Test Cancer

6 December 2007

As my career has turned into full-time authorship, I often worry about distancing myself from the realities of day-to-day software development. I've seen other well-known figures lose contact with reality, and I fear the same fate. My greatest source of resistance to this is Thoughtworks, which acts as a regular dose of reality to keep my feet on the ground.

Thoughtworks also acts as a source of ideas from the field, and I enjoy writing about useful things that my colleagues have discovered and developed. Usually these are helpful ideas, that I hope that some of my readers will be able to use. My topic today isn't such a pleasant topic. It's a problem and one that we don't have an answer for.

The scenario runs like this. We carry out a project for a client and hand over a shiny new piece of software. As is our habit these days, we also hand over a bevy of automated tests for this software (typically there are as many lines of code of tests as there are of functional code). These tests are usually a mix of unit tests and broader ranging functional and acceptance tests. Either way the tests act as an active description of what the software does and a bug detector to quickly find problems as we evolve the software. We treasure these tests, they are a key to our success in building software systems.

Some months later the happy customer calls us back to do some further work on the software, adding new features and capabilities. We come in, keen to work on a code base that may have faults - but at least are our faults. Then we make an unpleasant discovery.

The tests no longer run.

Sometimes the tests are excluded from the build scripts, and haven't been run in months. Sometimes the "tests" are run, but a good proportion of them are commented out. Either way our precious tests are afflicted with a nasty cancer that is time-consuming and frustrating to eradicate.

We ask what happened and are told things like "we made a change and some tests broke, so we removed the tests". You can look at this as our failing - we haven't managed to fully teach the client teams about the value of the tests. We need to do more to pass on that failing tests need to be investigated, not simply ignored. But whatever anyone says, we've discovered that cancer of the tests is a common disease.

We don't think that the fact that Test Cancer appears is a reason against writing tests. Even if a particularly virulant strain wipes them all out the day after we leave, we still got value from them while we were building the system. And tests don't always get cancer. We recently spoke to a developer who had become a convert to TDD after maintaining a system we'd handed over a few years ago. The tests made our code much easier to work with than code that other firms had added later.