by Shyam Seshadri
Nowadays, when I talk with (read: rant at) anyone about why they should do test driven development or write unit tests, my spiel has gotten extremely similar and redundant to the point that I don't have to think about it anymore. But even when I do pairing with skeptics, even as I cajole and coax testable code or some specific refactorings out of them, I wonder, why is it that I have to convince you of the worth of testing ? Shouldn't it be obvious ?
And sadly, it isn't. Not to many people. To many people, I come advocating the rise of the devil itself. To others, it is this redundant, totally useless thing that is covered by the manual testers anyway. The general opinion seems to be, "I'm a software engineer. It is my job to write software. Nowhere in the job description does it say that I have to write these unit tests." Well, to be fair, I haven't heard that too many times, but they might as well be thinking it, given their investment in writing unit tests. And last time I checked, an engineer's role is to deliver a working software. How do you even prove that your software works without having some unit tests to back you up ? Do you pull it up and go through it step by step, and start cursing when it breaks ? Because without unit tests, the odds are that it will.
But writing unit tests as you develop isn't just to prove that your code works (though that is a great portion of it). There are so many more benefits to writing unit tests. Lets talk in depth about a few of these below.
The biggest and most obvious reason for writing unit tests (either as you go along, or before you even write code) is instantaneous gratification. When I write code (write, not spike. That is a whole different ball game that I won't get into now), I love to know that it works and does what it should do. If you are writing a smaller component of a bigger app (especially one that isn't complete yet), how are you even supposed to know if what you just painstakingly wrote even works or not ? Even the best engineers make mistakes.
Whereas with unit tests, I can write my code. Then just hit my shortcut keys to run my tests, and voila, within a second or two, I have the results, telling me that everything passed (in the ideal case) or what failed and at which line, so I know exactly what I need to work on. It just gives you a safety net to fall back on, so you don't have to remember all the ways it is supposed to work in. Something tells you if it is or not.
Also, doing Test Driven Development when developing is one of the best ways to keep track of what you are working on. I have times when I am churning out code and tests, one after the other, before I need to take a break. The concept of TDD is that I write a failing test, and then I write just enough code to pass that test. So when I take a break, I make it a point to leave at a failing test, so that when I come back, I can jump right back into writing the code to get it to pass. I don't have to spend 15 - 20 minutes reading through the code to figure out where I left off. My asserts usually tell me exactly what I need to do.
Imposing Modularity / Reusability
The very first rule of reusable code is that you have to be able to instantiate an instance of the class before you can use it. And guess what ? With unit tests, you almost always have to instantiate an instance of the class under test. Therefore, writing a unit test is always a first great step in making code reusable. And the minute you start writing unit tests, most likely, you will start running into the common pain points of not having injectable dependencies (Unless of course, you are one of the converts, in which case, good for you!).
Which brings me to the next point. Once you start having to jump through fiery hoops to set up your class just right to test it, you will start to realize when a class is getting bloated, or when a certain component belongs in its own class. For instance, why test the House when what you really want to test is the Kitchen it contains. So if the Kitchen class was initially part of the House, when you start writing unit tests, it becomes obvious enough that it belongs separately. Before long, you have modular classes which are small and self contained and can be tested independently without effort. And it definitely helps keep the code base cleaner and more comprehensible.
Refactoring Safety Net
Any project, no matter what you do, usually ends up at a juncture where the requirements change on you. And you are left with the option of refactoring your codebase to add / change it, or rewrite from scratch. One, never rewrite from scratch, always refactor. Its always faster when you refactor, no matter what you may think. Two, what do you do when you have to refactor and you don't have unit tests ? How do you know you haven't horribly broken something in that refactor ? Granted, IDE's such as Eclipse and IntelliJ have made refactoring much more convenient, but adding new functionality or editing existing features is never simple.
More often than not, we end up changing some undocumented way the existing code behaved, and blow up 10 different things (it takes skill to blow up more, believe me, I have tried). And its often something as simple as changing the way a variable is set or unset. In those cases, having unittests (remember those things you were supposed to have written?) to confirm that your refactoring broke nothing is godsend. I can't tell you the amount of times I have had to refactor a legacy code base without this safety net. The only way to ensure I did it correct was to write these large integration tests (because again, no unit tests usually tends to increase the coupling and reduce modularity, even in the most well designed code bases) which verified things at a higher level and pray fervently that I broke nothing. Then I would spend a few minutes bringing up the app everytime, and clicking on random things to make sure nothing blew up. A complete waste of my time when I could have known the same thing by just running my unit tests.
Finally, one of my favorite advantages to doing TDD or writing unit tests as I code. I have a short memory for code I have written. I could look back at the code I wrote two days ago, and have no clue what I was thinking. In those cases, all I have to do is go look at the test for a particular method, and that almost always will tell me what that method takes in as parameters, and what all it should be doing. A well constructed set of tests tell you about valid and invalid inputs, state that it should modify and output that it may return.
Now this is useful for people like me with short memory spans. But it is also useful, say, when you have a new person joining the team. We had this cushion the last time someone joined our team for a short period of time, and when we asked him to add a particular check to a method, we just pointed him to the tests for that method, which basically told him what the method does. He was able to understand the requirements, and go ahead and add the check with minimal handholding. And the tests give a safety net so he doesn't break anything else while he was at it.
Also useful is the fact that later, when someone comes marching through your door, demanding you fix this bug, you can always make sure whether it was a a bug (in which case, you are obviously missing a test case) or if it was a feature that they have now changed the requirements on (in which case you already have a test which proves it was your intent to do it, and thus not a bug).