Programming Chi

Tomasz Fijałkowski's programming blog.

Optional as a Field and what are you going to do to me about it?

This article is also available on as Optional jako pole i co mi zrobisz? [Polish]

It’s been quite some time since the introduction of the Optional class in JDK 8. A lot has been written about where and how to use it, what constitutes good practice, and what doesn’t. An example of this can be found in the Optional Anti-Patterns article. But does it all make sense?

I agree with many of the arguments presented there. However, I wanted to challenge the prohibition on using Optional as a class field and passing them as constructor parameters. Optional doesn’t protect us from NullPointerExceptions; nothing shields us from foolishness because Java allows returning null regardless of the method signature. Therefore, Optional is only useful in conjunction with a consistent convention that spans the entire project. This convention makes it unnecessary to review the code of the called method, read comments, or consult documentation to know whether we need to handle nulls. If we see that there’s no Optional in the method signature, we can assume that the method always returns a value; otherwise, we need to handle the absence of a value. Beautiful! This makes our code more obvious.

Optional as a Class Field

So why not use Optional as a class field? There are several arguments against it. Firstly, IntelliJ IDEA suggests that you shouldn’t do it, and it’s a common interpretation.

message from intellij about incorrect use of optional

This warning leads us to the second reason – Optional is not Serializable. Personally, this argument doesn’t convince me because I can’t recall a situation in recent projects where I needed to implement the Serializable interface. Moreover, when discussing Optional, I’m referring to the concept, not a specific implementation. In situations where you need to implement the Serializable interface, you can use an alternative version from a library, such as Option from the vavr library. The third argument is that “Optional wasn’t designed for this”. Similarly, computers weren’t designed for entertainment, but millions of people spend hours playing computer games every day. Fourthly, there’s a performance overhead associated with wrapping fields in Optional. However, in all the projects I’ve developed, this overhead was never an issue, and optimizations related to removing Optional would be at the bottom of the list of bottlenecks. The fifth argument I found is the observation that something like this looks weak in DTO objects:

private Optional<HashMap<String, Integer>> data;

This probably arises when objects are mutable and have setters. When we create DTOs as immutable objects where all fields are set in the constructor, such situations occur significantly less frequently. However, when they do occur, there’s some semantic justification when something else represents an empty map versus the absence of a map. Regardless, if my field is of type Optional, I don’t need to place any annotations, comments, or other nullability markers. Referring to the field immediately lets me know whether I need to handle nulls. It’s the same well-performing rule when referring to public methods.

Optional as a Method Argument

Alright, what about the second topic, which is the prohibition on using Optionals in method parameters? Let’s assume we have the following Client class:

class Client {
    String getFirstName() { ... }
    Optional<String> getSecondName() { ... }
    String getLastName() { ... }

What if we want to rewrite this class into another? Why would we need to do that? Well, if we care about module isolation to limit coupling, especially to avoid cycles, rewriting one class into another is a fairly common practice. Similarly, if we’re creating a facade for some API. Of course, we usually don’t rewrite everything one-to-one. Sometimes we skip some fields, take values from several objects, or perform some transformation. In this case, to keep the example simple, I’ll limit it to a straightforward transfer of fields.

I hope everyone now sees the justification for transferring data from one class to another. So what will it look like when there are no optionals in the method arguments? There are two options. First, we can try passing null:

new User(client.getFirstName(),

That orElse(null) looks terrifying to me! Such a monster might haunt me at night. The second approach could be preparing two constructors:

if (client.getSecondName().isPresent()) {
    new User(client.getFirstName(),
} else {
    new User(client.getFirstName(), client.getLastName())

or in a fluent API style without Optional::get():

    .map(secondName ->
        new User(client.getFirstName(),
    .orElse(new User(client.getFirstName(), client.getLastName()))

Regardless of the format, both approaches are daunting. So let’s try not to give up Optional in method arguments. How would that look?

new User(client.getFirstName(),

I have no doubt that this looks the best.

Message for today

Finally, the question arises: should I use Optionals everywhere? Use them wherever it makes sense. If a class hierarchy makes sense, create one, but don’t create it just because you don’t want to have a field of type Optional. If two constructors make the class API more user-friendly, create two constructors, but don’t create them just because you don’t want to have an Optional argument. Don’t blindly follow the slogans “use it here, don’t use it there”. Have solid arguments why Optional shouldn’t appear in a specific place. For me, the convention that a data type always carries information about the absence of a value is a clean, consistent convention that minimizes errors related to NullPointerExceptions.