Crazy Little Hacks

Some little hacks and random thoughts on what interests me at the moment in the area of computer science.

Understanding the Heart to Become a Better Doctor

Yes, you read the title correctly, this is indeed a article about better understanding the heart in order to become a better doctor. Of course that by heart I mean testing and by doctor I mean developer.

The analogy is not that absurd, as matter of fact it is not absurd at all in my opinion, as tests are the core of any application, especially one for the web. Without tests an application won’t live long, it will probably be able to stay alive for a while, but at the first need for change or growth, it will fester and die. As a developer I much prefer not being around when such things happen, and most of all I believe it is my duty to impede this from happening, it’s the developer’s code of honour, it’s the reason I call myself a professional developer.

As you can see I do have a very strong opinion on this subject, and I really am suggesting that if your writing a web application without tests (preferably TDD but not necessarily) you’re not only doing it wrong, but you’re being unprofessional and utterly irresponsible. Plainly put, you should not be writing code!

A little side note here to all of those starting in this business or that just now have been introduced to testing, this article should be a good starting point on your quest to a brighter future where tests lead the way. Moreover, you should not include yourself in the group of irresponsible developers out there, if you actually start testing, obviously. Testing is something that is rarely introduced in CS majors and most starting developers don’t get to have an older and more experienced mentor to teach them this stuff, so it’s really not your fault and you have all my respect and appreciation for trying to learn this. Also, not everyone has to be a professional developer, and that’s fine. Just don’t try to impersonate one, that’s all I’m asking.

Now that we’re done with the contextualization let’s get to the juicy part of the article, where I’ll introduce some basic concepts and keywords of testing (some of which you might have already heard of) and slowly progress into more advanced and “philosophical” ones.

The religions

TDD, BDD and traditional testing. This are the most adopted religions in the testing community.

You’ll often see them referred to as methodologies, processes or even philosophies, but I believe they’re more than that. As a developer this will drive not only your code but also the way you think and solve problems. It’s a way of life, so choose carefully and embrace it (well, maybe I’m being a bit dramatic here, you can change your mind afterwards, trying to mix them too much is ill advised, though).


Test driven development, as the name states, is when you let your tests drive your application’s code. It is often coupled with an agile software development process, as it too work in very short cycles composed of three phases:

  1. Red - You make a test for a feature you wish you had (usually it will test a very specific part of that feature)
  2. Green - You write only enough code to make the test pass, not more, not less (at this point you should commit your work)
  3. Refactor - You are now in a green field, where you have a solution that may not be optimal but it works and a test to make sure that it ever stops working you’ll know about it. This is the perfect time to think of a better way of solving the problem

This is the core of TDD, it states that if you repeat this cycle over and over again you’ll have smaller and more focused classes, looser coupling and cleaner interfaces.

There is, AFAIK, no real proof of this, but TDD does provide you a great test suite, which combined with a control version system gives you much more confidence in your code, as well as more freedom to change things and an easier way to debug regressions also, (and some might argue this is the greatest benefit of TDD) if done right, you get documentation for free.

TDD can actually be divided into two subgroups, according to Martin Fowler, the classical and the mockists, but we’ll get to that later on.

Right about now you should be wondering, “if TDD is so great, why even bother having other ways of testing?”. It turns out that TDD is not perfect, mostly due to our own faults as developers, such as the tests failing to cover an important edge case or the tests being badly written leaving us a bigger code base to maintain. Another problem might be that we as overzealous as we are, try to test every possible scenario for every little bit of code, this is counter productive and to know what and how much to test is a kind of art that will come with experience (we’ll cover some ground rules that make this an easier task, though).

When doing TDD (or any kind of tests) there is one thing you should be constantly aware of, “your code is NOT bug free!”. Rest assured, bugs will appear, but they will probably not be on your main flow of things, and when they’re fixed, they’ll stay fixed.

Uncle Bob Martin describes TDD in three basic rules/laws:

  1. You are not allowed to write any production code unless it is to make a failing unit test pass.
  2. You are not allowed to write any more of a unit test than is sufficient to fail; and compilation failures are failures.
  3. You are not allowed to write any more production code than is sufficient to pass the one failing unit test.

One of, if not the most important thing in TDD is that you write your own tests. I like to go a bit further and say that the tests are part of the code.


Behaviour Driven Development is largely based on TDD, it differs mainly in the fact that it focus in the behaviour of things instead of how they work, which is why BDD always starts by defining a scenario. Plainly put, you focus primarily on the user interaction and the user’s point of view.

For instance, imagine you would like to implement and ATM, with TDD you would probably start by testing if the withdrawal and card validation mechanisms, whereas with BDD you would write a scenario such as this:

Scenario 1: Account is in credit
Given the account is in credit
And the card is valid
And the dispenser contains cash
When the customer requests cash
Then ensure the account is debited
And ensure cash is dispensed
And ensure the card is returned

Almost everything else in TDD will also apply here, but this small change in perspective will have a deep impact in the resulting solution.

This type of scenarios have some rules, though, they have a special syntax so that they can be understood by the non-technical people of the team or company, but also so that they can be automated. As a matter of fact, doing this you have not only a test suite, but also a pretty good documentation and feature specification.

When writing scenarios I tend to prefer to write them declarative as opposed to imperative, as I feel that otherwise it would pretty much defeat the whole purpose of writing them. Here’s a pretty good take on the differences

If you ever tried TDD you probably have faced the “what do I test first” situation, BDD sets to solve that as you always start with the scenario and let it drive you. In the example above you would first write a failing test that would check that the account has credit, and then make pass, then you would write a failing test for the card validation and make it pass, and so on. Bare in mind though that making these tests pass may require going to different layers of the application and further testing, but you’ll always know what to test first.

BDD is more elegantly described by it’s creator Dan North from whom I took the ATM example in this article.

Traditional Testing

I call this traditional testing for the lack of a better term, but this is the model you’ll see in companies that adopt very strict development methodologies such as waterfall or RUP, and it happens when there is an entire team whose only purpose in life is to do write tests.

In this model the tests start to be written after the development is complete, IMHO it some serious drawbacks (even though I’ve never personally used it, I must admit):

  1. The tests and it’s expectations don’t drive the code and the probability of having poorly written, extremely coupled code is much higher
  2. Management is always pushing for deliverables and/or deploys, in the event of delays the test phase will be the first to suffer the consequences

Even if the test process starts in sync with development process it is harder and less productive to have someone else write the tests for your code as you’re writing it.

In case you haven’t yet figured out, I’m nor a big fan, nor a big connoisseur of this type of testing, still I did not want to go by without mentioning the ways of the past.

Going a bit further into TDD

The main focus of the rest of this article is going to be TDD with Rails, but as I’ve said earlier TDD has two subgroups, from which I’ll choose one (not 100%, but almost) and even borrow a few high level concepts from BDD.

Classical TDD

When writing tests, classical TDDers will not use mocks and use stubs as little as possible, mostly to fake web services and the such. They focus entirely on the final state of the system, in the ATM example, they would test that the machine has given money to the user, for example.

In this approach the tests for an object will test it’s functionality as well as it’s neighbours’.

Mockist TDD

Mockist TDDers will use mocks to filters everything that is not the SUT (System Under Test). Taking the ATM example one more time and imagining the SUT is the card validator, they would test that if the card is valid, the give_money_to_user method was called on the money dispenser. The focus here is on behaviour instead of state.

In this approach the tests for an object will test it’s functionality as well as it’s communication with it’s neighbours.

Check out Martin Fowler’s article on this for a much more in depth analysis of the difference between classical and mockists TDDers, as well as the difference between mocks and stubs.

Outside-in testing

Outside-in testing is a process that goes pretty much hand in hand with BDD in terms of where it begins. When doing this we start by writing an integration or acceptance test (this could be a BDD scenario), and go from there.

The main purpose here is to let the code be driven by the feature the clients actually want, so you don’t start coding away before having a good grasp on how the user experience is going to be.

This process plays well with both BDD and TDD, it’s really up to you which religion to live by. I tend to prefer the mockist TDD approach, which is kind of a hybrid, and I’ll explain in full detail how to do it in a Rails app.

For a thorough example of outside-in testing, please refer to Harold Gimenez article.

Middle-out testing

Another way of doing tests would be to start by the core classes of your system, and work your way to the layers, such as UI and database. In Rails this would translate to first write tests and respective code for the most important models and controllers, and they work your way to migration, validations, etc, as well as the views.

I’ve taken this approach several times and discourage you from doing so, because this will probably lead to adding too much features to your system, and make the final system to not accurately represent the clients wishes.

Final Notes

I believe we covered a lot of ground here, there is however, a lot more you can do to become a more proficient tester and therefore a better developer.

In my opinion you should really focus on two things if you indeed intend to improve your code’s quality through testing, write and read, simple as that.

You should definitely write a lot of tests so you can face the problems, and have your own doubts. That’s how you learn any programming language, principle or methodology, by hitting your head on the wall until you realize there’s a door right beside you.

You should also read a lot, so that that door becomes easier to find and open. Throughout the article I’ve provide some links you should really go ahead and read if you haven’t done so already, but I’ll leave some more extensive reading material (and some screencasts) I recommend.

Now go and TDD away. And most of all try to have fun doing it (pairing is a nice way of achieving this).