Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Testing without tests

Like some horrible nightmare come back to haunt the daytime, I'm working on an extensive, mixed-language code base lacking unit tests. XP likes to promote courage—the courage to make changes—, but without unit tests I feel like a tight-rope walker with no net to catch me when I fall. And sure enough, I fell this past week.

Our code base has some serious poor design decisions, many of which are old and embedded in the psyches of existing staff. No one defends the errors, but everyone is afraid to cut them out for fear that the operation may be a success, but the patient dies anyway. I began some cutting last week, trying to untagle a weave of deeply-nested if/else branches, protected data members, fake data objects and everpresent tests for null. Every single one of these is a bad code smell.

It comes as no surprise that I failed to repair all the damage I caused in my changes given that there were no unit tests for the affected code. I added unit tests where I worked directly, but that left large swaths of code untested elsewhere, much of it lurking and unseen in unrelated (but actually related) sections of our system. I've since added more tests and fixed the resultant defects, but in the meanwhile we had about a week of failed Q/A testing in areas no one thought had changed.

XP also eschews code ownership and programmer ego, so I owned up quickly in a public email that I thought I may have caused the problems with my changes, and that I was looking for someone to review code with me to find the trouble spots. This did get one senior programmer to review one of my changed files and to note that he could see nothing wrong with it, but it also prompted him to publically rebuke me when I asked him for a code review of my new changes that fixed one of the problems. He was afraid his name would be tarred by my mistakes. This makes for a difficult environment to work in.

Courage, I remind myself, courage. And more unit tests.

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