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I would like to write a PHP snippet that can communicate with Wordpress.

When a new post is published, a file today.jpg will be generated from the thumbnail url (a custom field) of the most recent post.

Or I can schedule a cronjob to execute daily for this action.

How can I implement this function?

My idea is to do it outside of functions.php so that it won't get executed all the time, while a scheduled update for today.jpg seems more resource friendly.

Any pointer is appreciated.

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No need for a routine here - use the WordPress hook system to "attach" a function that will run when a post is published:

// https://codex.wordpress.org/Plugin_API/Action_Reference/publish_post

function wpse_225371_post_published( $post_id, $post ) {
   // Do your thang
}

add_action( 'post_published', 'wpse_225371_post_published', 10, 2 );

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