Chris Martin

Intro Scala pitfalls

This is an abridged summary of what I’ve learned from watching a few people get started with Scala. There are a handful of mistakes that most people (who aren’t coming from a Haskell background) tend to fall into.

My advice for Scala beginners:

  1. Don’t use collections methods that throw.
  2. Don’t use Try (often).
  3. Don’t use Option.get.
  4. Reduce block depth with for comprehensions.
  5. Use implicit Java conversions.

I believe this is all pretty uncontroversial among Scala mavens, though the unindoctrinated may require some discussion of functional programming to justify it (which I make no attempt to do here).

Collection exceptions

These methods are killers:

(_: Seq[A].head)       :     => A

(_: Seq[A].apply)      : Int => A

(_: Map[A, B]).apply   : A   => B

They’re innocuously-named and look like the right methods to call, but in most cases you need something that returns an Option instead:

(_: Seq[A].headOption) :     => Option[A]

(_: Seq[A].lift)       : Int => Option[A]

(_: Map[A, B].get)     : A   => Option[B]

The correct methods are all slightly longer (when we elide apply) than their improperly typed counterparts, so coders exploring the API on their own tend to find the wrong methods first.


If one then discovers Try before correcting those habits, you end up a lot of expressions like


instead of


This can be tricky because there are some places where exceptions are unavoidable. For example, I write this function often:

def parseDecimal(x: String): Option[BigDecimal] =

It’s important to explain that this is just a workaround for a deficiency in the library, not an idiom to emulate.


These examples are at least careful enough to check the Option before unwrapping it, similar to how one would guard against null dereferences in other languages.

if (xOption.isDefined) f(xOption.get)

if (xOption.isDefined) f(xOption.get) else y

xOption.isEmpty || (xOption.isDefined && !f(xOption.get))

In Scala we can do better and preserve type safety all the way through. The easy go-to solution for any Option problem is a pattern match:

xOption match {
  case Some(x) => f(x)
  case None    =>

xOption match {
  case Some(x) => f(x)
  case None    => y

xOption match {
  case Some(x) => !f(x)
  case None    => true

And then with a little more API familiarity these expressions can be reduced:



Block depth

You then start to encounter the nauseating block nesting known in some circles as “callback hell”:

xs.foreach(x =>
  f(x).headOption.foreach(y =>
    map.get(y).foreach(z =>
      g(z, x)

w.toRight("a").flatMap(x =>
  f(x).toRight("b").flatMap(y =>

So at this point you have to introduce for comprehensions.

for {
  x <- xs
  y <- f(x).headOption
  z <- map.get(y)
} g(z, x)

for {
  x <- w.toRight("a")
  y <- f(x).toRight("b")
  z <- g(y).toRight("c")
} yield z

Once someone is comfortable with for expressions, I think they’ve got the Scala essentials pretty well under control.

Java conversions

There’s one more thing that will only come up if you’re doing Java interop. There are several options for conversions between Java and Scala collections:

  • scala.collection.convert
  • scala.collection.JavaConversions
  • scala.collection.JavaConverters

Unfortunately these names are all very similar, and the documentation doesn’t explain how to choose.

I find this one easiest in most situations:

import scala.collection.JavaConversions._

This import provides implicit conversions between the two collections libraries, which usually works without thinking about it at all.

I write about Haskell and related topics; you can find my works online on Type Classes and in print from The Joy of Haskell.