Ok, I have to confess… I have become a test junkie.
Why? Because I have now finally understood what I was missing all along.
Historically I have always thought that unit tests are great to have but a pain to maintain. Nobody wants to work with testing. Nobody wants to write testing code. If you write a unit test it will over time just become the ugly child that no one wants to take care of. That was my experience just a year ago. I mean, I understood the point of using unit tests and thought it was really valuable for quality assurance but I just could not find the motivation or time for me or my team to do it properly. It was more like "yeah, unit tests are great to have, but who is going to write them and keep them up to date?"
At this time I clearly had not figured it out yet.
I started working with unit testing around 2001 while working in VB6 (VBUnit). Although I valued the point of having the tests, it was very boring to write them and on top of that they were almost never used later so the work felt really wasted. Then I moved to .NET (NUnit) and continued to write unit tests sporadically as a way of testing code without having to write a dummy GUI to run it. This came about thanks to TestDriven.net that made it easy to run and debug tests with a simple click right in the code. This was probably the first step on my road to fully appreciating the value of unit tests.
Back then I definitely saw unit tests from the wrong point of view.
When I first heard about test driven development (TDD) I was very interested and curious. How is that really done in practice? To me, it sounded really awkward and cumbersome. I mean, I had always been struggling with getting the infrastructure and test database in shape in order to just being able to run the tests. And over time it always deteriorated into a configuration and dependency mess that made it hard to make the tests run, which lead to the test code being commented out, So to me, TDD sounded quite complicated and time consuming. At this time I had still not understood what I did wrong.
Now here’s is the thing… Unit testing is not about testing! Or rather, it is about more than testing.
What’s in it for me?
As a developer you may think "what’s the point of this thing that you are trying to convince me to use? Who will benefit from it?" Most developers are lazy and don’t want to do anything other than write code. Preferably the least amount of code needed to solve the task at hand. That’s perfectly natural.
So what it is that is so good about TDD? Is it just a lot of extra work and no gain? Well, the name is confusing to many people because they hear the word "test" and testing is boring so it must be crap. Some people are trying to promote the term behavior driven development (BDD) which is perhaps a better description.
Here are the key features of TDD as I see it:
- Quick development
When you get up to speed with TDD it can really boost your efficiency as a developer.
I’m a very thorough developer and I seldom write code that I do not test before deploying. Usually when I write some tricky code I have single stepped through it with a debugger just to make sure that every branch of it was working as intended. Of course, this kind of manual code coverage takes time and it has to be repeated when code or requirements change.
With TDD I have now become more confident in the tests verifying that all is ok. If the test says that the code returned the right thing, the code must be working. I don’t have to single step through it. If I’m the slightest uncertain about it, I just add more asserts to the test, or write another test to check that I didn’t miss anything, and when I get the green light I know all is ok. It’s darn quick – you just have to churn out code like there is no tomorrow!
- Easy setup
In classic development you often have to setup a complicated environment just to make things run. You may need a web server, a database, configuration files etc. It just becomes this big hurdle you have to beat just to get going. And in a large project, when something breaks you get completely stalled.
With unit testing and especially mock objects you can mock all external dependencies so you don’t have to worry about it. Your class just needs "stuff" and you can feed it directly from the test so that it is nicely isolated from the complexities of the real world. Very simple and easy.
We all know that refactoring is important. Constant refactoring is the key to avoiding code rot and cleaning up technical debt. Code will without doubt deteriorate over time and a sign of when it has gone too far is when all developers on a project wants to throw out all the old code and rewrite it from scratch.
Small refactoring is usually safe and quite easy with the tools we have today. However, the key to successful refactoring is to dare to make larger changes when deemed necessary. If you have unit tests that verify that the behavior of the code is intact, you feel much more confident in making large scale changes. Otherwise you tend to play it safe and postpone it indefinitely, thus failing to clean out the code rot.
- Specification + verification
When you develop software you usually have some kind of specification. Formal or informal, but you know that your code should do something to fulfill a goal. When you write the code you make sure that it works as intended and you test that it does. But can you be sure about it as time passes? If another developer goes into your code and adds or changes functionality, can you guarantee that the code still works as you intended it to? Does the other developer know about the intent of the original code? You never know, unless you are the only developer on the project.
Unit testing gives you a way of writing down the specification in code and verify that it is followed. It’s like a recorded conversation between the test and the real code:
"If I send you this, you return that."
"If I do this, you should do that."
And this specification is not just stuffed away in some documentation file but it is part of the code in your project, continuously verified and updated as the code base evolves and changes.
Treat the code implementing a feature and the unit testing code that verifies it as an equally important part of the project.
- API design and architecture
This is a thing that I really love. When you write a unit test you are actually writing it in the way to you want the API to your class to be working. It is such a simple and great way of ensuring that your code is easy to use.
Additionally since mocking usually requires you to think about Separation of Concerns it actually forces your architecture to become more elegant and loosely coupled which is a great thing.
- Documentation + sample code
When you write unit tests you are actually writing sample code for how to use your own classes. Writing documentation is usually not very fun, but in this way the documentation practically writes itself. If someone on your project wonders how to use the "SpiffyRegulator" class, he can just go to the "SpiffyRegulatorTests" class and look it up.
Beside these features there is also another point I have to make. You always need to have some code calling the code that you are currently developing. In traditional development you test your code in the application that is using it which often makes it a bit more complicated and time consuming to test. In TDD you use a unit test and you can simulate things that are hard to do in a real environment. Which way is the best? You have to decide for yourself.
You would think that writing twice as much code would slow you down, but in fact once you get up to speed this method is extremely fast. You seldom need to run the code in a complicated environment that takes a while to setup and launch just to create the specific scenario you need to test. And you seldom need to step through the code with a debugger which can be a slow and inefficient method of developing. When you are confident in your tests, you know that you have covered all aspects of your code – not just today, but every day from now on since the tests are run continuously.
But don’t write tests if the code isn’t worth testing. If the code is dead simple there is no point in having a unit test. Unit tests should be helpful and give some value to you as a developer for trying out your code. Don’t fall into writing tests just to have tests… However, if you are the slightest hesitant whether the code works as it should then it should be tested (and in different ways to get good code coverage).
I believe in doing a little bit of both. TDD is great because the turn around is quick and you can maintain a good pace when developing. However, eventually you always need to make it work in the real system which may require some changes or tweaks.
What I did wrong
Many people try unit testing in the wrong way and get burned. I was one of them. But what was it that I (and most people) did wrong? Well, here are the big mistakes I did:
- I wrote integration tests instead of unit tests.
- I did not run the tests continuously.
- I wrote tests last instead of first.
- My tests hit the database which equals lots of overhead.
- I wrote test just for the sake of having tests, instead of as a way to help me write new code.
- I did manual code coverage testing.
An integration test is used to test how components of the system work together. If you call a class from your test and it calls another class which calls other classes or maybe hits the database, you have a problem. It’s no longer a unit test but an integration test. Integration tests are bad because they couple a test to a lot of you code base which makes it cumbersome to perform changes and refactoring. A small change in your code may affect and require update to hundreds of test cases. That’s bad. Integration tests are also much harder to setup and run because of all the dependencies. In my experience these tests often break and since it is a lot of work to make them run again we usually commit the sinful act of just commenting them out!
This leads me to the next important point, which is that we did not have any continuous integration system in place for running the tests automatically. It was up to each developer to run tests on their own and you can probably guess what happens then… Yes, nobody will run them. And if no one runs them, no one will notice when a test breaks, so the test may be broken for several months before discovered. And when it is discovered it is usually at a very inconvenient time so we will "comment it out" and "fix it later". Yeah, like it will happen…
The next thing I did wrong was plain stupid. This was mainly back in the old VB days but I will mention it here anyway because I believe it is a common mistake for beginners. What I did was that I wrote all the code just like before in the classic way, and even tested and debugged it from a dummy test GUI and then when it was finished I wrote the unit test. How silly is that? Well, no wonder I felt that writing unit tests was a boring task. You must write tests first or at least in parallel with the main code. Adding unit tests after you already written and debugged all the code is going to make you work slower instead of faster. It may add some quality assurance to the project, but that’s not directly beneficial to me as a developer and therefore the activity feels meaningless.
The last point I want to mention is that running unit tests should be fast. You should be running hundreds of tests in less than a second. If your tests hit the database this is not going to happen. It will be dead slow, and besides you get all the messy setup problems that I mentioned before because the database must be initialized to a known state. I used to write tests using hard coded database ID’s using the data that happened to be in the database when the test was run. This is a really really bad way of doing testing!
So if doing these things are so bad, how can we make it better?
How to make it work
I believe there are a few key elements that have emerged during the latest years that have made this kind of development possible. Sure, it was possible to do it earlier but it was way too cumbersome and time consuming.
Tools are a very important part of making it all work.
- Unit testing tools
First and foremost you need tools to run your tests. NUnit has its own GUI to run tests, but I really got hooked when I used TestDriven.net to launch the tests simply by right clicking the test method name right there in the code editor. It was so simple as easy to use. Nowadays I use Resharper and it has a nice integrated unit test runner that works almost the same. The point is that it should be fast and easy to launch one or more tests as you will be doing this over and over again during development. Having it integrated in your work environment is a big plus.
- Continous integration tool
This is very important. You must build the code and run the unit tests automatically as soon as possible after any change has been made. It is a bit of work to set up automated builds, but once it’s running you don’t have to do much because it will just work. And it pays off big time. Whenever something breaks you notice immediately. And you get confident that the specification is verified again and again even if it was several years since you wrote the code. For this to work, unit tests must not be skipped. They must be run continuously so that they can be verified.
We are using Cruisecontrol.net for CI but choose one that fits you, just as long as it works!
- Inversion of control / Dependency injection
Aah, this is truly one of the keys to successful TDD. I read about Inversion of Control and Dependency Injection about four years ago when I found out about the Castle framework. However, at this time I didn’t really understand that it could help out in testing. Sure, it was a nice way of structuring an application but that was it, or so I thought. It was not until I coupled it with the concept of mocking that I realized how useful it could be.
We are using the Windsor container from the Castle project for dependency injection as it has been around for many years and been through rigorous testing. It has worked well so far for us, but there are other choices such as Spring.net and Microsoft recently announced that they are building their own IoC container called Unity so there are plenty to choose from.
- Mocking frameworks
As a lazy developer you have just got to love mocking frameworks. When you write unit tests you want to isolate the unit of code you are going to test so that it has no external dependencies. To be able to do this easily you use dependency injection to inject fake objects into the real one. However, writing the fake objects is such a chore…
Now mocking frameworks enter the scene and suddenly you don’t have to write any fake objects but instead you just dynamically generate them on the fly and simply specify what you want to return from the relevant methods. Quite nifty! Now I had the final key to unlocking the TDD heaven and get rid of everything that was cumbersome with unit testing in terms of configuration and setup.
Having a good mocking framework is important and I believe that we haven’t seen the end of this by far. There are still some issues with the existing frameworks and none of them is perfect yet. I’m currently using Rhino Mocks because I really like that it is type safe. I’m also very fond of Moq as the syntax is really clean but I haven’t used it extensively yet.
- Domain Driven Design
The last piece of the puzzle came to me just a few months ago when I started reading more about domain driven design. The concept of separating the model from the infrastructure made such perfect sense that everything just fell into place. With this kind of architecture it would be easy to unit test and the system design would be very clean and simple. I just loved it right away, and from now on we are building and refactoring our current system towards this design.
Once you get excited about a new tool or technology there is always a chance that you see it as the "silver bullet" and try to apply it to any problem you face. You know, when you learn to use the hammer you start seeing "nails" everywhere. I don’t yet know if this will be the case with test driven development but so far it has worked very well for me.
As of today I’m actively working with unit tests as a great way of developing software. I’m not a hard core TDD fan, but I do use TDD when I feel it is the best way to move forward and switch to the classic style when I’m either comfortable writing code that is dead simple or working on integration parts that need to be tested in the real environment. Sometimes it is also hard to write clean cut unit tests since the .NET framework isn’t exactly test friendly with its sealed classes and lack of interfaces. I guess Java is better in that respect. But it’s nice to have the TDD tool in your tool belt, ready to crack the next nut when it comes up.
TDD is a great method of designing and developing software iteratively and it is definitely here to stay.
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