Thursday, 4 March 2010

Should a professional developer always use TDD?

I'm really looking forward to Scandinavian Developer Conference, and in particular the fishbowl discussion I'll be moderating on the Tuesday at 10:30am. Presenting their views will be Michael Feathers, Andrew Dalke, and Geoff Bache, and the topic under discussion is the same as the title of this post: Should a professional developer always use TDD?

I've been enthusiastic about writing automated tests for my code since 2000 when I discovered eXtreme Programming, and started using JUnit. It's become a habit for me to write tests before code. Occasionly I decide not to, perhaps I am feeling lazy, or think a test would be too difficult to write. I find I usually regret it and end up writing a test afterwards anyway.

One of the things Bob Martin, (a colleague of Michael Feathers), says about TDD in his book "clean code", is that it is a matter of professionalism. Developers should be like doctors. Would you trust a doctor who didn't wash her hands because she didn't belive in it? Well, you shouldn't trust a developer who doesn't use TDD because she doesn't believe in it.

I've known Andrew Dalke since 2002, and we've worked together on and off since then. Recently he wrote this article criticising TDD. Andrew does not believe TDD is necessary for good development work to happen. Is he unprofessional? Far from it.

My experience of working with Andrew tells me that he is an excellent programmer, who produces high quality code and automated tests. However, the process by which he arrives at this code and tests is not TDD. Tests get written during development, but not in advance of the code they test. The tests do not in any way drive the design, in fact, he uses knowledge of the design of the code to inform what tests he writes.

Andrew says in his article "Once I have a good sketch of how the code is going to be, I often continue by filling in the details. At this point unit tests starts to be useful" he likens what he does to an XP spike solution, except that he does not throw away the spike code and start over when he starts adding tests.

The other person I know who has a complex relationship with TDD is my husband Geoff. Several years ago he was labelled a heretic and almost thrown out when he admitted to a room full of XP enthusiasts that he didn't write unit tests at all. Geoff does write tests - a lot of tests in fact - but they are not xUnit tests, and they don't drive the design of his code.

Geoff uses an approach he calls "text-based testing" which involves driving the program from the command line, (or some kind of script), and having his code write a plain text log file of what it is doing. A tool called TextTest picks up the log output and compares it to the saved version from a previous run. Differences are flagged as test failure.

It's a simple idea, but it is actually very effective and easy to use when you get the hang of it. The main advantage over ordinary TDD is that there is little or no code written per test, meaning less code to maintain overall. The fact that the tests are independent of the design of the code makes refactoring easier, and writing tests for legacy code relatively risk-free.

TDD is a bit different with the text-based approach though. Geoff thinks of what he does as TDD, but actually, only half of the test is nailed down in advance of the code - only the part that tells the program which features to exercise. The part that asserts that it did the right thing is simply recorded after the code is written.

So I expect a fascinating and lively discussion to ensue when I get these guys together! Perhaps you'll join us?

(Note: I wrote up the discussion in my next post)

1 comment:

Alexander Beletsky said...

Excelent article! I personally think that TDD is main feature of professional developer.. In the same time I know several non-TDD believeres who can produce good code.

But TDD-users, in general, could get much better results than "do without tests" persons)