Test Driven Development - An Opinion

11/7/2019 | process | testing

I've seen a lot of hate recently for TDD. However, done right, TDD is an invaluable tool for software developers

I recently read an article proclaiming Test-Driven Development (TDD) to be " fundamentally wrong ". It was quite an interesting article, although I believe the author may have been a little narrow in their understanding of what TDD is & aims to achieve.

Bad Designs and TDD

In the article, the author states a changing design to be a reason for completely disregard. He states that clients designs are vague and that planning is basically non-existent in modern software development.

So were I to follow the TDD architecture I would have to constantly revisit my tests, review all of them, revising them to match my discoveries.

Now, this sets me straight off thinking that the article has a very narrow view of software development as a whole, not just TDD. The reasons why TDD is "no good" appear to be centered entirely around front end creation.

To be honest, if the author of the article is talking specifically about TDD on the UI, I'm inclined to agree with him; to an extent.

I'll be the first to admit that TDD on the front end is difficult . Coming from almost an entirely web-based front end experience, it means I need to know selectors and HTML structure before writing any code. This means that with every change to the UI the tests need updating, and not necessarily because of broken functionality, but because of broken selectors in the tests. Too much of this and the benefits of TDD start to slip away to the drawbacks.

However, the UI is just one part of software development. When creating APIs I find TDD to be absolutely invaluable. It allows me to create a test that says "Given an object, when I post, then it is mutated in o the Database and a 201 is returned". I can then write the code that implements it and immediately validate my implementation.

No external software required. No postman. No curl. Even no database if I'm being smart with my setup

Just because designs are fluid though doesn't mean that TDD should be completely abandoned. The author claims to be diligent in his collation of requirements and functional specifications, and if these are really that well written then there is no reason TDD can't help you. To write up tests for what you know, then change the cases as you discover new/different functions.

This brings me on to my next point

Writing tests up-front

The author states the following:

Here is what TDD looks like to me:write the TDD tests: 1.begin implementation, 2. discover an unanticipated consideration; 3. rewrite the tests; 4. continue implementation; 5. goto 3 over and over and over …; 6. (actually more like item 150) all tests pass; 7. send to QA

I may be being a little pedantic here but the fact that the word "tests" is pluralised is another sign to me that TDD is being used incorrectly.

The best practice isn't to write all your tests upfront and then start writing implementation code. Not only does this play into the lack of flexibility on discovery, but you're also removing one of the biggest benefits (as I see it) of TDD which is that the resulting code is inherently simpler. No, the best way to TDD is to write a single failing test and immediately fix it.

This means that you're forced to only solve the problem in front of you. Speaking from experience, we developers tend to be problem solvers, and we occasionally get a little over-excited when there is something we just know needs doing.

It all boils down to the YAGNI principle. We software developers are adamant that we will need that abstraction layer we built around the object mutation function because we just know that this is going to be the best generic framework that ever was created and will serve customer's needs for the next decade.

However, this invariably ends up with more complex code that accounts for a host of possibilities that may (usually) never actually happen!

Disciplined TDD helps keep you focused on what is actually necessary for the code now as opposed to a potential future that may never occur.

This also allows for more discovery, as realising new or ambiguous requirements doesn't require a rewrite of a whole host of tests, just the ones ahead of you now.

Don't test your own code!

Well, kinda. The author argues that developers writing their own tests is "supremely ridiculous" (genuine quote).

The author unfortunately completely forgets the Testing Pyramid .

Absolutely yes, the developer should write their own unit tests. Unless of course you're pairing, in which case get the test case written & hand over the keyboard to your pair!

When you get to end to end (E2E) testing then it really depends as to whether the developer should be testing the system themselves. Usually, it is best to have someone else test it, because (as quite rightly stated in the article) we developers know the happy path and will follow it religiously. We used to call this "monkey testing" in my old job, just sit in front of the screen and hit things until it breaks. But this isn't necessarily always possible.

If anything, E2E testing by a third party is an argument for TDD not against it. The third-party should write those tests against the specification without seeing a single pixel of how it has been implemented. Otherwise aren't those tests just going to fall into the same trap as developers testing their own code anyway? And when it comes down to it, isn't this all that TDD is saying? Test without seeing the code? And for the developer, the only way to achieve this is to write the tests first.

In summary

The article in question finishes off with the following:

Read any advocacy of TDD and it will always boil down to an argument for testing itself, which nobody argues against. It never makes a case for writing tests before implementation. There is no rationale for writing tests before implementation. That is absurd.

Well, I'd like to think I've at least disproved those first 2 sentences if nothing else. I have stated just a couple of reasons why I believe writing tests before implementation is actually beneficial, not just why we should test at all.

As for my opinion on the subject? The great Master Kenobi said it best: only the Sith deal in absolutes.

TDD isn't always appropriate, but it is often a useful tool and a good idea. Especially at the unit test level.

But feel free to disagree.