Writing Tests First

I think it’s safe to say that everybody agrees on the value and necessity of automated unit tests. Writing code without tests is the fastest way to accumulate technical debt. This is one reason why test-driven development (TDD) has become an accepted and preferred technique for developing high-quality, maintainable software. When asked to describe TDD, a typical response might include the red, green, refactor pattern. The idea is that you write a failing test first (red), make it pass (green), and then clean up after yourself (refactor). Easy, right?

Not so fast, my friend.

It breaks my heart to say it, but I think most of the developers on my team don’t write tests first. They follow more of a null, refactor, green pattern. Code is written first. It’s assumed to be pretty good but not verified. Then refactoring occurs to make the code testable as unit tests are written to test the code. I have a few problems with this.

First and foremost, by doing tests last, you’re making it possible to be “done” without proper tests. You should never have somebody say something like, “It’s done, but I didn’t have time to write all the tests.” I’ve seen this happen too many times, and it’s completely unacceptable. You aren’t done until you have tests, and the best way to ensure you have tests is to write them first. Period.

By not writing tests first, you’re also opening yourself to the possibility of writing untestable code. Regardless of whether or not you write tests before or after, you’ll have to figure out how to test the code you are or will be writing. If you write the tests after code, you might find yourself doing some heavy refactoring and restructuring to make the code testable–a step that could have been avoided completely by simply writing the tests first. Conversely, writing tests first empowers you to make smart design decisions that ensure testability before you’ve implemented your solution. Writing tests first forces you to write testable code, and testable code is typically more well-designed.

Tests-first help from a requirements perspective, too. You’re obviously trying to accomplish something by writing code, so what is it? Write failing or inconclusive tests to represent your requirements, and you’ll be less likely to accidentally miss a requirement in the heat of your fervorous coding. If you don’t know the requirements, you probably shouldn’t be coding anything. That should be a huge red flag. Stop coding immediately, and go figure out the requirements!

I don’t think I’ve presented anything terribly controversial here, so why aren’t people writing tests first? In my opinion, it’s primarily a mental block. You have to commit to it. Executing can be tricky–especially in the beginning–but making the commitment to write tests first and sticking to it is really the hard part. Execution will come with time and practice. But you still need to start somewhere, right? So, I’ve whipped up a simple workflow to help get you started. Note that a lot of this is situational, but the basic idea is to start with stubs and do only enough of the actual implementation to complete your test.

  1. Write a test method with a descriptive name.
    1. If I’m going to be writing a Save method, my first test might be named SaveSavesTheRecordToTheDatabase or just SaveSaves.
    2. Implement the test with a single line of code: Assert.Fail() or Assert.Inconclusive().
    3. Note that the Save method might not exist at this point! I’m just spelling out what I want to accomplish by writing test methods.
    4. Repeat for each requirement.
  2. Begin implementing the test.
    1. This will be different depending on the nature of what’s being tested. It might be defining an expected output for a given input. For my example Save method that will save the record to a database, the first thing I might do is create a mock IDatabase and write an assertion to verify that it was used to save the record.
    2. Go as far as you can without implementing your actual change.
    3. Leave your Assert.Fail() or Assert.Inconclusive() at the end of the test if there’s more work to be done.
  3. Begin implementing your changes.
    1. The goal should be to make the test code that you’ve written so far pass or to free a roadblock that prevents you from writing more tests. How will my Save method get access to an IDatabase? Will it be a method argument? Passed to the constructor? I can address these implementation details without implementing the Save method.
    2. Identify and write more tests as you go! For example, did you add a new method argument that will never be null? Add a test to verify that an ArgumentNullException is thrown if it is. Are you making an external service call? Write a test to verify that exceptions will be handled. Write the new tests before you implement the behavior that addresses them!
    3. Go as far as you need to complete your test code.
    4. Use stub methods that throw NotImplementedException if you need a new method that doesn’t have tests.
  4. Finish implementing the test.
    1. Add mocks, add assertions, and implement the rest of your test.
  5. Finish implementing your changes.
    1. Now, with a complete test, finish the rest of your implementation.
  6. Review tests and changes.
    1. Add additional test cases to verify alternate scenarios.
    2. Look for edge cases and ensure they’re covered. (Null checks, exception handling, etc.)
  7. Refactor!
    1. Don’t forget to cleanup after yourself!
    2. Now that you have a solid set of tests, you can refactor your code to make it shiny and clean. The tests will ensure that you don’t lose functionality or break requirements.

This isn’t a perfect workflow, and it won’t work for all scenarios. It’s just meant to help get you over the I-can’t-write-a-test-for-this-yet hump. Remember that writing tests first is a decision you make, above all else. Commit to write tests first. Fight the urge to implement first and test later, and stop coding if you find yourself implementing sans tests. After some time, it will become habit. You’ll learn how to deal with the tricky stuff.

Do you have similar experiences with getting teams to adopt TDD? I’d love to hear about them! Please share your thoughts and ideas related to the topic. What are some things that you’ve done or had done to you to improve adoption of TDD and actually writing tests first?


Author: Adam Prescott

I'm enthusiastic and passionate about creating intuitive, great-looking software. I strive to find the simplest solutions to complex problems, and I embrace agile principles and test-driven development.

2 thoughts on “Writing Tests First”

  1. As a former member of the QA team (not sure what they are called these days), I agree 100%. You will find the majority of the tests that were written after coding will pass because the developer knows what to avoid to write a failing test. Then once it goes to the QA team and bugs are found, they are surprised. “But I know my tests passed!”

    Good article 😉

    1. One of my favorite scenarios is when you make a change and expect a test to fail, but it doesn’t! It’s usually a case where somebody wrote the test expecting it to pass and didn’t bother to verify that it’s actually testing what they think it is. It makes me sad 😦

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