Sunday, July 19, 2009

Would you still write unit tests even if you couldn?t automatically re-run them tomorrow?

[This was originally posted at]

I am constantly amazed at how difficult it is to encourage software engineering teams to adopt unit testing. Everyone knows (wink wink) that you should test your own code, and we all love automation, and all the experts are pushing for it, and we all know how expensive bug fixes are, etc... Yet, there are still many experienced and good-hearted developers who simply don't write unit tests.

I think a critical question may be "Would you still write unit tests even if you couldn’t automatically re-run them tomorrow?"

Here's why - most managers who push unit tests do so saying something like "Yeah, it's a lot of extra work to write all that testing code right now, but you'll sure be glad in a month when you can automatically re-run them. Oh, and by the way, you can't go home today until you fix these three production issues."

The problem is this demotes unit testing to yet another "invest now; reward later" methodology. This is a crowded field, so it's easy to ignore a new-comer like "unit testing". Obviously, most devs live in the here and now, and they'll just trying to survive today, so they care much more about "invest now, reward now".

The "trick" with unit testing - at least with basic unit testing to at least get your foot in the door - is that it adds immediate value today. Even if you can't automate those tests tomorrow, it can often still help get the current code done faster and better. How is this possible?

  • Faster to develop - Unit testing is faster to developer because it stubs out the context. Say you have some static method buried deep within your web application. If it takes you 5 minutes to set up the data, recompile the host app, navigate to the page, and do whatever action triggers your method being called - that's a huge lag time. If you could write a unit test that directly calls that method, such that you can bypass all that rigmarole and run the static method in 5 seconds - and now you need to test 10 different boundary cases - you've just saved yourself a good chunk of time.
  • Think through your own code - Unit testing forces you to dog food your own code (especially for class-library APIs). It also force you to think out boundary conditions - per the previous question, if it takes several minutes to test one usage of a function, and that function has many different boundary cases, a time-pressed developer simply won't test all the cases.
  • Better design - Testable code encourages a more modular design that is more flexible to change, and easier to debug. Think of it like this: in order to write the unit test, you've got to be able to call the code from a context-free, class library; i.e. if a unit test can call it, then so could a windows service, web service, console app, windows app, or anything else. Every external dependency (i.e. the things that usually break in production due to bad configuration) has been accounted for.

Even if you could never re-run those unit tests after the code was written, they are still a good ROI. The fact that you can automatically re-run them, and get all the additional benefits, is what makes unit testing such a winner for most application development.

RELATED: Is unit testing a second class citizen?, How many unit tests are sufficient?, Backwards: "I wanted to do Unit Tests, but my manager wouldn't let me"


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