Test-Driven Development – How Applicable is it?

Test-driven development (TDD) is a development process for software that attempts to simplify designs through the writing of tests.

It involves the developer writing tests with an improvement or new functionality in mind and then writing code so this test can be passed. This forces the developer to concentrate on the requirements of the software before writing code, as they need to know what functionality to test. Once this simple code passes the test, it can be refactored to reach the standards acceptable to the development team.

However, how applicable is this developmental process? Can it really be applied to every development situation?

I will be exploring these questions in my post, looking at the benefits of a TDD and problems experienced when dealing with legacy code, small projects and also at how much testing really should be done under a TDD.

What is TDD?

Firstly, in order to be analysed, TDD needs to be correctly specified.

Defined by Kent Beck in 2003, [1] TDD is built upon the concepts of TFD (Test-First development), and can be described simply as:

“TDD = Refactoring + TFD” [2]

A developer who is programming under the TDD approach never writes a new feature or functionality, until there exists a test that will fail because of a lack of implementation.

After the test is passed, the programmer will refactor this simple code to bring it up to the quality of the team standards (this step turns TFD into TDD).

Simply it can be summarised in the following cycle: [See diagram below]

  1. Add a test.
  2. Run all tests and see if the new one fails.
  3. Write some code (causing the test to pass).
  4. Run tests again.
  5. Refactor code.

Diagram 1

Benefits

But are what are the benefits of this practice?

Naturally, due to the nature of TDD, more code has to be written due to the extensive testing carried out.

A model (designed by Muller et al.) compares the development times of startup projects, one developed under conventional methods and one under TDD and the results show that the total code implementation time is, in fact, reduced. [3] (See Image below)

Development Time

Due to the extensive unit testing being carried out, there’s also a greater likelihood that defects are caught early in the development lifecycle, saving time and money had they not been found till later.

Lech Madeyski, showed the benefits of the practice empirically over a more traditional development approach where testing was left to the end of development.

He found that the quality of the unit tests created under TDD was greater, as they scored better on branch coverage and the mutation score indicator than the tests from the traditional approach. Branch coverage and mutation score indicator can be used to show the thoroughness and helpfulness of tests for detecting faults in the software. [4]

Silver bullet?

So we can see the benefits of the conceptually simple TDD in both the speed of development and quality of tests but can all software development projects really be developed under TDD?

Code that has already been developed from a different development style, called legacy code, can be brought up to the standard of TDD, in that small tests can be written to demonstrate the functionality of the program but for a large codebase this can prove tricky and begs the question: is it really worth it?

Having a consistent development process within a team is a reason for converting legacy code to TDD, as it would mean developers who were more comfortable developing under TDD wouldn’t have to switch to unfamiliar practices to work with the older code, likely resulting in less mistakes being made.

Nevertheless, repetition of test creation would almost certainly occur, as the legacy code would already have tests in it. These would either have to be redesigned or ignored in order to fit into the TDD style.

Shihab et al present an approach of such an adaptation, coining it “Test-Driven Maintenance”. It enables teams with limited resources to test legacy systems efficiently by producing a prioritised list of functions that updates as unit tests are written and passed. [5]

As there exists an approach to bring a legacy system under a TDD-like development process (TDM) and because of the positives of having a TDD, it’ll be worthwhile to convert legacy systems, regardless of the repetition that might occur.

The positives are even greater when you see that companies tend to spend over 90% of their total software cost in the maintenance and evolution phases and so making sure these stages are efficient and as well developed as possible will help to save a lot of money. [6]

We need it quick!

Some people argue that the upfront cost, in terms of time, of constructing tests is not worthwhile for a small prototype program rushed to market.

While this might make sense in concept, the consequences of not following TDD are not quite so obvious.

In reality, TDD tends to be very useful in smaller projects, rather than overkill. This is because on this smaller scale it’s easier to be disciplined enough to continue to write tests and follow the practices of TDD. Whereas, on larger projects, developers tend to get complacent due to time constraints and the complexity/number of features that need to be written.

If this small project were developed under TDD and proved to be successful, the extra time sacrificed to create tests would pay dividends in its future development. If, however, the system was developed under some other method it would probably continue with it and so we will end up with another legacy system. Converting this system to a TDM would take a lot of effort, much more than if TDD was followed from the start.

So, even for small projects, I think that TDD is a development style that should be practiced as even though the upfront costs of the tests may slow down progress at the start, time spent here will prove to be invaluable later on.

More tests?!

Many sceptics of TDD complain that while testing is useful for ensuring successful software, it spends far too much time concerned with testing very basic functionality, which they believe doesn’t need to be tested. Also while testing might ensure that the developers are confident that their code works, they don’t get paid to test, this is the job of the testers. [7]

However, redundant testing is just what non-practisers of TDD think it’s all about.

Here is what, Kent Beck, the father of TDD says:

“I get paid for code that works, not for tests, so my philosophy is to test as little as possible to reach a level of confidence… If I don’t typically make a kind of mistake… I don’t test for it”

This shows that even in TDD you don’t have to test every single function and that common sense should be applied.

If you’re concerned you might get it wrong, write a test for it.

In larger projects this philosophy will help keep the total number of tests down, which will mean less time spent maintaining them. It also means that developers won’t spend too long writing tests for the software, while still being able to reap the profits of the TDD development style.

Conclusion

Test-driven development is definitely a development process that needs to be seriously considered more by software development companies.

As we’ve seen it shines in a variety of situations, from legacy code to quick prototypes and even in large startup developments. The positives are shown through the overall shorter implementation times, better quality unit tests and greater chance of catching defects early in development.

The father of TDD, Kent Beck, also dispels some myths about TDD, revealing that tests only should be made when YOU think they should and until YOU are confident with your code.

For all these reasons I think that TDD needs to be something that development teams need to reconsider.

References

[1] – Kent Beck, “Test Driven Development: By Example”, Addison-Wesley, 2003.

[2] – Scott Wambler, “What is TDD?”, 2013, http://www.agiledata.org/essays/tdd.html#WhatIsTDD [Accessed on: 1st March 2014].

[3] – Matthias Muller & Frank Padberg, “About the Return on Investment of Test-Driven Development”, 2012, http://www.ipd.kit.edu/KarHPFn/papers/edser03.pdf [Accessed on: 1st March 2014].

[4] – Lech Madeyski, “Test-Driven Development – An Empirical Evaluation of Agile Practice”, Springer, 2010.

[5] – Shihab et al, “Prioritizing the Creation of Unit Tests in Legacy Software Systems”, 2010, http://sail.cs.queensu.ca/publications/pubs/shihab_spe2011.pdf [Accessed on: 1st March 2014].

[6] – Len Erlikh, “Leveraging legacy system dollars for e-business”, 2000, http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=846201 [Accessed on: 2nd March 2014].

[7] – Assaf Stone, “10 Reasons to Avoid Test Driven Development”, December 2011, http://www.softwareandi.com/2011/12/10-reasons-to-avoid-test-driven.html [Accessed on: 2nd March 2014].

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