Testing Misconceptions #1: Exploratory Programming

Oct 05, 2007
So, my last essay on testing was ycombinatored, and then reddited the next day. Cool! I'm honored to have so many people reading, and discussing my article. It's a pleasure.

I found some of the discussion very interesting. It seems like a lot of developers still don't believe in unit testing their code. In fact, many made arguments that questioned, or even outright dismissed the value of unit testing (for more such comments, see the reddit and ycombinator threads, or the thread of comments on the article itself). What surprised me most, though, was the number of misconceptions people have about what testing actually is, why we test, and how long it takes. Many, if not most, of the anti-testing arguments are based on entirely false premises.

In this on-going series, I'll put those misconceptions to the test (pun intended), and provide my take on what the truth is.

Testing Myth #1: I can't test first, because I don't have an overall picture of my program.

BTUF (Big Test Up Front) incurrs [sp] many of the same risks as BDUF (Big Design Up Front). It assumes you are creating artifacts now that will last and not change drastically in the future.
Yes, TDD implies that there is a more or less exact specification. Otherwise, if you're just experimenting, you would have to write the test and your code, and that's going to make you less inclined to throw it away and test out something else (see "Planning is highly overrated").
When I really have latitude in my goals, my code is just about impossible to pin down until it's 95% implemented.
How can you test something if you don't even know how or if it works? You need to hack on it and see if you can get things going before you nail it down, no?
According to this group, testing first is impossible because they're not sure exactly what they're writing. Some of them go so far as to equate testing first with big up front designs. The assumption, in both cases, is that writing your tests first means writing all of your tests first, or at least enough to require a general overview of your program. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It seems likely to me that this group's misconception stems from mixing up unit testing with acceptance testing. Acceptance testing, whether automated or manual, would require an overall specification for how (at least some major portion of) the system should function. Nobody is suggesting that you write your acceptance tests first.

Unit tests verify components of your program in isolation. They should be as small as possible. And, in fact, if your unit tests know enough about your program that they're starting to look like acceptance tests, their effectiveness is going to be diminished considerably. That is, you don't want your unit tests to have an overall picture of what you're building. They should have as little of that picture as possible.

Separating Concerns

Writing tests first doesn't mean you can't explore. It means that the exploration process happens in your tests, instead of your code - which is great! In your tests is where the exploration process belongs.

When you explore in your implementation code, you're trying to answer two questions at once: "What should my code do?" and "What's the best way to implement my code's functionality?". Instead of trying to juggle both concerns at once, testing first divides your exploration in to two stages. It creates a separation of concerns. You might even say that TDD is like MVC for your coding process.

You begin your exploration, of course, by putting together some preliminary tests for the first bit of functionality you're going to write. By considering the output before the implementation, you gain several advantages. The classic example, here, is that you get the experience of using your interface, before you've invested any time in bad API design ideas you may have had. But wait, there's more!

You also get the opportunity to focus on what your code will do. Before I began practicing TDD, I would regularly be almost all the way through writing a block of code before I realized that the idea just wasn't going to work. The thing is, when you're exploring, and you're focused on one or two implementation lines at a time, the result of the code becomes an afterthought. By spending that minute or two up front thinking about what should come out of your code, you'll save yourself a ton of backtracking, and rethinking later on.

That's all for today

I hope you enjoyed the first installment of Testing Misconceptions. I'd love to hear your feedback, or ideas for topics. Please feel free to leave them in the comments, or shoot me an email. Please check back for more episodes.