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Naresh Jain's Random Thoughts on Software Development and Adventure Sports
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Unit Testing Dilemma: Should I Invest or Not?

Every single line of code must be unit tested!

This sound advice rather seems quite extreme to me. IMHO a skilled programmer pragmatically decides when to invest in unit testing.

After practicing (automated) unit testing for over a decade, I’m a strong believer and proponent of automated unit testing. My take on why developers should care about Unit Testing and TDD.

However over the years I’ve realized that automated unit tests do have four, very important, costs associated with them:

  • Cost of writing the unit tests in the first place
  • Cost of running the unit tests regularly to get feedback
  • Cost of maintaining and updating the unit tests as and when required
  • Cost of understanding other’s unit tests
One also starts to recognize some other subtle costs associated with unit testing:
  • Illusion of safety: While unit tests gives you a great safety net, at times, it can also create an illusion of safety leading to developers too heavily relying on just unit tests (possibly doing more harm than good.)
  • Opportunity cost: If I did not invest in this test, what else could I have done in that time? Flip side of this argument is the opportunity cost of repetitive manually testing or even worse not testing at all.
  • Getting in the way: While unit tests help you drive your design, at times, they do get in the way of refactoring. Many times, I’ve refrained from refactoring the code because I get intimidated by the sheer effort of refactor/rewrite a large number of my tests as well. (I’ve learned many patterns to reduce this pain over the years, but the pain still exists.)
  • Obscures a simpler design: Many times, I find myself so engrossed in my tests and the design it leads to, that I become ignorant to a better, more simpler design. Also sometimes half-way through, even if I realize that there might be an alternative design, because I’ve already invested in a solution (plus all its tests), its harder to throw away the code. In retrospect this always seems like a bad choice.
If we consider all these factors, would you agree with me that:
Automated unit testing is extremely important, but each developer has to make a conscious, pragmatic decision when to invest in unit testing.
Its easy to say always write unit tests, but it takes years of first-hand experience to judge where to draw the line.

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