Tuesday, September 18, 2007

xUnit Test Patterns and Smells

This comes from a really good session by Gerard Meszaros on Test Patterns at SD Best Practices 2007.

Here's my history on test-driven develoment: Back in the nineties, I first read Martin Fowler's Refactoring. I thought it was a good idea, and attempted several refactorings on the code base I was working on, with good success. I think it was one of the better-coded applications to come out of that company. But I was always annoyed, because the instructions for the refactoring would always say something like, make your changes, and test. Testing is hard, man! Especially when you're testing a bit of the application that takes two minutes to get to from application launch and relying on a Direct3D driver to do the right thing.

So I added refactoring to my arsenal but didn't think too much more about it, until about five years ago, when I ran across an article on TDD in, I think, Dr. Dobbs, but it may not have been. The article mentioned some ideas about testing and mock objects, which turned out to be exactly what I needed for the project I was working on then, which was a business-level client API with a wrapper lib for calls to the server - the ideal thing for a mock. I played with it for a while, and it worked beautifully! Pretty soon I presented a proposal for moving to TDD to the team I was working with.

There were a couple of quotes that I put in my presentation (probably from the magazine article) that I really liked:

  • Tests must be easy to run. If they aren't, people won't run them.
  • Tests must be easy to write. If they aren't, people won't write them.
This session was all about the second quote.

The problem is, tests are easy to skip. Comment out. Ignore. If you do that, your code isn't being tested. But the client doesn't care about that...at least in the beginning. Later on, if your code isn't being tested, bugs will start to crop up. You'll make a change in one area that you never in a million years thought would affect this bit of code over there. But it does, and you've introduced a bug. The client will sure care about that! So you really have to put the effort in to write tests.

But at the same time, you're selling the production code, not the tests. If your team is spending more time on the tests than on the code itself, your velocity is sure to suffer.

So what's the solution? Go back and look at the second quote again. Tests must be easy to write. How do we make them that way?

The first thing to notice is that your objectives for test code are probably going to be a little different than for the production code. For example, execution speed is crucial for production code. You can't have your users twiddling their thumbs while they wait for your web page to load. But for test code, not so much. Go ahead and add ten seconds worth of tests to your build; think anyone will notice? Or, add four hours worth of tests. Sounds good! Just make sure to run them overnight when no one needs to watch them.

On the other hand, is simplicity important for production code? Well...it can't hurt, of course. The smaller and cleaner you can get the code, the better. But sometimes there's nothing you can do about it; you have to add that cache for speed; or denormalize the database so you don't have to make calls across a dozen tables. But for test code? Let's say it again: Tests must be easy to write.

What else? Is correctness important for production code? Of course...but users will put up with small bugs. But correct test code is an absolute requirement. If you don't have the tests right, you'll be writing incorrect production code to satisfy the bad tests. What about flexibility? Code should be flexible, right? Not really, not test code. In fact, there will probably be enough hard-coded test values to make it hardly flexible at all.

This is getting long. I'll add more later.