Stories about Software


Introduction to Unit Testing Part 3: Unit Testing Sucks

I don’t know about you, but I remember desperately wanting to be able to drive right up until I was fifteen years old and I got my learner’s permit. I thought about it a lot–how fun it would be, how much freedom I would have, how my trusty old bike would probably get rusty from disuse. About a month after getting my permit, I desperately wanted my license and to drive on my own without supervision. But I’m omitting a month there, during which an unexpected thing happened. I realized that driving was stupid and awful and it sucked and I hated it and I’d never do it, so just forget it!

It was in that month that the abstraction of operating a car and having freedom became the reality of hitting the gas when I meant to hit the brake pulling out of my driveway or not knowing when I was supposed to go after stopping at a stop sign. It was a weird mix of frustration, anger, and fear that tends to accompany new activities–even ones that you know will benefit you. And that’s why the title of this post isn’t simple link bait. I did that not to satirize a position, but to empathize. Like many things when you’re new to them, starting to unit testing quite frankly sucks. It’s frustrating, foreign, and hard to get right. Accordingly, it’s easy to abandon it when you have deadlines to meet.


This post is about minimizing frustration and barriers to adoption by staying focused and setting reasonable expectations. I would argue that if you’re new to writing tests, writing a few and enjoying localized success without high coverage is a lot more important than suddenly becoming a TDD (Test-Driven Development) expert with 100% test coverage right out of the gate (or at least trying to become one). Incremental progress is good.

Don’t Try TDD Just Yet

I’m a little torn as I write this, but the first thing that I’ll suggest is that you not try TDD if you have no experience unit testing. Some might disagree with this suggestion, but I think that you’re going to be trying to learn too many new things all at once and will be a lot more likely to get frustrated. Unit tests are simply pieces of code that you write, as covered in more detail in the last post in the series. It’s a new kind of code to be writing, but you’re just learning about new methods to call and attributes (or annotations, in Java) to use. You’ll get there.

But TDD is an entirely new way of writing code. It’s a discipline in which you do not write any production code until you have written a unit test that fails. Then you get that test and all other tests to pass and refactor the code as needed. Does that sound crazy (if you discount the fact that a number of developers you respect probably do it)? Exactly. Probably not for you right now. It’s a bridge too far, and you’re more likely to throw up your arms in disgust and quit if you try to learn both things right now. I speak from experience, as, years ago, I was introduced to unit testing and TDD at the same time. I was overwhelmed until I just went back to figuring out the whole unit testing thing alone first. Maybe that wouldn’t happen to you, but I’d caution you to be wary of learning these two things simultaneously.

So let’s stick to learning what unit tests are and how to write them.

Test New Classes Only

In my pluralsight course, I use the example of a method that identifies numbers as prime or not, and in a series of posts I did last fall on TDD, I use the example of something that calculates a bowling score. I’ve also done other code katas and exercises like these in the past to show people both the mechanics of unit testing and TDD.

When I do this, one of the things people frequently say is something along the lines of “pff…sure, when you’re writing something stupid and easy like a prime number finder, but there’s no way that would work on our code base.” I then surprise these people by agreeing with them. I’m sure it wouldn’t work on your code base. Why? Well, because unit tests don’t just magically spring up like mushrooms after a few days of rain. They’re more like roses–you have to plan for them from the start and carefully cultivate an environment in which they can thrive.

Some years back, I saw an excellent talk on “The Deep Synergy Between Testability and Good Design,” by Michael Feathers. I highly suggest watching this talk if you haven’t seen it, but to summarize, he states (and I agree) that well-designed and factored code goes hand in hand with testability. You’re much more likely to find that code written to be testable is good code and, conversely, code written without unit tests in mind is not the greatest. And so if you’re deeply invested in a code base that has never been covered by unit tests, it doesn’t surprise me to hear that you don’t think unit testing would work on your code. I imagine it wouldn’t.

But don’t throw out unit testing because it looks like it wouldn’t work in your code base. Just resolve to do it on new classes that you create. As you go along and get better at unit testing, you’ll start to understand how to write testable classes. It will thus get easier and easier to test all new additions to the code, and you’ll start to get the hang of it with relatively minimal impact on your existing code, your process, or your time. Starting to unit test doesn’t mean that you’re suddenly responsible for testing every line of code in history, nor does it mean you must test every single new line. Just start out by writing a few that you think will help.

Test Existing Code by Extracting Little Classes

Once you get the feel for adding unit tests for new classes/code that you add to the code base, it’s a good time to start taking baby steps toward getting tests in place for your legacy (non-tested) code. Now, some procedural, monolithic mass of code that wasn’t testable a month ago when you started out isn’t magically testable now because you have some practice. It’s still a problem.

You’re going to have to chip away at it. And you’re going to have to do this by developing a new skill: identifying pieces of functionality that you can pull out into new classes and test. Go look through methods and classes and find things that don’t have a lot of dependencies on class fields or (yuck) global/static variables. Excellent candidates for this are methods with pure in-memory operations and ones that deal largely with primitives. Do you have some gigantic method that has a whole region buried in it that does nothing but cobble together a string to be used later in the method? Pull that out into a new class, and write unit tests that make assertions about the string it returns.

As you practice this, you’ll get a better and better feel for what you can pull out with a minimum of friction. You’ll find yourself not only getting more of your codebase under test, but also that you’re improving its design and modularity.

Know When to Fold ‘Em

This is another one that’s hard to type, but you really have to learn to look at code and just say, “nope, not happening.” There are classes and methods that you simply are not going to be able to test unless you come back with a green belt in unit testing–or pair with someone who has hers. And, even then, the prognosis may be that you need to rewrite the legacy class/method altogether to make it testable. Here is a quick list of things that, early in your unit-testing career, you should consider to be deal-breakers and simply move on from to avoid frustration. As a beginner, avoid testing code (class methods and properties) that:

  1. Calls static methods. At best, a static method is functional and returns something that depends only on its inputs. If this is the case (such at functions like Math.Pow() or Math.Abs()), the code is still testable, but a far more common case, especially if the static methods are ones in your own code base, is that they manipulate some kind of global state. Global state is testability kryptonite. I’ll explain more later, but for now, please take my word for it.
  2. Invokes singletons. The singleton design pattern is used almost universally as a politically correct way to hide your global variables in plain sight. For what this means to testability, see the last bullet. If it calls singletons, forget it, move on.
  3. Dispatches background workers or manages threading. When unit tests are run, the unit test runner is responsible for managing threading and it will run your tests in parallel. If you’re trying to make sure your threads and thread management are in one state for production and another for testing, you are about to ruin your day and probably your week. It’s not worth it–don’t try.
  4. Accesses files, connects to databases, calls web services, etc. I mentioned this in the first post in the series, but that was in the context of saying that these things aren’t considered unit tests. Well, another issue here is that they’re also relatively brittle and long running. If you write tests that do these things, they’re going to fail at weird times and in unpredictable ways. You’ll be used to all of your tests passing and suddenly one fails and then passes again, and it turns out it’s because Bill from accounting bumped into the database server and its Nic card is a little “tricky.” If you have unit tests that fail for borderline-inconceivable reasons beyond your control, you will become discouraged.
  5. Code that triggers any of the above anywhere in the call stack. You don’t escape the problems of threading, global state, or externalities by not using them directly. If you trigger them, it’s the same difference.
  6. Classes that require crazy amounts of instantiation. If you want to test a method, but it has forty-five parameters, most of which are classes that are difficult or complex to create, forget it. That code sorely needs reworking, and creating massive, brittle tests for it this early in your career will be a world of pain. Chip away at making the design better before you tackle it.

Don’t worry–I’m not suggesting that you give up on a long timeline, and I’ll continue on with this series and discuss strategy for addressing these things later. But for now, just consider them signals that this code is out of bounds for testing. If you don’t, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll spin your wheels and get angry, frustrated, and irritable, making it more likely that you’ll give up. I can’t eliminate the frustration of being new at something like driving, but I can at least steer you away from six-way traffic lights and three-lane roundabouts.