Balance Driven Development

I mentioned in my last post that I would talk about my opinions on TDD, so here it is. Kicking it off, I will explain what TDD is, how it’s meant to work. Then I’ll explain what some people have said about it and talk about what I believe the real benefits of TDD are. Finally, I’ll walk through whether I think it’s worth using and explain my use of the practice. Oh, and I’ll also provide a disclaimer as to what the heck possessed me to pile onto this already well-discussed topic.

TDD stands for “Test Driven Development.” At its core, it’s a development practice; a way to approach writing code. The rules of how to practice TDD are fairly simple at their surface. Say you have a new function that you need in order to accomplish a task: write the smallest test you can imagine, run the test, watch it respond with a failure, write the smallest possible amount of code to make that test pass, repeat until the necessary functionality is complete. With that process there are a number of benefits that people reference.

The main benefit I see TDD-promoters reference is test coverage. Since, with TDD, testing is part of how you write code, you just get more tests that are very well tied to the logic inside your functions. That test coverage paired with ongoing use of the practice tends to make new development less frightening because you have pretty high confidence that your code is covered and will alert you to unexpected behavior changes.

One counter-argument to the test coverage benefit is that the immense depth at which you’re covering your code in this type of practice results in brittle tests. Growing the test code at a rate faster than your app code can increasingly make it difficult to make changes to your app without spending many more hours rejiggering your tests. So, while you maybe have higher confidence in your app at one point, by the time you’ve redone much of your testing, due to feature additions, you’re in kind of a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ state. So much so that by the time you’re done getting the tests green, you can’t tell if you’ve fixed the tests properly or if you just made them look green.

As Software Engineers we like to find processes and tools that allow us to remove blame and responsibility from the human. We want the computer and process to protect us and keep us in a safe zone. I think both of the above arguments are trying to achieve that same end of some kind of safe zone. TDD, in terms of the testing benefit that’s often referenced, would like to keep us in a zone of constant “yes it works.” The anti-TDD position explains a world where the process potentially slows down our ability to progress and potentially hurts our confidence in new functionality due to lots of changing tests.

One of the tricks with the name TDD is that it implies that tests are the benefit, when in fact they’re simply a vehicle for development. I actually liken tests from the TDD process to CO2 — they’re there to move things forward and useful for that but otherwise need to be cleaned up after their purpose has been served. That is to say that a lot of tests I write during a TDD exercise are meant to be deleted at the end. I tend to use those TDD tests to help write new tests that are intended to live on with the app for regression and documentation. They often even look very similar, but now I’m writing tests to lasts rather than tests drive development. These are fundamentally different mindsets.

I’ve mentioned that TDD is more of a vehicle for development. The effect TDD can have on the design of your code seems to be the most overlooked benefit of the practice while still the most important, in my mind. When I’m writing code without some sort of test I just add things and out comes the functionality. I’m worried about how easiest I can get the feature done. When I’m writing it from the perspective of a test I’m writing as if I’m a user of the code that I need. That means that my mentality for what needs to be written is altered. I’m basically defining the API that I can test and understand. This is much different than writing a bunch of things that technically work but then having to explain that API from the reverse — in order to write the tests.

With code/API-design and test coverage being the main arguments for or against TDD lets talk about what I do. I tend to think that when there are two big camps of people shouting for or against an idea the truth or the best path lies somewhere in the middle. I think some of what you can learn about your code for future testing and for understanding design is an enormous win. I don’t feel that my longer-term regression tests come from the practice, though. So after working with TDD for quite some time, I now lean on it as a tool in by toolbox. Generally, I remove those initial tests and move on with life. One thing I will give TDD is that the design mentality around understanding what your external API looks and feels like has ultimately changed how I write code, regardless of whether I’m actually living by the practice. Now, when I write code I tend to sketch up an API of what I’d expect to use, then I aim to fill that in. The same idea as TDD in terms of thinking from the other end, with less rigidity.

So what should you do? If you’ve never tried it, don’t just listen to me or to the others on the all-knowing Internet. Try it! I still think its a practice worth doing for a little while, if only to understand it yourself and develop your own opinion. Your opinion may be different than others’ and that’s ok. If it helps you make cool things or enables you or your company to make money, then that’s awesome; keep doing that.

I recognize that I’m beating a proverbial dead horse. Everyone and their mother has already written about their feelings on TDD, I even recycled a lot of those same arguments here. I decided to publish my own post on the topic because I feel like I’ve found a place somewhere in the middle of the argument. I think a lot of people tend to focus on picking sides and I wanted to explain that I think you can use it as a tool; a tool in your belt. It doesn’t have to be your whole world, but if you prefer that tool over another, great!

Also, in the last month, several people have asked about my feelings on the topic so I figured I’d compile my feelings in this format for reference.

Thanks for listening. I work for Highrise HQ building a better CRM. If you liked this, you might check out my Twitter for more silly opinions and feels on tech and society.