Test-driven-development can be labor intensive

I wanted to add a list of checkboxes to the “create employee” and “edit employee” pages. Each checkbox adds that employee to a group, and each group has certain privileges. Really standard stuff. I wrote the code in my controller and template in about 20 minutes

Then I played around with the new pages in my browser to check for obvious errors. I created some employees, monkeyed with their groups, then saved them, then opened up the edit screen, verified everything worked right, then monkeyed with them some more, and so forth. That probably took 5 minutes of clicking around lazilly.

In the past, that’s when I would have committed the code to the repository and moved on to something else. I played with it, it didn’t break, so we’re done. Total dev time: 30 minutes.

This time, I wrote a series of twill scripts to go through the different combinatorials of users and groups.

For example, if I have groups A and B, I would really test creating 4 different employees:

  • new user with no group membership
  • new user in group A
  • new user in group B
  • new user in groups A and B

After each creation, I verify that the page displays the data correctly and I then hit the database and make sure that everything is set correctly.

For the screen that allows editing employees, the most thorough possible test would take those four new employees and loop until each has been changed to every other possible configuration.

This took about another two hours by the time it was done. The next time I have to write code like this, it will be much faster because I figured out how to write code that yields tests iteratively. Using TDD, total dev time hit about 2.5 hours.

So, in this particular case, is it worth it?

Here’s the reasons why I would say that it was worth it:

I’m still learning how to write good tests. Writing thorough tests requires a different mindset, for me anyway. If I wait until I face some really gnarly complex code to write tests, I’m likely to write some crappy incomplete tests. Each test I write makes me faster at writing tests. Also, when I’m regularly writing tests, I write application code with testing in mind. I think more about design and protecting against what could go wrong, rather than just reaching the finish line any way I can.

And here’s the contrarian view:

Time is scarce and writing tests takes time. In a time-constrained environment, writing needless tests is as silly as blowing off real work to write blogs.

I’m not sure which voice in my head I will listen to on this one.