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Typescript Generics: A Basic Use Case

August 13, 2019

When does it make sense to use a Generic in a Typescript type? How do you create a type that takes a Generic?

I’ve read through the Typescript documentation on Generics a few different times.1 Each time, I glean a little more, but using Generics never really clicked until I had an opportunity to see it in practice thanks to the guidance to a colleague.

Below is a summary of some of the lessons I learned and how it helped things fall in place.

Context

The problem began with trying to extend an API to return some additional information. In this case, I wanted to include what we’ll call Auditable fields that include a modified timestamp and modifying user.

These fields were already part of a larger Auditable interface in the app:

export interface Auditable {
  …
  _modifiedAt: Date;
  _modifiedBy: string;}

The point of the query was to return the changes made to several different tables - resources, fields, etc.

The general shape of the data would look like:

export interface ChangeLog {
  _startversion?: number;
  _endversion?: number;
  resources?: {
    Property: StartEndBox<> 
  };
  fields?: {
    [resource_name: string]: {
      [standard_name: string]: StartEndBox<> 
    };
  };}

The point here is not StartEndBox (which is an interface for picking the fields that we’re comparing the differences for), but that each of the different tables could ultimately have a different structure.

Fortunately, whichever level it was at - I knew that once I got there, that’s where my auditable fields would live and I could append my data there - so, for the interface, that’s where I added it. For example:

export interface ChangeLog {
  _startversion?: number;
  _endversion?: number;
  resources?: {
    Property: StartEnd<> &
      Pick<metadata.resources.Resource, "_modifiedAt" | "_modifiedBy">;
  };
  fields?: {
    [resource_name: string]: {
      [standard_name: string]: StartEndBox<> &
       Pick<metadata.fields.Field, "_modifiedAt" | "_modifiedBy">;
    };
  };}

Notice, in this incarnation, I’m picking only the fields I want from the model, but I’m duplicating the text for each instance.

If I want to add a field in the future, I’ll have to update each Pick statement - increasing the chances I miss one or fat-finger it.

Refactoring To A Generic Approach

Generics are Typescripts answer to enabling reusable components. Because the input can change, the Type needs to be able to accommodate that. If the type is too-tightly coupled to component, then it will only work for that instance.

Looking back at the example above, the reason that I was able to pick the same Auditable fields from Resource and Field is because both of those models extend Auditable already.

Armed with that knowledge, we’ll use it to our advantage to create the generic.

export type AuditableFields<T extends Auditable> = Pick<T, “_modifiedAt” | “_modifiedBy”>

Defining an AuditableFields type like the above I can now reference it in ChangeLog:

export interface ChangeLog {
  _startversion?: number;
  _endversion?: number;
  resources?: {
    Property: StartEnd<> &
      AuditableFields<metadata.resources.Resource>;
  };
  fields?: {
    [resource_name: string]: {
      [standard_name: string]: StartEndBox<> &
       AuditableFields<metadata.fields.Field>;
    };
  };}

Now, instead of repeating myself, I’m specifying which Type I want in the context. Using a Generic like this makes the code more declarative. Instead of intuiting that I’m picking certain fields from a model, I’m declaring that I want the AuditableFields from X, Y, or Z (or T as it were).

Summary

Let’s return to the two questions we started with. Do we know how to answer them yet?

  1. When does it make sense to use a Generic in a Typescript type? If you find yourself typing the same interface over and over but swapping out only its reference - that’s a good indication that you could benefit from a Generic type.
  2. How do you create a type that takes a Generic? Like a variable definition, defining a Generic type means pulling the pieces apart in a way that abstracts the logic a bit. However, in doing so, you have a centralized point of configuration that can be shared and reduce repetition and the opportunity for mistakes.

Footnotes


Stephen Weiss

Thanks for reading! My name's Stephen Weiss. I live in Chicago with my wife, Kate, and dog, Finn.
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