Monday, October 1, 2007

The Perils Of Emma

I just had my software engineering class do reviews of each others code where they analyzed the quality of testing from both a white box and a black box perspective. (Recall that in black box testing, you look at the specifications for the system and write tests to verify it obeys the spec. In white box testing, you test based on the code itself and focus on getting high coverage. That's a bit simplified but you get the drift.)

After they did that analysis, the next thing I asked them to do was "break da buggah"---write a test case or two that would crash the system.

Finally, they had to post their reviews to their engineering logs.

Many experienced a mini-epiphany when they discovered how easy it was to break the system---even when it had high coverage. The point that this drove home (reinforcing their readings for the week that included How To Misuse Code Coverage) is that if you just write test cases to exercise your code and improve your coverage, those test cases aren't likely to result in "strong" code that works correctly under both normal and (slightly) abnormal conditions. Some programs with high coverage didn't even implement all of the required command line parameters!

Code coverage tools like Emma are dangerously addictive: they produce a number that appears to be related to code and testing quality. The reality is that writing tests merely to improve coverage can potentially be a waste of time and even counterproductive: it makes the code look like it's well tested when in fact it's not.

Write tests primarily from a black box perspective. (Test-Driven Design gets you this "for free", since you're writing the tests before the code exists for which you be computing coverage.)

When you think you've tested enough, run Emma and see what she thinks of your test suite. If the numbers aren't satisfying, you might want to close your browser window immediately and think harder about your program and the behaviors it can exhibit of which you're not yet aware. Resist the temptation to "cheat" and navigate down to find out which classes, methods, and lines of code weren't exercised. As soon as you do that, you've left the realm of black box testing and are now simply writing tests for Emma's sake.

And that's not a good place to be.

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