keep the tests simple and readable

Last week I posted about using tests as a failsafe. Silly me, I should have known just how many people would comment out the failing tests! So what makes it easier to say “oh, let’s just comment them out so we can get on with our real work”, instead of fixing the tests? I’ve seen it happen many times, and I’ve done it myself – but why?

I think time is the driving force: if we try to fix the tests we’ll miss our deadline. Why? In every case I’ve seen, those failing tests were also refactoring no-go areas. The test code is in such a mess that either it would take an age to fix, or there is no-one left on the project who understands it. So it becomes much easier (and therefore quicker) to comment them out than it would be to fix them.

Why? How did the tests get into that state? In general, it seems to me that there are two main reasons: either the team didn’t know they had to keep the tests adaptable and maintainable; or the “unit” tests actually exercise chunks that are way too big.

Why? What causes the tests to be too chunky? I think in most cases the tests were written after the production code, when its too late to make the design decisions that lead to de-coupling and testability. In fact, whenever I see big chunky unit tests, or tests that are not malleable, I view them as a signpost to smelly production code: too much coupling, or leaked responsibilities, or inappropriate abstractions.

So it pays to work hard on the “ilities” of the test code. Keep the tests simple to setup; keep them independent from each other; remove duplication from them; and have each test check a very few things. (Oh, and don’t over-use mocks … but that’s for another day.) Refactor them just as you would refactor production code, and just as frequently. Because then they are less likely to break unexpectedly in response to application changes that are apparently unrelated. And then maybe you’ll be able to use them as a quality control…


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