Coding with Jesse

Test Driven Development

I had heard of Test Driven Development (TDD), an agile development technique, and I knew people I knew were using it. I started using it recently after I finally learned the philosophy behind TDD.

I had always understood it to be just a method of developing where you just make lots of unit tests. I've tried that and felt it was quite a lot of extra work, rather than just testing by hand as you go. I also thought it was mainly geared to Java-type development and not really web development. It turns out that it was boring and not beneficial because I was writing the tests after I wrote the code!

The secret to TDD is the whole "driven" part. You create the test before you write a single line of code. This makes you figure out what you want to do first, and forces you to structure the code in a way that makes testing easy. Basically, it forces each chunk of functionality to be in its own function, which makes the functionality more reusable.

Here's the basic process:

  1. Write a test.
  2. Run the test. Since you're writing a test before the functionality exists, it should definitely fail because you should be testing functionality that doesn't exist yet.
  3. Next, create the simplest thing that makes the test pass. You can even cheat here if it's easier. The sooner you see a passing test, the better.
  4. Once all the tests pass, you refactor your code to make it cleaner and more organized.
  5. Commit to version control (optional).
  6. Repeat.

You should also make sure you add a test whenever a bug creeps up, or whenever you realise there's some rule or assumption that needs to be made. Essentially, you should make a test any time you change the code. Often enough, you'll surprise yourself that things don't work the way you expect.

It turns out to be a lot of fun, and psychologically rewarding. By that I mean that you have short problems and successes. You see a red bar, solve the problem, and see a green bar a few minutes later. It makes you feel confident that you're building a system that works perfectly as expected.

The tools are definitely there for you:

  • For PHP and CodeIgniter, I highly recommend SimpleTest and/or SimpleTester for CodeIgniter. SimpleTest comes with lots of different test types, so you can test MVC controllers by loading URLs, clicking links, and making sure everything is there as expected.
  • For JavaScript and Ajax, there is JsUnit.
  • You can also do browser-side testing with Selenium.
  • And of course, Ruby on Rails is well known for its built-in testing features.

But even once you have the tools, you might look at your code and wonder where to start. I know I did. Without frequent unit testing, it's easy to end up with different functionality combined across multiple functions.

But you have to start somewhere. For the next piece of functionality you want to add, create a test for it first. This means you'll have to decide where that code will go. But how will you test the output?

It might occur to you that you could test the code easily if it were put into a single function in a library somewhere. This might involve creating a new class separate from everything you've done prior. You can always reorganize your existing code out of it's scrambled mess and into a set of easily testable, separated libraries and classes. You just need to start somewhere.

For more information do a Google search - there's tons written about it, and there are certainly libraries available for all the languages and frameworks you use.

Published on July 20th, 2008. © Jesse Skinner

About the author

Jesse Skinner Hi, I'm Jesse Skinner. I'm a web development coach focused on reducing developer burnout. I work with web development teams to reduce stress through automated testing and deployment, scalable infrastructure, and the modernization of painful legacy systems.

Through customized training and coaching, I empower teams to adopt new technologies to improve their workflows and make work more enjoyable. Feel free to email me. I'm eager to hear about your challenges and see how I can make your life easier.