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“It’s only test code…”

“Let me hack this in, it’s only test code”, “Don’t worry about getting it reviewed, it’s only test code”, “It doesn’t have to be elegant or efficient, it’s only test code”… do these phrases sound familiar? Chances are if you’ve working with test automation, at one point or other you will have heard these phrases, you have probably even used them yourself!

What is certain is that code written under this “it’s only test code” mantra will come back and bite you in the arse!

I’ve recently encountered a case where a test was giving a false positive, therefore hiding a real product bug because that test code was very badly written. Firstly it was very difficult to understand what the test was actually trying to achieve let alone how it was doing it, and this complexity masked a simple logic error. These issues are real and they do happen.

Let’s take a step back from this and look at what we are trying to do. We are writing test code that tests product code, and we do this to create a suite of tests that will help protect our software against regressions. This test code is making sure that the product behaves as it should by employing some sort of expected result verification. The simple cases of these are generally not a problem.

However, automation allows us to explore more complex scenarios in many more permutations. As this complexity increases then so does the complexity of the test code. It is at this point that code which has not been architected properly will cause problems.

Keep your friends close…

So, how do we make sure we are doing it right? The development teams I have worked on have always had Test Engineers working very closely with their Software Engineers. This is something that I have always tried to take full advantage of. They are coding experts! So run your ideas past them, ask for advice on how to structure your code, help you design your data structures.

This may require a shift in your teams viewpoint, as contrary to this section title and folklore, Software Engineers are not actually the mortal enemy of Test Engineers. As time progresses, and test automation becomes more and more ingrained in what we do, the two roles are converging more than ever. Over the 16 years I have spent as a Test Engineer, I have seen the grey area between the two roles grow significantly larger. This serves to strengthen the relationship and common bond between the two roles which helps to make test code activities so much easier!


Pair for the win

Possibly the best thing you could do to write good test code is to pair program on the task. This will serve a few purposes.

  • you will get the benefit of the Software Engineers knowledge and experience
  • the Software Engineer will gain knowledge on the testing process. Sharing the love is a wonderful thing!
  • two pairs of eyes are always better than one… And so are two brains. Between the two of you, I will guarantee you will derive more useful test cases than if it was just one of you.

Code reviews

Another policy which certainly pays dividends is the practice of code reviews. By having one of your peers review your code before you commit it serves two purposes. Firstly, it forces you to explain your code. Just the act of doing this will often pick up errors in your code. Secondly, it gets yet another pair of eyes on your code!

I cannot stress enough how important code reviews are. The benefits they offer apply as much to product code as test code. In short, Software and Test Engineers should all be doing them! It can be extended even further by getting test code reviewed by a Software Engineer and a Test Engineer, and likewise product code. This serves to keep both functions in the loop with changes going on within your code base.

Learn from your devs

I briefly touched on this earlier but I’d like to go into more detail here. Pairing with your Software Engineers when writing your test code is such an amazing opportunity to improve your coding skills.

As I sit here writing this article waiting to be called into court for jury service, it reminds me that it takes a lot of patience to be a Test Engineer, almost as much as it takes to be a juror! However tempting it is to go rushing in and start writing your automated tests, resist that urge.

Discuss what you want to achieve then talk through the approach you’re going to take. Then code it up together. I find it really enlightening to ask questions like ‘is there a better way to do this?’ Or ‘is this how you would code it?’

The latter question, especially, is where I learn the most. I’ve found that most Software Engineers will be reluctant to show you the ‘right way’ to code something when writing tests because they perceive the ‘right way’ to be too complicated for the Test Engineer (e.g. not mentioning LINQ and instead doing something verbose). So by asking how THEY would code it, it unleashes their true dev-ness and advanced code usually ensues! I would like to point out, however, that you don’t have to accept their method as the final answer. On numerous occasions I have opted for the more simple/verbose solution because I found the code written by the Software Engineer too advanced and therefore I would find it unreadable when I return to the code in a months’ time!

Always keep the target audience in mind when writing clever code, and in my case that is mostly Test Engineers.

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