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Why Most Unit Testing is Waste

By James O Coplien

Unit testing was a staple of the FORTRAN days, when a function was a function and was sometimes worthy of functional testing. Computers computed, and functions and procedures represented units of computation. In those days the dominant design process composed complex external functionality from smaller chunks, which in turn orchestrated yet smaller chunks, and so on down to the level of well-understood primitives. Each layer supported the layers above it. You actually stood a good chance that you could trace the functionality of the things at the bottom, called functions and procedures, to the requirements that gave rise to them out at the human interface. There was hope that a good designer could understand a given function’s business purpose. And it was possible, at least in well-structured code, to reason about the calling tree. You could mentally simulate code execution in a code review. 

Object orientation slowly took the world by storm, and it turned the design world upside-down. First, the design units changed from things-that-computed to small heterogeneous composites called objects that combine several programming artefacts, including functions and data, together inside one wrapper. The object paradigm used classes to wrap several functions together with the specifications of the data global to those functions. The class became a cookie cutter from which objects were created at run time. In a given computing context, the exact function to be called is determined at run-time and cannot be deduced from the source code as it could in FORTRAN. That made it impossible to reason about run-time behaviour of code by inspection alone. You had to run the program to get the faintest idea of what was going on.

So, testing became in again. And it was unit testing with a vengeance. The object community had discovered the value of early feedback, propelled by the increasing speed of machines and by the rise in the number of personal computers. Design became much more data-focused because objects were shaped more by their data structure than by any properties of their methods. The lack of any explicit calling structure made it difficult to place any single function execution in the context of its execution. What little chance there might have been to do so was taken away by polymorphism. So integration testing was out; unit testing was in. System testing was still somewhere there in the background but seemed either to become someone else’s problem or, more dangerously, was run by the same people who wrote the code as kind of a grown-up version of unit testing.

Classes became the units of analysis and, to some degree, of design. CRC cards (popularly representing Classes, Responsibilities, and Collaborators) were a popular design technique where each class was represented by a person. Object orientation became synonymous with anthropomorphic design. Classes additionally became the units of administration, design focus and programming, and their anthropomorphic nature gave the master of each class a yearning to test it. And because few class methods came with the same contextualization that a FORTRAN function did, programmers had to provide context before exercising a method (remember that we don’t test classes and we don’t even test objects — the unit of functional test is a method). Unit tests provided the drivers to take methods through their paces. Mocks provided the context of the environmental state and of the other methods on which the method under test depended. And test environments came with facilities to poise each object in the right state in preparation for the test.

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Category: Agile

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