TDD, BDD, executable specification

Thu, 07 Apr 2011 14:26:57 +0000

The new system at $WORK finally went live about a week ago, hurrah.

The upgrade itself took a few hours longer than I’d have liked, and (short shameful confession time), some (but probably not all) of this could have been caught by better test coverage. Which set me on a path towards SimpleCov (I’m using Ruby 1.9, rcov doesn’t work), which led me to start looking at the uncovered parts, which set me to thinking. Which, as we all know, is dangerous.

TDD advocates (and pro-testing people in general) say “Don’t test accessors”. There are two reasons to say this that seem to my mind like good reasons: Ron says it because he wants you to write tests that do something else (something useful) that happens to involve calling those accessors. J B Rainsberger says it because “get/set methods just can’t break, and if they can’t break, then why test them?”

The problem comes when you adopt the mindset typified by BDD that “the test examples are actually your executable specification”, because in that case how do you specify that the object has an accessor? This is not an unreasonable demand. Suppose we have objects whose purpose is to store structured data that will be used by client code – for example, User has an age property. Jbrains – which must surely be the Best Nickname Ever for a Java guy – says there’s no useful test you can write for this (or not unless you don’t trust your platform or something, but that way madness lies). But even if we are going to write one: a test that stores one or a few example values can easily be faked by the bloody-minded implementor (“the setter is called with the argument 42, then the getter is called and should return 42? I know! def age; 42; end”) and a test that stores all possible values and tests they can be retrieved will take forever to write/read/run. Really the best notation in which to specify the behaviour of that property is the same notation which, when run by the interpreter, will implement the said behavior -

    attr_accessor :age
It’s not just accessors either. Everything on the continuum between declarations of constants (SECONDS_PER_DAY=86400, are you really going to write a test for that?) and simple mathematical formulae
    class Triangle
      def area
        self.base * self.height / 2.0
      end
    end
are most readably expressed to humans as, well, the continuous functions that they are, not the three or four example data points that we might write examples to test for. For any finite number of test cases, you can write a giant case...when statement that passes all of them and still doesn’t work in the general case.

Yes, we could and often should write a couple of tests just to make sure we haven’t done anything boneheaded in implementing the function, but they’re not spec. They’re just examples.

But here’s the rub: where or how do we put that code to make it obvious that it’s specification that happens also to be a valid implementation – and not just implementation that may or may not meet a spec expressed in some other place/form? If we’re laying out our app in conventional Ruby style, it can’t go in the spec/ directory because that doesn’t actually get run as part of the application, and it shouldn’t go in lib/ or models/ or wherever else unless we are prepared to make our clients rootle through all that code looking for whatever “this is specification not just an implementation detail” flag we decide to adopt) when they want to use our interface.

I’m going to make a suggestion which is either radical or bone-headed: we should smush the rspec-stuff together with the app code: embed examples (which may in some cases be specification and in other cases be “smoke tests”) in the same files as the implementation (which may itself sometimes be specification and other times be the result of our fallible human attempts to derive implementation from spec), and then we can have some kind of annotations to say which is which, and then we can have some kind of rdoc-on-‘roids literate programming tool (To Be Implemented) go through the whole lot and produce two separate documents. One for people who want to use our code and want to know what it should do, and the other for the people who have to hack on it and need to know how it does. Or doesn’t. And then maybe we can have code coverage metrics that actually mean something.