Thursday, September 23, 2010

Amber, Green, Re-factor

Red, Green, Re-factor (Red-Green for simplicity in this entry) is the mantra of Test-driven development. (TDD) The goal being to satisfy a requirement you write a test that fails, then write the functionality to satisfy solely that test, then re-factor as you implement further functionality. There's definitely nothing wrong with this approach, but I don't think it's for everybody. An alternative to TDD is Test-soon development. (TSD) In this model you write tests soon after you're satisfied that target requirements have been met. However, TSD is still Test-driven development, it just isn't Red-Green. TDD is test-driven because design decisions place an emphasism on meeting requirements with testable and, most importantly, tested code. This is obvious when you write the unit tests first, but is no-less true when writing unit tests second. The key is that the code is written with tests in mind. When you choose to write them is irrelevant, so long as you test it right. 
TSD is less disciplined than TDD in that it is easier to defer testing as you continue to implement related functionality. This accrues up technical debt, leaving a larger pile of unit testing required. Tools like NCover are excellent at tracking your technical debt bill, so if you're using TSD, NCover is an absolute must. Another negative point against TSD to the TDD purist is that unit tests against working code would be written to pass, so they would be less reliable since they may not actually fail when they need to. This is a significant concern, but I think it applies just as much to Red-Green TDD as it does to TSD. In Red-Green you might only write tests that satisfy the "chosen path" but not exercise the code properly when paths cross. Either way you need to really think about behaviour to test, not just satisfy the obvious aspect of a requirement.

This second concern of writing tests to fail really got me motivated to ensure tests were exercised fully along-side the code they intended to test. My motto of choice to this effect is Amber, Green, Re-factor or Amber-Green. Essentially I write code to satisfy a requirement, then I create tests, and excercise test & code (Amber) until I'm satisfied they pass (Green) then the code is ready to be re-factored as necessary for future functionality. The reason I prefer this to TDD is that I've invested the time into satisfying architectural decisions that often inter-twine with satisfying requirements. I'm satisfied not "that it works", but rather "that it's going to work". Now the focus shifts to developing the tests to ensure that it truly works. My goal with writing the unit tests is to break the code. I know for a fact that I didn't think of everything so it's time to find what I missed by probing the code with tests. When I write a test that passes first run I alter the code and make sure the test fails as it's supposed to. When I write tests that don't fail then I become concerned that I'm not exercising it fully. Even if I think of something I missed, I write the test, watch it fail, then fix it.

Ultimately the approach isn't much different to Red-Green. With Red-Green it pays to think up-front while fleshing out boundaries and behaviours for code before you write it. Personally I find it's easier to flesh this out once I know what I'm planning to take to production, and switching my mentality to "break it!" helps to really excercise the code.

So the next time the TDD purist on your team scorns you for not writing tests first, rest assured you can still be test-driven with Amber-Green; Just keep a close eye on your technical debt and break that code good.

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