12 Steps to Testing in Rails

Posted by amy on August 17, 2007

We’ve several times complained about testing in rails. It’s difficult. It’s confusing. It’s time-consuming. No one really shows you how to do it well. There are too many choices for methods. You feel inadequate. Still, we soldier on. Or at least, in theory we soldiered on. In practice, our test code languished.

Until. A major refactoring was required on an app. Tried to convince client that feature requiring refactoring was not really that important. Oh, yes it is, says client. Okay, says I, and go in with a sledgehammer.

Well duh, I broke everything. I managed to implement the feature, and broke practically everything else in the process. And I couldn’t run my tests, which I’d been avoiding since long before the sledgehammer got involved, so they were in no shape to tell me what I’d broken anyway. And so Max just kept sending me Trac notifications from the other room, and I fell into despair when I realized that I had turned the code base into a steaming pile of putrid excrement. I don’t deserve to call myself a programmer, I thought. If only I had been diligently testing, this would never have happened.

So that was my ‘hit-bottom’ moment, when I realized that I had no control over my code and that I was ready to give my code over to the higher power of test-driven-development. I just had to figure out how to do it.

A lot of things were holding me back from making the transition to TDD. The biggest one, I discovered, was perfectionism and overwhelm. So many different ways to test. So many different things to test. So many different rails luminaries talking about their favored testing methods. So many different testing plugins, add-ons, and approaches. Too many decisions. I would sit down to write tests and just be absolutely paralyzed.

Once I realized that my big problem was perfectionism, I thought immediately of FlyLady. FlyLady is the reason our household is no longer buried in laundry and our kitchen is no longer buried in dirty dishes. FlyLady has some really great hacks for getting housework done, and those hacks can be applied to writing test code too.

Here are the most important points that Flylady makes:

  • The goal is “progress, not perfection”.
  • Baby steps will get you there.
  • You can do anything for 15 minutes.

FlyLady counsels us to start with the tools we have on hand, not to try to do everything all at once, to put one habit in place before we start worrying about others. Most importantly, she constantly reminds us that housework done badly still, in her words, “blesses” your household. In the same way, testing done badly still blesses your application. Any testing is better than no testing. Ugly, non-DRY, simple, non-idiomatic, inefficient tests are still tests, and they’re getting you closer to where you want to be, testing-wise.

With these principles in mind, I’ve finally been making progress on developing the TDD habit. Here’s my very own 12-step program for testing in rails. I sincerely hope it helps other fledgling Rails TDD programmers, and I’ll keep everyone posted on my progress.

1) Admit that without tests, you have no real idea of what your code does. You have no control over your code.

2) Forgive yourself for all the untested code that you’ve written in the past.

3) Open up any one of the generated test files in any one of your rails projects, and write a test. Just one. Do not write fixtures. Do not decide you really need to be using RSpec instead and get distracted downloading and playing around with it. Do not spend a lot of time reading other peoples’ clever testing strategies. Don’t even think about mocks or stubs. Just write a test. Start with unit tests, they’re easiest.

4) When you’re done writing the test, applaud yourself.

5) Now open up the terminal, cd to your project dir, and type “rake test”.

6) When the test is done running, applaud yourself.

7) Now make the test pass.

8) Again, applause.

9) Do the whole thing again. And again. And again. Don’t do it for more than 15 minutes at a time. Set a timer, write 15 minutes of awful, non-idiomatic, stinky, not DRY, trivial test code, and when the timer rings, ‘rake test’ and give yourself a cookie.

I’m only at step 9. I think steps 10, 11, and 12 will be:

10) After a long time, testing will start to feel more natural. You can take a few minutes to fiddle with fixtures, if you want. You can branch out into assertions you haven’t used before. Go crazy with assert_select. No, now is not the time to check out rspec, rbehave, or cruisecontrol. Just keep writing tests.

11) By now, you’ve started to write your tests before writing your code. You don’t have to look up assertions. You’ve developed opinions about how to organize your test code, and you know what really bugs you about test code, what you wish it could do differently, what trips you up and slows you down. Now, and only now, are you ready to look into the various testing plugins, tools, and alternate testing theories.

12) You are now a testing master. Spread the TDD gospel far and wide.

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    1. Lori Fri, 17 Aug 2007 12:36:08 UTC

      Good advice, all of it. One more addition. It is inevitable that under the heat of a tight deadline, with project managers breathing down your neck about squeezing in one last feature, and testers reporting bugs that HAVE to be fixed for this iteration, you will find yourself in a position where it will be easy to fix a bug, but hard to write the test for it. Forgive yourself for being human, and skipping the test part. But don’t forget to log yourself a bug/task to go back and write that test in a less pressured moment.

    2. mike Fri, 17 Aug 2007 13:54:48 UTC

      Fantastic article. Great pep talk.

      The only point I differ on is exploring other testing tools. I was still not dilligent about writing tests after moving from .NET to Rails (where tests are “baked in”) until I discovered RSpec. For some reason the syntax just clicked and writing tests no longer seemed like such a chore. I would suggest that you don’t get wrapped up in autotest, heckle and other add-ons until you get comfortable at just writing tests.

      I’ll admit that I still write most of my tests after the fact but I’m trying. Lord knows I’m trying.

      Maybe we can start a support group…”Hi, I’m Mike and I don’t write tests for my code.”

    3. Steve Sun, 19 Aug 2007 18:09:29 UTC

      I’d echo what mike said about at least looking at rSpec. It really has helped me think much more about what I’m trying to achieve with my tests/specs.

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