I started programming in Rust several years ago, and it has gradually changed the way I design programs in other programming languages, most notably in Python. Before I started using Rust, I was usually writing Python code in a very dynamic and type-loose way, without type hints, passing and returning dictionaries everywhere, and occasionally falling back to “stringly-typed” interfaces. However, after experiencing the strictness of the Rust type system, and noticing all the problems that it prevents “by construction”, I suddenly became quite anxious whenever I got back to Python and wasn’t provided with the same guarantees.

To be clear, by “guarantees” I don’t mean memory safety here (Python is reasonably memory safe as-is), but rather “soundness” – the concept of designing APIs that are very hard or outright impossible to misuse and thus prevent undefined behaviour and various bugs. In Rust, an incorrectly used interface will usually cause a compilation error. In Python, you can still execute such incorrect program, but if you use a type checker (like pyright) or an IDE with a type analyzer (like PyCharm), you can still get a similar level of quick feedback about a possible problem.

Eventually, I started adopting some concepts from Rust in my Python programs. It basically boils down to two things - using type hints as much as possible, and upholding the good ol’ making illegal states unrepresentable principle. I try to do this both for programs that will be maintained for a while, but also for oneshot utility scripts. Mostly because in my experience, the latter quite often turn into the former :) In my experience, this approach leads to programs that are easier to understand and change.

In this post I’ll show a few examples of such patterns applied to Python programs. It’s no rocket science, but I still felt like it might be useful to document them.

Note: this post contains a lot of opinions about writing Python code. I don’t want to add “IMHO” to every sentence, so take everything in this post as simply my opinions on the matter, rather than attempts to promote some universal truths :) Also, I’m not claiming that the presented ideas were all invented in Rust, they are also used in other languages, of course.

Type hints

The first and foremost thing is using type hints where possible, particularly in function signatures and class attributes. When I read a function signature looking like this:

def find_item(records, check):

I have no idea what is going on from the signature itself. Is records a list, a dict or a database connection? Is check a boolean, or a function? What does this function return? What happens if it fails, does it raise an exception, or return None? To find answers to these questions, I either have to go read the function body (and often recursively the bodies of other functions it calls – this is quite annoying), or read its documentation (if there is any). While the documentation might contain useful information about what the function does, it shouldn’t be necessary to also use it for documenting answers to the previous questions. A lot of them can be answered by a built-in mechanism – type hints.

def find_item(
  records: List[Item],
  check: Callable[[Item], bool]
) -> Optional[Item]:

Did it take me more time to write the signature? Yes. Is that a problem? No, unless my coding is bottlenecked by the number of characters I write per minute, and that doesn’t really happen. Writing out the types explicitly forces me to think about what will be the actual interface provided by the function, and how can I make it as strict as possible, to make it hard for its callers to use it in a wrong way. With the signature above, I can get a pretty good idea how can I use the function, what to pass it as arguments, and what can I expect to be returned from it. Furthermore, unlike a doc comment, which can get easily out of date when the code changes, when I change the types and don’t update the callers of the function, the typechecker will yell at me1. And if I’m interested in what is Item, I can just use Go to definition and immediately see how does that type look like.

Now, I’m not a sith absolutist in this regard, and if it takes five nested type hints to describe a single parameter, I will usually just give up and give it a simpler, albeit imprecise type. In my experience, this situation does not happen that often. And if it does happen, it can actually signal a problem with the code – if your function parameter can be a number, a tuple of strings or a dictionary mapping strings to integers, it can be a sign that you might want to refactor and simplify it.

Dataclasses instead of tuples or dictionaries

Using type hints is one thing, but that merely describes what is the interface of your functions. The second step is actually making these interfaces as exact and “locked down” as possible. A typical example is returning multiple values (or a single complex value) from a function. The lazy and quick approach is to return a tuple:

def find_person(...) -> Tuple[str, str, int]:

Great, we know that we’re returning three values. What are they? Is the first string the first name of the person? The second string the surname? What’s the number? Is it age? Position in some list? Social security number? This kind of typing is opaque and unless you look into the function body, you don’t know what happens here.

The next step to “improve” this could be to return a dictionary:

def find_person(...) -> Dict[str, Any]:
    return {
        "name": ...,
        "city": ...,
        "age": ...

Now we actually have an idea what are the individual returned attributes, but we again have to inspect the function body to find out. In a sense, the type got even worse, because now we don’t even know the count and the types of the individual attributes. Furthermore, when this function changes and the keys in the returned dictionary are renamed or removed, there’s no easy way to find out with a typechecker, and thus its callers usually have to be changed with a very manual and annoying run-crash-modify code cycle.

The proper solution is to return a strongly typed object with named parameters that have an attached type. In Python, this means we have to create a class. I suspect that tuples and dicts are used so often in these situations because it’s just so much easier than to define a class (and think of a name for it), create a constructor with parameters, store the parameters into fields etc. Since Python 3.7 (and sooner with a package polyfill), there is a much faster solution - dataclasses.

class City:
    name: str
    zip_code: int

class Person:
    name: str
    city: City
    age: int

def find_person(...) -> Person:

You still have to think of a name for the created class, but other than that, it’s pretty much as concise as it can get, and you get type annotations for all attributes.

With this dataclass, I have an explicit description of what the function returns. When I call this function and work with the returned value, IDE autocompletion will show me what are the names and types of its attributes. This might sound trivial, but for me it is a large productivity benefit. Furthermore, when the code is refactored, and the attributes change, my IDE and the typechecker will yell at me and show me all locations that have to be changed, without me having to execute the program at all. For some simple refactorings (e.g. attribute rename), the IDE can even make these changes for me. In addition, with explicitly named types, I can build a vocabulary of terms (Person, City) that I can then share with other functions and classes.

There are other ways of typing objects with fields. For example TypedDict or NamedTuple.

Algebraic data types

The one thing from Rust that I probably lack the most in most mainstream languages are algebraic data types (ADTs)2. It is an incredibly powerful tool to explicitly describe the shapes of data my code is working with. For example, when I’m working with packets in Rust, I can explicitly enumerate all the various kinds of packets that can be received, and assign different data (fields) to each of them:

enum Packet {
  Header {
    protocol: Protocol,
    size: usize
  Payload {
    data: Vec<u8>
  Trailer {
    data: Vec<u8>,
    checksum: usize

And with pattern matching, I can then react to the individual variants, and the compiler checks that I don’t miss any cases:

fn handle_packet(packet: Packet) {
  match packet {
    Packet::Header { protocol, size } => ...,
    Packet::Payload { data } |
    Packet::Trailer { data, ...} => println!("{data:?}")

This is invaluable for making sure that invalid states are not representable and thus avoiding many runtime errors. ADTs are especially useful in statically typed languages, where if you want to work with a set of types in an unified manner, you need a shared “name” with which you will refer to them. Without ADTs, this is typically done using OOP interfaces and/or inheritance. Interfaces and virtual methods have their place when the set of used types is open-ended, however when the set of types is closed, and you want to make sure that you handle all the possible variants, ADTs and pattern matching is a much better fit.

In a dynamically typed language, such as Python, there’s not really a need to have a shared name for a set of types, mainly because you don’t even have to name the types used in the program in the first place. However, it can still be useful to use something akin to ADTs, by creating a union type:

class Header:
  protocol: Protocol
  size: int

class Payload:
  data: str

class Trailer:
  data: str
  checksum: int

Packet = typing.Union[Header, Payload, Trailer]
# or `Packet = Header | Payload | Trailer` since Python 3.10

Packet here defines a new type, which can be either a header, a payload or a trailer packet. I can now use this type (name) in the rest of my program when I want to make sure that only these three classes will be valid. Note that there is no explicit “tag” attached to the classes, so when we want to distinguish them, we have to use e.g. instanceof or pattern matching:

def handle_is_instance(packet: Packet):
    if isinstance(packet, Header):
        print("header {packet.protocol} {packet.size}")
    elif isinstance(packet, Payload):
        print("payload {packet.data}")
    elif isinstance(packet, Trailer):
        print("trailer {packet.checksum} {packet.data}")
        assert False

def handle_pattern_matching(packet: Packet):
    match packet:
        case Header(protocol, size): print(f"header {protocol} {size}")
        case Payload(data): print("payload {data}")
        case Trailer(data, checksum): print(f"trailer {checksum} {data}")
        case _: assert False

Sadly, here we have to (or rather, should) include the annoying assert False branches so that the function crashes when it receives unexpected data. In Rust, this would be a compile-time error instead.

Note: Several people on Reddit have reminded me that assert False is actually optimized away completely in optimized build (python -O ...). Thus it would be safer to raise an exception directly. There is also typing.assert_never from Python 3.11, which explicitly tells a type checker that falling to this branch should be a “compile-time” error.

A nice property of the union type is that it is defined outside the class that is part of the union. The class therefore does not know that it is being included in the union, which reduces coupling in code. And you can even create multiple different unions using the same type:

Packet = Header | Payload | Trailer
PacketWithData = Payload | Trailer

Union types are also quite useful for automatic (de)serialization. Recently I found an awesome serialization library called pyserde, which is based on the venerable Rust serde serialization framework. Amongst many other cool features, it is able to leverage typing annotations to serialize and deserialize union types without any additional code:

import serde

Packet = Header | Payload | Trailer

class Data:
    packet: Packet

serialized = serde.to_dict(Data(packet=Trailer(data="foo", checksum=42)))
# {'packet': {'Trailer': {'data': 'foo', 'checksum': 42}}}

deserialized = serde.from_dict(Data, serialized)
# Data(packet=Trailer(data='foo', checksum=42))

You can even choose how will the union tag be serialized, same as with serde. I was searching for similar functionality for a long time, because it’s quite useful to (de)serialize union types. However, it was quite annoying to implement it in most other serialization libraries that I tried (e.g. dataclasses_json or dacite).

As an example, when working with machine learning models, I’m using unions to store various types of neural networks (e.g. a classification or a segmentation CNN models) inside a single config file format. I have also found it useful to version different formats of data (in my case configuration files), like this:

Config = ConfigV1 | ConfigV2 | ConfigV3

By deserializing Config, I’m able to read all previous versions of the config format, and thus keep backwards compatibility.

Using newtypes

In Rust, it is quite common to define data types that do not add any new behavior, but serve simply to specify the domain and intended usage of some other, otherwise quite general data type – for example integers. This pattern is called a “newtype” 3 and it can be also used in Python. Here is a motivating example:

class Database:
  def get_car_id(self, brand: str) -> int:
  def get_driver_id(self, name: str) -> int:
  def get_ride_info(self, car_id: int, driver_id: int) -> RideInfo:

db = Database()
car_id = db.get_car_id("Mazda")
driver_id = db.get_driver_id("Stig")
info = db.get_ride_info(driver_id, car_id)

Spot the error?

The arguments for get_ride_info are swapped. There is no type error, because both car IDs and driver IDs are simply integers, therefore the types are correct, even though semantically the function call is wrong.

We can solve this problem by defining separate types for different kinds of IDs with a “NewType”:

from typing import NewType

# Define a new type called "CarId", which is internally an `int`
CarId = NewType("CarId", int)
# Ditto for "DriverId"
DriverId = NewType("DriverId", int)

class Database:
  def get_car_id(self, brand: str) -> CarId:
  def get_driver_id(self, name: str) -> DriverId:
  def get_ride_info(self, car_id: CarId, driver_id: DriverId) -> RideInfo:

db = Database()
car_id = db.get_car_id("Mazda")
driver_id = db.get_driver_id("Stig")
# Type error here -> DriverId used instead of CarId and vice-versa
info = db.get_ride_info(<error>driver_id</error>, <error>car_id</error>)

This is a very simple pattern that can help catch errors that are otherwise hard to spot. It is especially useful e.g. if you’re dealing with a lot of different kinds of IDs (CarId vs DriverId) or with some metrics (Speed vs Length vs Temperature etc.) that should not be mixed together.

Using construction functions

One thing that I quite like about Rust is that it doesn’t have constructors per se. Instead, people tend to use normal functions to create (ideally properly initialized) instances of structs. In Python, there is no constructor overloading, therefore if you need to construct an object in multiple ways, sometimes this leads to an __init__ method that has a lot of parameters which serve for initialization in different ways, and which cannot really be used together.

Instead, I like to create “construction” functions with an explicit name that makes it obvious how to construct the object and from which data:

class Rectangle:
    def from_x1x2y1y2(x1: float, ...) -> "Rectangle":
    def from_tl_and_size(top: float, left: float, width: float, height: float) -> "Rectangle":

This makes it much cleaner to construct the object, and doesn’t allow users of the class to pass invalid data when constructing the object (e.g. by combining y1 and width).

Encoding invariants using types

Using the type system itself to encode invariants that would otherwise be only tracked at runtime is a very general and powerful concept. In Python (but also other mainstream languages), I often see classes that are big hairy balls of mutable state. One of the sources of this mess is code that tries to track the object’s invariants at runtime. It has to consider many situations that can happen in theory, because they were not made impossible by the type system (“what if the client has been asked to disconnect, and now someone tries to send a message to it, but the socket is still connected” etc.).


Here is a typical example:

class Client:
  - Do not call `send_message` before calling `connect` and then `authenticate`.
  - Do not call `connect` or `authenticate` multiple times.
  - Do not call `close` without calling `connect`.
  - Do not call any method after calling `close`.
  def __init__(self, address: str):

  def connect(self):
  def authenticate(self, password: str):
  def send_message(self, msg: str):
  def close(self):

…easy, right? You just have to carefully read the documentation, and make sure that you never break the mentioned rules (lest you invoke either undefined behaviour or a crash). An alternative is to fill the class with various asserts that check all the mentioned rules at runtime, which leads to messy code, missed edge cases and slower feedback when something is wrong (compile-time vs run-time). The core of the problem is that the client can exist in various (mutually exclusive) states, but instead of modelling these states separately, they are all merged in a single type.

Let’s see if we can improve this by splitting the various states into separate types 4.

  • First of all, does it even make sense to have a Client which isn’t connected to anything? Doesn’t seem like so. Such an unconnected client can’t do anything until you call connect anyway. So why allow this state to exist at all? We can create a construction function called connect that will return a connected client:
def connect(address: str) -> Optional[ConnectedClient]:

class ConnectedClient:
  def authenticate(...):
  def send_message(...):
  def close(...):

If the function succeeds, it will return a client that upholds the “is connected” invariant, and on which you cannot call connect again to mess things up. If the connection fails, the function can raise an exception or return None or some explicit error.

  • A similar approach can be used for the authenticated state. We can introduce another type, which holds the invariant that the client is both connected and authenticated:
class ConnectedClient:
  def authenticate(...) -> Optional["AuthenticatedClient"]:

class AuthenticatedClient:
  def send_message(...):
  def close(...):

Only once we actually have an instance of an AuthenticatedClient, then we can actually start sending messages.

  • The final problem is with the close method. In Rust (thanks to destructive move semantics), we are able to express the fact that when the close method is called, you cannot use the client anymore. This is not really possible in Python, so we have to use some workaround. One solution could be to fall back to runtime tracking, introduce a boolean attribute in the client, and assert in close and send_message that it hasn’t been closed already. Another approach could be to remove the close method completely and just use the client as a context manager:
with connect(...) as client:
# Here the client is closed

With no close method available, you cannot close the client twice by accident5.

Strongly-typed bounding boxes

Object detection is a computer vision task that I sometimes work on, where a program has to detect a set of bounding boxes in an image. Bounding boxes are basically glorified rectangles with some attached data, and when you implement object detection, they are all over the place. One annoying thing about them is that sometimes they are normalized (the coordinates and sizes of the rectangle are in the interval [0.0, 1.0]), but sometimes they are denormalized (the coordinates and sizes are bounded by the dimensions of the image they are attached to). When you send a bounding box through many functions that handle e.g. data preprocessing or postprocessing, it is easy to mess this up, and e.g. normalize a bounding box twice, which leads to errors that are quite annoying to debug.

This has happened to me a few times, so one time I decided to solve this for good by splitting these two types of bboxes into two separate types:

class NormalizedBBox:
  left: float
  top: float
  width: float
  height: float

class DenormalizedBBox:
  left: float
  top: float
  width: float
  height: float

With this separation, normalized and denormalized bounding boxes cannot be easily mixed together anymore, which mostly solves the problem. However, there are some improvements that we can make to make the code more ergonomic:

  • Reduce duplication, either by composition or inheritance:
class BBoxBase:
  left: float
  top: float
  width: float
  height: float

# Composition
class NormalizedBBox:
  bbox: BBoxBase

class DenormalizedBBox:
  bbox: BBoxBase

Bbox = Union[NormalizedBBox, DenormalizedBBox]

# Inheritance
class NormalizedBBox(BBoxBase):
class DenormalizedBBox(BBoxBase):
  • Add a runtime check to make sure that the normalized bounding box is actually normalized:
class NormalizedBBox(BboxBase):
  def __post_init__(self):
    assert 0.0 <= self.left <= 1.0
  • Add a way of converting between the two representations. In some places, we might want to know the explicit representation, but in others, we want to work with a generic interface (“any type of BBox”). In that case we should be able to convert “any BBox” to one of the two representations:
class BBoxBase:
  def as_normalized(self, size: Size) -> "NormalizeBBox":
  def as_denormalized(self, size: Size) -> "DenormalizedBBox":

class NormalizedBBox(BBoxBase):
  def as_normalized(self, size: Size) -> "NormalizedBBox":
    return self
  def as_denormalized(self, size: Size) -> "DenormalizedBBox":
    return self.denormalize(size)

class DenormalizedBBox(BBoxBase):
  def as_normalized(self, size: Size) -> "NormalizedBBox":
    return self.normalize(size)
  def as_denormalized(self, size: Size) -> "DenormalizedBBox":
    return self

With this interface, I can have the best of both worlds – separated types for correctness, and a unified interface for ergonomics.

Note: If you want to add some shared methods to the parent/base class that return an instance of the corresponding class, you can use typing.Self from Python 3.11:

class BBoxBase:
  def move(self, x: float, y: float) -> typing.Self: ...

class NormalizedBBox(BBoxBase):

bbox = NormalizedBBox(...)
# The type of `bbox2` is `NormalizedBBox`, not just `BBoxBase`
bbox2 = bbox.move(1, 2)

Safer mutexes

Mutexes and locks in Rust are usually provided behind a very nice interface with two benefits:

  • When you lock the mutex, you get back a guard object, which unlocks the mutex automatically when it is destroyed, leveraging the venerable RAII mechanism:
      let guard = mutex.lock(); // locked here
    } // automatically unlocked here

    This means that you cannot accidentally forget to unlock the mutex. A very similar mechanism is also commonly used in C++, although the explicit lock/unlock interface without a guard object is also available for std::mutex, which means that they can still be used incorrectly.

  • The data protected by the mutex is stored directly in the mutex (struct). With this design, it is impossible to access the protected data without actually locking the mutex. You have to lock the mutex first to get the guard, and then you access the data using the guard itself:
    let lock = Mutex::new(41); // Create a mutex that stores the data inside
    let guard = lock.lock().unwrap(); // Acquire guard
    *guard += 1; // Modify the data using the guard

This is in stark contrast to the usual mutex APIs found in mainstream languages (including Python), where the mutex and the data it protects are separated, and therefore you can easily forget to actually lock the mutex before accessing the data:

mutex = Lock()

def thread_fn(data):
    # Acquire mutex. There is no link to the protected variable.

data = []
t = Thread(target=thread_fn, args=(data,))

# Here we can access the data without locking the mutex.
data.append(2)  # Oops

While we cannot get the exact same benefits in Python as we get in Rust, not all is lost. Python locks implement the context manager interface, which means that you can use them in a with block to make sure that they are automatically unlocked at the end of the scope. And with a little bit of effort, we can go even further:

import contextlib
from threading import Lock
from typing import ContextManager, Generic, TypeVar

T = TypeVar("T")

# Make the Mutex generic over the value it stores.
# In this way we can get proper typing from the `lock` method.
class Mutex(Generic[T]):
  # Store the protected value inside the mutex 
  def __init__(self, value: T):
    # Name it with two underscores to make it a bit harder to accidentally
    # access the value from the outside.
    self.__value = value
    self.__lock = Lock()

  # Provide a context manager `lock` method, which locks the mutex,
  # provides the protected value, and then unlocks the mutex when the
  # context manager ends.
  def lock(self) -> ContextManager[T]:
        yield self.__value

# Create a mutex wrapping the data
mutex = Mutex([])

# Lock the mutex for the scope of the `with` block
with mutex.lock() as value:
  # value is typed as `list` here

With this design, you can only get access to the protected data after you actually lock the mutex. Obviously, this is still Python, so you can still break the invariants - e.g. by storing another pointer to the protected data outside of the mutex. But unless you’re behaving adversarially, this makes the mutex interface in Python much safer to use.

Anyway, I’m sure that there are more “soundness patterns” that I use in my Python code, but that’s all I can think of at the moment. If you have some examples of similar ideas or any other comments, let me know on Reddit.

  1. To be fair, this might also be true for descriptions of parameter types in doc comments if you use some structured format (like reStructuredText). In that case the typechecker might be able to use that and warn you if the types do not match. But if you use a typechecker anyway, it seems better to me to leverage the “native” mechanism for specifying types – type hints. 

  2. a.k.a. discriminated/tagged unions, sum types, sealed classes, etc. 

  3. Yes, newtypes also have other use-cases than the one described here, stop yelling at me. 

  4. This is known as the typestate pattern

  5. Unless you try hard and e.g. call the magic __exit__ method manually.