why i broke 89 tests

A couple of days ago I made a little change to Reek and to my surprise 89 tests broke, which is bad. I tweeted about it, and soon @logosity had asked me to write about why it had happened. I know the same sort of thing happens to people all the time, and it can be quite traumatic in the otherwise placid flow of test-driven development. So I’m hoping it will be somewhat helpful to uncover the path that led me from blissful ignorance to test calamity with one keystroke. So without further ado, let’s do some root cause analysis…

Undesirable event:
I deleted an attr_reader that was called in only one place and 89 of Reek’s 360-odd rspec examples broke. Of these broken tests, only three were tests of SimulatedPolymorphism#examine_context, which was the deleted attribute’s one caller.

Why did the other 86 tests break unexpectedly?

Because they each indirectly invoked the one method that now could no longer work.

Why did they invoke the broken method?

Because they are integration tests, checking the co-ordinated behaviour of a dozen or so classes.

The broken method sits on a relatively new class, an instance of which is automatically included in the framework that those tests invoke.

The central class in Reek is the Sniffer, which obtains a syntax tree from a Source (eg. a File or a String or an IO stream) and then traverses it, firing events at registered SmellDetector objects as it encounters syntax elements they subscribe to. The broken method is in one of these listeners, and it is fired whenever the parser encounters a new class definition in the syntax tree.

Reek has a couple of hundred tests that each run a Sniffer over a code snippet, checking that the detectors find a specific set of code smells (and don’t find any others). The broken detector (SimulatedPolymorphism) is fired on any code fragment that includes a class definition; it turns out that only 86 of these couple hundred tests do that. The damage could have been much worse.

All of which means that the failing tests are “integration tests”, checking the overall behaviour of over a dozen classes under a variety of specific circumstances. Under some circumstances one of those classes is broken, so some of these integration tests fail.

Why are there so many integration tests in the unit test suite?

Because they are much easier to write than the tests for a single class would be. And they express the desired behaviour in ways that unit tests can’t. So I never took the time to write the unit tests.

Here’s an example of one of these tests:

describe ControlCouple do
  it 'should report a ternary check on a parameter' do
    code = 'def simple(arga) arga ? @ivar : 3 end'
    code.should reek_only_of(:ControlCouple, /arga/)

The corresponding unit tests would confirm that:

  • the code parser and method context objects conspire together to record the method’s parameters
  • the code parser sends an event to the control couple detector when, and only when, it sees a conditional expression
  • the control couple detector can obtain the enclosing method’s parameters
  • the control couple detector records a smell warning only when the conditional expression tests the value of a method parameter
  • the smell warning includes the correct information
  • no other detector records any warnings for the given code fragment

Unit tests exist for some of these cases and not for others. The ease with which I can write readable tests has made me lazy: I often don’t write the unit tests, because I get new features into Reek much more quickly this way. The penalty occurs when a change breaks one of the detectors or (worse) something in the Sniffer, because then I get dozens of broken tests and it can be difficult to pinpoint the problem quickly.

There’s also another reason I got lazy: As Reek’s internal architecture stabilized many months ago, most of the new code I write consists of adding new smell detector classes, which usually slot right into the existing stable framework with few surprises or problems.

So the root cause of my 89 test failures is the combination of a well-tested, stable, practically defect-free framework together with a great way to quickly write readable integration test examples. Is that so bad after all, I wonder.

Am I going to fix the problem? Yes and no. Each time this happens in future I will add the missing unit tests that should have failed. But I don’t want to lose the expressive value of these integration tests, so I plan to (gradually) organise them into a different test suite more closely related to Reek’s cucumber tests. What would you do?