29 May 2012

two rules about testing and a meta-rule about software engineering

Here are two very important rules to write good automatic tests for software:
  1. Don't let the tests parrot the code.
  2. Focus tests on areas where you expect failures.
Before I go on with this post, I would like you, Dear Reader, to read those rules again, think about them deeply, and answer the following questions: have you ever seen a test that was useless because it violated rule 1? Have you ever worked on a piece of software that had lots of tests, but still let lots of failures happen? In hindsight, did some or many of those failure concentrate in particular areas?
More generally, due the rules seem true to you? Do they seem helpful? Or are they so obvious that they wouldn't even need to be stated so explicitly? Or might the opposite be true: the rules are too general for an ordinary developer to apply them well without further instruction? For example, what degree of redundancy between test code and production code constitutes parroting? How would an ordinary developer know in which areas to expect the most failures?
When I discovered the above two rules my attitude towards them swung wildly a couple of times. First I thought: “Wow, are those rules great. They're going to be the basis for my next book about software quality.” A bit later, I thought: “What silly rules to brag about. Any half-decent programmer is surely always following them unconsciously, just because they make so much sense.” Currently my thinking is: “Yes, yes, both is true: the good programmers follow the rules, even if they couldn't state them explicitly. But the bad programmers (or even the ordinary average wage-slave programmers of our day) will often create bad tests by ignoring just those two simple rules.”
And when I had that last thought, it occurred to me that the same is probably true about most “rules” or “guidelines” in software engineering or, for that matter, in any practical field. The best and most talented people always act in accordance with some unwritten rules and are often not aware of it. It takes other people to formulate those rules and even more people to reformulate them for specific audiences, discuss examples, do one-on-one coaching, ... until every ordinary practitioner of a particular profession has adopt the guideline into his daily routine.
That's the meta-rule:
Many good engineering (or life) rules sound simple and obvious, yet they require good judgement and/or lots of experience to be applied well.
And now, it's time for your comments!


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