onSale: false, categories: ['a', 'c']},
   {id: 4, description: 'Product 4', price: 45,  onSale: true,  categories: ['a', 'b']}

In a real application, DATA will be generated dynamically from a database query.

Moreover, we have a FILTER variable which, when initialized, will be an array with the categories we want to display.

We want our table to:

  • Display table headers.
  • For each product, show the fields: description, price and categories.
  • Don’t print the id field, but add it as an id attribute for each row. ALTERNATE VERSION: Add an id attribute to each tr element.
  • Place a class onSale if the product is on sale.
  • Sort the products by descending price.
  • Filter certain products by category. If FILTER is an empty array, we will display all products. Otherwise, we will only display the products where the category of the product is contained within FILTER.

We can create the presentation logic that matches this requirement in ~20 lines of code:

function drawTable (DATA, FILTER) {

   var printableFields = ['description', 'price', 'categories'];

   DATA.sort (function (a, b) {return a.price - b.price});

   return ['table', [
      ['tr', (printableFields, function (field) {
         return ['th', field];
      })], (DATA, function (product) {
         var matches = (! FILTER || FILTER.length === 0) || dale.stop (product.categories, true, function (category) {
            return FILTER.indexOf (category) !== -1;

         return matches === false ? [] : ['tr', {
            class: product.onSale ? 'onsale' : undefined
         }, (printableFields, function (field) {
            return ['td', product [field]];

I concede this is not a straightforward example, however, it represents a fairly simple view of the four basic functions of persistent storage, also known as CRUD. Any non-trivial web application will have views that are more complex than this.

Let’s now see what this code is doing. First, it defines a function, drawTable, to contain the presentation logic of drawing the product table. This function receives DATA and FILTER as parameters, so it can be used for different data sets and filters. drawTable fulfills the double role of partial and helper.

   var drawTable = function (DATA, FILTER) {

The inner variable, printableFields, is the only place where you need to specify which fields are printable ones, avoiding repetition and inconsistencies in the face of changing requirements.

   var printableFields = ['description', 'price', 'categories'];

We then sort DATA according to the price of its products. Notice that different and more complex sort criteria would be straightforward to implement since we have the entire programming language at our disposal.

   DATA.sort (function (a, b) {return a.price - b.price});

Here we return an object literal; an array which contains table as its first element and its contents as the second. This is the dsDSL representation of the <table> we want to create.

   return ['table', [

We now create a row with the table headers. To create its contents, we use which is a function like, but one that also works for objects. We will iterate printableFields and generate table headers for each of them:

      ['tr', (printableFields, function (field) {
         return ['th', field];

Notice that we have just implemented iteration, the workhorse of HTML generation, and we didn’t need any DSL constructs; we only needed a function to iterate a data structure and return dsDSLs. A similar native, or user-implemented function, would have done the trick as well.

Now iterate through the products contained in DATA. (DATA, function (product) {

We check whether this product is left out by FILTER. If FILTER is empty, we will print the product. If FILTER is not empty, we will iterate through the categories of the product until we find one that is contained within FILTER. We do this using dale.stop.

         var matches = (! FILTER || FILTER.length === 0) || dale.stop (product.categories, true, function (category) {
            return FILTER.indexOf (category) !== -1;

Notice the intricacy of the conditional; it is precisely tailored to our requirement and we have total freedom for expressing it because we are in a programming language rather than a DSL.

If matches is false, we return an empty array (so we don’t print this product). Otherwise, we return a <tr> with its proper id and class and we iterate through printableFields to, well, print the fields.

         return matches === false ? [] : ['tr', {
            class: product.onSale ? 'onsale' : undefined
         }, (printableFields, function (field) {
            return ['td', product [field]];

Of course we close everything that we opened. Isn’t syntax fun?


Now, how do we incorporate this table into a wider context? We write a function named drawAll that will invoke all functions that generate the views. Apart from drawTable, we might also have drawHeaderdrawFooter and other comparable functions, all of which will return dsDSLs.

var drawAll = function () {
   return generate ([
      drawHeader (),
      drawTable (DATA, FILTER),
      drawFooter ()

If you don’t like how the above code looks, nothing I say will convince you. This is a dsDSL at its best. You might as well stop reading the article (and drop a mean comment too because you’ve earned the right to do so if you’ve made it this far!). But seriously, if the code above doesn’t strike you as elegant, nothing else in this article will.

For those who are still with me, I would like to go back to the main claim of this section, which is that a dsDSL has the advantages of both the high and the low level:

  • The advantage of the low level resides in writing code whenever we want, getting out of the straightjacket of the DSL.
  • The advantage of the high level resides in using literals that represent what we want to declare and letting the functions of the tool convert that into the desired end state (in this case, a string with HTML).

But how is this truly different from purely imperative code? I think ultimately the elegance of the dsDSL approach boils down to the fact that code written in this way mostly consists of expressions, instead of statements. More precisely, code that uses a dsDSL is almost entirely composed of:

  • Literals that map to lower level structures.
  • Function invocations or lambdas within those literal structures that return structures of the same kind.

Code that consists mostly of expressions and which encapsulate most statements within functions is extremely succinct because all patterns of repetition can be easily abstracted. You can write arbitrary code as long as that code returns a literal that conforms to a very specific, non-arbitrary form.

A further characteristic of dsDSLs (which we don’t have time to explore here) is the possibility of using types to increase the richness and succinctness of the literal structures. I will expound on this issue on a future article.

Might it be possible to create dsDSLs beyond Javascript, the One True Language? I think that it is, indeed, possible, as long as the language supports:

  • Literals for: arrays, objects (associative arrays), function invocations, and lambdas.
  • Runtime type detection
  • Polymorphism and dynamic return types

I think this means that dsDSLs are tenable in any modern dynamic language (i.e.: Ruby, Python, Perl, PHP), but probably not in C or Java.

Walk, Then Slide: How To Unfold The High From The Low

In this section I will attempt to show a way for unfolding a high level tool from its domain. In a nutshell, the approach consists of the following steps

  1. Take two to four problems that are representative instances of a problem domain. These problems should be real. Unfolding the high level from the low one is a problem of induction, so you need real data to come up with representative solutions.
  2. Solve the problems with no tool in the most straightforward way possible.
  3. Stand back, take a good look at your solutions, and notice the common patterns among them.
  4. Find the patterns of representation (high level).
  5. Find the patterns of generation (low level).
  6. Solve the same problems with your high level layer and verify that the solutions are indeed correct.
  7. If you feel that you can easily represent all the problems with your patterns of representation, and the generation patterns for each of these instances produce correct implementations, you’re done. Otherwise, go back to the drawing board.
  8. If new problems appear, solve them with the tool and modify it accordingly.
  9. The tool should converge asymptotically to a finished state, no matter how many problems it solves. In other words, the complexity of the tool should remain constant, rather than growing with the amount of problems it solves.

Now, what the hell are patterns of representation and patterns of generation? I’m glad you asked. The patterns of representation are the patterns in which you should be able to express a problem that belongs to the domain that concerns your tool. It is an alphabet of structures that allows you to write any pattern you might wish to express within its domain of applicability. In a DSL, these would be the production rules. Let’s go back to our dsDSL for generating HTML.

The humble HTML tag is a good example of patterns of representation. Let’s take a closer look at these basic patterns.
The humble HTML tag is a good example of patterns of representation. Let’s take a closer look at these basic patterns.

The patterns of representation for HTML are the following:

  • A single tag: ['TAG']
  • A single tag with attributes: ['TAG', {attribute1: value1, attribute2: value2, ...}]
  • A single tag with contents: ['TAG', 'CONTENTS']
  • A single tag with both attributes and contents: ['TAG', {attribute1: value1, ...}, 'CONTENTS']
  • A single tag with another tag inside: ['TAG1', ['TAG2', ...]]
  • A group of tags (standalone or inside another tag): [['TAG1', ...], ['TAG2', ...]]
  • Depending on a condition, place a tag or no tag: condition ? ['TAG', ...] : [] / Depending on a condition, place an attribute or no attribute: ['TAG', {class: condition ? 'someClass': undefined}, ...]

These instances can be represented with the dsDSL notation we determined in the previous section. And this is all you need to represent any HTML you might need. More sophisticated patterns, such as conditional iteration through an object to generate a table, may be implemented with functions that return the patterns of representation above, and these patterns map directly to HTML tags.

If the patterns of representation are the structures you use to express what you want, the patterns of generation are the structures your tool will use to convert patterns of representation into the lower level structures. For HTML, these are the following:

  • Validate the input (this is actually is an universal pattern of generation).
  • Open and close tags (but not the void tags, like <input>, which are self-closing).
  • Place attributes and contents, escaping special characters (but not the contents of the <style> and <script> tags).

Believe it or not, these are the patterns you need to create an unfolding dsDSL layer that generates HTML. Similar patterns can be found for generating CSS. In fact, lith does both, in ~250 lines of code.

One last question remains to be answered: What do I mean by walk, then slide? When we deal with a problem domain, we want to use a tool that delivers us from the nasty details of that domain. In other words, we want to sweep the low level under the rug, the faster the better. The walk, then slide approach proposes exactly the opposite: spend some time on the low level. Embrace its quirks, and understand which are essential and which can be avoided in the face of a set of real, varied, and useful problems.

After walking in the low level for some time and solving useful problems, you will have a sufficiently deep understanding of their domain. The patterns of representation and generation will then arise naturally; they are wholly derived from the nature of the problem they intend to solve. You can then write code that employs them. If they work, you will be able to slide through problems where you recently had to walk through them. Sliding means many things; it implies speed, precision and lack of friction. Maybe more importantly, this quality can be felt; when solving problems with this tool, do you feel like you’re walking through the problem, or do you feel that you’re sliding through it?

Maybe the most important thing about an unfolded tool is not the fact that it frees us from having to deal with the low level. Rather, by capturing the empiric patterns of repetition in the low level, a good high level tool allows us to understand fully the domain of applicability.

An unfolded tool will not just solve a problem – it will enlighten you about the problem’s structure.

So, don’t run away from a worthy problem. First walk around it, then slide through it.

Finding the perfect site to hire PHP developers shouldn’t be as difficult as it is. If you have a minute, you should consider filling out Developers for Hire’s PHP questionnaire. On average, it takes only sixty seconds to complete. Answer a few of their questions and you’ll receive personalized results based on your needs. It’s an extremely useful tool if you’re lost on how to begin your talent search.

If you’d rather sort through this list, however, you can rely on the companies compiled below. In short, the best places on the web will let you have it all: you’ll have access to quality developers, and can expect expediency and consistency. This list attempts to compile those exceptional sites for finding developers.

Here are the top 15 places to find a PHP developer:

1. Toptal

Toptal is a matching service, initially created with only tech talent in mind. Although it has expanded its pool of talent to include designers and finance experts, the company’s bread and butter is its developer vertical. If you want to be sure that a PHP developer is up to the job, hiring an exceptional developer from Toptal is likely your best option.

Why? Toptal boasts an elite developer base. Their trademark system for vetting talent allows for only the best to become a part of their community. According to Toptal, only 3% of applicants make it through their battery of technical tests and their comprehensive vetting process.

2. Hired

Hired helps employers find software engineers and developers. On Hired, you can use their pipeline to find custom matches. You can create a company profile, search for candidates using their search algorithm (which can eliminate gender and racial identifiers for fairer hiring), and request interviews with candidates.

What’s best about Hired? It’s great for finding specialized PHP developers who are actively searching for new opportunities, have relevant experience (as most candidates on Hired have at least two years of experience), and are in your area.

3. We Work Remotely

We Work Remotely is a job board dedicated to remote listings. As a result of the remote-only restriction, there is a higher than average amount of tech and tech-creative hybrid job postings, which include front-end web developer and PHP developer positions.

Posting a job listing may be a bit more expensive than other job boards listed at $299 a month. However, if you’re looking to fill a remote position and are uninterested in recruiting local employees or freelancers, you should strongly consider utilizing We Work Remotely.

4. GitHub Jobs

Don’t waste your time perusing large job boards like Monster and Indeed. You’ll have far better luck with job boards geared toward tech talent. GitHub has a massive front-end developer community as it’s one of the largest open-source online repositories for coders. For a relatively small fee, you can post a PHP developer job listing and gain a great deal of exposure on GitHub’s huge developer community.

5. Authentic Jobs

Authentic Jobs is a job board for leading web, design, and creative talent. It has been steadily rising in popularity since its inception; the board is used by The New York Times in part of its acquisition process.

As PHP development often involves both creative and technical aspects, Authentic Jobs is a great place to begin your search. Much of their job board is populated with listings of web developer and PHP developer positions which are likely similar to your own needs.

Authentic Jobs allows for posting developer positions remote or local, so you won’t be limited to remote employees or freelancers.

6. Stack Overflow

Stack Overflow has an online community that rivals GitHub. Arguably, it’s the absolute largest and most trusted community of developers on the web. Stack Overflow is often used as a resource for all kinds of developers, novice to expert, seeking to learn more about coding. Their job board, like GitHub’s, allows for an incredible amount of exposure to dedicated PHP developers around the world.

7. Upwork

If recruiting services and job boards aren’t your thing, you might want to consider a freelance marketplace like Upwork.

Upwork has one of the largest marketplaces with millions of registered freelancers. You can hire contractors for a few simple coding tasks or begin a long-term relationship with a series of complex PHP projects. If you like the idea of finding, interviewing, and managing freelancers, Upwork’s colossal marketplace will likely meet your needs.

8. PHP Classes

Poor UI aside, PHP Classes is a wonderful site to find PHP developers for hire. The site has a large community of PHP developers, offers a wealth of educational resources, and offers forums and job boards. If you have a great deal of time on your hands, and don’t mind the site’s unintuitive look and feel, PHP Classes may be a good resource for hiring PHP developers.

9. People Per Hour

People Per Hour is another freelance marketplace akin to Upwork. What makes People Per Hour unique is that it holds contests and allows Freelancers to post their own job postings called hourlies.

People Per Hour has millions of members, thousands of confirmed hours, and a plethora of success stories from freelancers and entrepreneurs alike. The ease of posting jobs, contacting freelancers, and paying for hours worked makes People Per Hour a superb choice for employers interested in searching for and vetting freelance candidates themselves.

Additionally, with People Per Hour, you can connect with local freelancers, so you aren’t necessarily limited to remote talent.

10. has a growing community of developers over 25,000 strong. Like Toptal, their service is designed to take the tedium out of hiring. vets their talent and ensures that their freelancers are committed to each and every project. prides itself on its humanism. Every employer is connected with a VP, instead of a sales representative, and freelancers are provided with the resources to succeed.

What’s most alluring about the network? manages and replaces talent – with no risk to you – and back every single hour worked with a 100% money-back guarantee.

11. Guru

Guru has a large global network of freelancers—albeit smaller than Upwork’s and People Per Hour’s massive pool. You can explore the profiles of 1.5 million gurus, propose projects, and pay your hired talent with their secure SafePay system.

Guru isn’t focused on developers, let alone Angular developers, as it is a freelance network comprised of every sort of professional. So, like with Upwork and People Per Hour, you’ll have to narrow your search yourself. Also, as with many freelance networks, the vetting and interviewing will be up to you.

12. Freelancer

Freelancer is an absolutely massive marketplace with 25 million registered users, 12 million total posted jobs, and thousands of completed projects. With the size of the marketplace comes a unique challenge, however. Finding the perfect PHP developer is like finding a needle in a haystack.

Although website development is one of the most popular job categories on Freelancer, you still will have to search through thousands of Freelancer profiles, vet and interview candidates yourself, and manage payments yourself.

If you’re looking for an affordable option, however, Freelancer is a wonderful hiring solution. For more long-term commitments, you’ll want to consider matching services like Toptal or

13. Find Bacon

Find Bacon is a job board aimed at eliminating the hassle of searching for design and development jobs. Find Bacon is a pleasantalternative to massive job boards like Indeed and Monster and is highly affordable. Posting a job posting for a 30-day period is only $99 dollars.

They also offer subscription packs which allow for 10 job posts a month. If you’re a company looking to fill multiple positions or are planning on hiring freelancers on an ongoing basis, you may want to consider investing in a subscription pack for a niche job boardlike Find Bacon.

14. X-Team

X-Team matches you with qualified PHP developers who receive mentorship and educational resources just for being a part of X-Team. Like Toptal and, they do the heavy lifting of hiring. You won’t be saddled with rifling through resumes or preparing personalized interview scripts.

The major downside of using X-Team is that, as their name suggests, they are adept at organizing teams. If you’re only looking to hire an individual PHP developer, you’ll want to use a different matching service.

15. College Recruiter

If you’re looking to fill a part-time, entry-level position, or internship, College Recruiter is a good place to connect with college students and recent grads. This is an especially good option if you happen to constrained to a tight budget and have flexibility in terms of a hiring schedule.

Again, you’ll have to do the hard work of vetting and interviewing, but if interviewing hires doesn’t sound too daunting, College Recruiter is a good place to search for entry-level talent.

Honorable Mention: SimplyHired

SimplyHired is a large job board. It’s similar to big, general job boards like Indeed or Monster. The site comes with loads of resources from salary recommendations to hiring guides, and offers low prices for job listings. Like with Indeed and Monster, you’ll get a great deal of exposure. With over a billion job applications delivered, SimplyHired is a highly-respected job board worth investigating.

Begin exploring salary estimators, post within a network of over a hundred job boards in record time, and browse through the collated jobs by cities to see if posting a job listing on SimplyHired is worth the time and money for you.

Choosing the right site

Finding the best sites to find developers is no easy endeavor. Unless you’re a battle-worn recruiter, you likely won’t know how to navigate the complexities of hiring a PHP developer. That’s completely okay—there’s plenty of sites and services to help you along the way.

Matching services like Toptal, and to a lesser extent, Hired and, are great solutions for employers searching for tech talent, and for those who are looking to place their trust in experienced tech professionals. For those short on time with high-quality developers as a priority, Toptal and Hired are superb choices.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are freelance marketplaces like Upwork, People Per Hour, and Freelancer that allow you to cast a much wider net for PHP developers.

Employers looking for full-time developers may also benefit from utilizing Stack Overflow and GitHub’s job boards, which can provide wonderful exposure to the PHP developer community.

Freelance marketplaces like Upwork, Freelancer, and Guru allow you to instantly connect with developers, but you’ll have to care for the hiring details yourself. If you have ample time to devote to screening candidates and are confident in your ability to interview PHP developers, they are a great choice. Otherwise, you should steer clear from marketplaces and job boards alike.

Job boards, marketplaces, and matching services all have their uses. Which site will best serve you will depend on your specific situation.

Ultimately, which sites you employ depends on a multitude of factors, such as:

  • How quickly you need to hire a PHP developer (i.e. your timeline)
  • How much experience you have hiring PHP developers
  • Whether or not you’re equipped to test technical skills
  • How many developers you need to bring on
  • What level of experience those PHP developers need
  • Whether or not you’re open to remote workers
  • What your budget constraints are
  • How important quality is to your project(s)