Generic programming makes developers’ life easier by giving us the ability to write code once and reuse it across different types in a typesafe manner. The majority of strongly typed languages support generic programming. You’re probably already familiar with the generic programming term, and know that there are some tricky parts like covariance and contravariance, which is quite complex. Sounds scary, but these concepts are logical, and it’s easy to understand it by simple examples. Deep understanding is crucial for complex systems development and gives you an advantage at job interviews.

It’s time to take one step back and start from the very begging, to build a proper understanding. Don’t worry, it won’t take long but will be rewarding in your development career.

You’re reading Part 1 - Introduction. In this post, we’ll figure out what is generic programming and find out via simple examples what is covariance and contravariance.

If you’re confident about your theory understanding, you can go directly to overview of different implementations of generic programming in Part 2.


According to the Wikipedia:

Generic programming is a style of computer programming in which algorithms are written in terms of types to-be-specified-later that are then instantiated when needed for specific types provided as parameters.

What does it mean? Let’s consider example: function which takes 2 arguments and returns max of them. Code was written using strongly typed language (java)

public static int max(int first, int second) {
    if (second > first) {
        return second;
    return first;

Ok, but what about floating point numbers?

public static double max(double first, double second) {
    if (second > first) {imple explanation of
        return second;
    return first;

Create function per type? That’s sucks! This is not generic programming: every implementation of max function can be called with only one specific type. And implementation for every type looks just the same!

Here generic programming comes. Let’s recap definition – algorithms are written in terms of types to-be-specified-later, i.e. we implement algorithms and don’t specify specific types during implementation:

static <T extends Comparable<T>> T max(@NotNull T first, @NotNull T second) {
    if (second.compareTo(first) > 0) {
        return second;
    return first;

Types are specified during usage:

max(12.4, 11.5); // returns 12.4
max("ab", "abc"); // returns "abc"

One implementation that works with all types(which extends Comparable of course). That what is Generic programming about – writing algorithms and data structures which can work with different types.

In weekly typed languages you use generic programming out of the box, for example implementation of max function in JavaScript looks like

function max(first, second) {
    if (second > first) {
        return second
    return first

You can use max function for any type

max(5, 2) // returns 5
max("a", "d") // returns "d"

But what to do if you use strongly typed language? Well, it depends on chosen language. In the next post we’ll consider implementation details of generic programming in different languages: C++, Java, C#. But now it’s time to get to know the basic ideas of generic programming, which is applicable to any language.


Many developers use strongly typed languages in order to set some constrains on code, which leads to decreasing amount of runtime errors. I.e. compiler should not compile code which will cause runtime errors (of course compiler can’t prevent all errors, but for some cases it’s obvious at compile time that it will fail at runtime). You’ve got the point – compiler shouldn’t allow you shoot in your own leg.

class Flower {  }
class Rose extends Flower { }
class Daisy extends Flower { }

There is simple class hierarchy: Rose and Daisy, each of them is Flower.

Term variance refers to how generic classes which use different generic parameters relates to each other, in other words variance answers to the question of when an instantiation of a generic class can be a subtype of another class.

For instance if Rose is a subclass of Flower then I should be able to substitute Flower by Rose. Is it applicable to generic code? Variance refers to questions like “Can I use a list of Rose as a list of Flower?”.

List<Flower> bouquet = new ArrayList<Rose>();

When somebody asks “What about variance in language X?”, he would like to know how can he cast generic classes with different generic parameters to each other. Usually there are some kinds of limitations in casting. Compiler won’t let you shoot in your own leg, remember? With different limitations we have 4 types of variance:

  • Covariance
  • Contravariance
  • Bivariance
  • Invariance

We will consider 2 of them: co and contra variance. To make it fun let’s do it by journey: you need to get a flower to gift it to a pretty girl.


Our task starts from getting flower. Let’s go to a shop.

interface FlowerShop<T extends Flower> {
    T getFlower();

And you have 2 flowers shop in your city:

class RoseShop implements FlowerShop<Rose> {
    public Rose getFlower() {
        return new Rose();

class DaisyShop implements FlowerShop<Daisy> {
    public Daisy getFlower() {
        return new Daisy();

If you ask me where is the flower shop and tell you address of RoseShop would it be fine?

FlowerShop<? extends Flower> tellMeShopAddress() {
    return new RoseShop();

Yep, Rose is Flower, if you need a flower you can go to RoseShop and buy flower there.

// Warning: it's pseudocode, won't compile 
FlowerShop<Flower> shop = tellMeShopAddress();
Flower flower = shop.getFlower();

We have just considered example of Covariance - you are allowed to cast A<C> to A<B>, where C is a subclass of B, if A produces generic values (returns as a result from the function). Covariance is about producers.


Okay, now step 2 - present flower to a pretty girl:

interface PrettyGirl<TFavouriteFlower extends Flower> {
    void takeGift(TFavouriteFlower flower);

Depending on her personal taste she could love different flowers:

class AnyFlowerLover implements PrettyGirl<Flower> {
    public void takeGift(Flower flower) {
        System.out.println("I like all flowers!");

class DaisyLover implements PrettyGirl<Daisy> {
    public void takeGift(Daisy flower) {
        System.out.println("wow, daisy, it's my favourite!");

If your girlfriend likes all kinds of flowers and you gift her a rose, would it be okay?

PrettyGirl<? super Rose> girlfriend = new AnyFlowerLover();
girlfriend.takeGift(new Rose());

Yes, if she likes all flowers she will like rose.

But when your girlfriend likes daisies, you can’t consider her as somebody who loves flower – she likes only daisies!

// Warning: won't compile 
PrettyGirl<Flower> girlfriend = DaisyLover();
girlfriend.takeGift(new Rose()); // she won't like it!

We have just considered an example of Contravariance - you’re allowed to cast A<B> to A<C>, where C is subclass of B, if A consumes generic value. Contravariance is about consumers.

What is next?

Nice! We’ve done with the idea of generic programming. I hope it was understandable and enjoyable for you. If wasn’t please leave feedback or question in the comments. Now you’re ready to see different implementations of generic programming in the Part 2.