An experiment about communication through tests

lrg-668-wuerfelRecently, we conducted a little experiment to determine our ability to communicate effectively by only using automatic tests. We wanted to know if the tests we write are sufficient to recreate the entire production code from them and understand the original requirements. We were inspired by a similar experiment performed by the Softwerkskammer Karlsruhe in July 2012.

The rules

We chose a “game master” and two teams of two developers each, named “Team A” and “Team B”. The game master secretly picked two coding exercises with comparable skill and effort and briefed every team to one of them. The other team shouldn’t know the original assignment beforehands, so the briefings were held in isolation. Then, the implementation phase began. The teams were instructed to write extensive tests, be it unit or integration tests, before or after the production code. The teams knew about the further utilization of the tests. After about two hours of implementation time, we stopped development and held a little recreation break. Then, the complete test code of each implementation was transferred to the other team, but all production code was kept back for comparison. So, Team A started with all tests of Team B and had to recreate the complete missing production code to fulfill the assignment of Team B without knowing exactly what it was. Team B had to do the same with the production code and assignment of Team A, using only their test code, too. After the “reengineering phase”, as we called it, we compared the solutions and discussed problems and impressions, essentially performing a retrospective on the experiment.

The assignments

The two coding exercises were taken from the Kata Catalogue and adapted to exhibit slightly different rules:

  • Compare Poker Hands: Given two hands of five poker cards, determine which hand has a higher rank and wins the round.
  • Automatic Yahtzee Player: Given five dice and our local Yahtzee rules, determine a strategy which dice should be rerolled.

There was no obligation to complete the exercise, only to develop from a reasonable starting point in a comprehensible direction. The code should be correct and compileable virtually all the time. The test coverage should be near to 100%, even if test driven development or test first wasn’t explicitely required. The emphasis of effort should be on the test code, not on the production code.

The implementation

Both teams understood the assignment immediately and had their “natural” way to develop the code. Programming language of choice was Java for both teams. The game master oscillated between the teams to answer minor questions and gather impressions. After about two hours, we decided to end the phase and stop coding with the next passing test. No team completed their assignment, but the resulting code was very similar in size and other key figures:

  • Team A: 217 lines production code, 198 lines test code. 5 production classes, 17 tests. Test coverage of 94,1%
  • Team B: 199 lines production code, 166 lines test code. 7 production classes, 17 tests. Test coverage of 94,1%

In summary, each team produced half a dozen production classes with a total of ~200 lines of code. 17 tests with a total of ~180 lines of code covered more than 90% of the production code.

The reengineering

After a short break, the teams started with all the test code of the other team, but no production code. The first step was to let the IDE create the missing classes and methods to get the tests to compile. Then, the teams chose basic unit tests to build up the initial production code base. This succeeded very quickly and turned a lot of tests to green. Both teams struggled later on when the tests (and production code) increased in complexity. Both teams introduced new classes to the codebase even when the tests didn’t suggest to do so. Both teams justified their decision with a “better code design” and “ease of implementation”. After about 90 minutes (and nearly simultaneous), both teams had implemented enough production code to turn all tests to green. Both teams were confident to understand the initial assignment and to have implemented a solution equal to the original production code base.

The examination

We gathered for the examination and found that both teams met their requirements: The recreated code bases were correct in terms of the original solution and the assignment. We have shown that communication through only test code is possible for us. But that wasn’t the deepest insight we got from the experiment. Here are a few insights we gathered during the retrospective:

  • Both teams had trouble to effectively distinguish between requirements from the assignment and implementation decisions made by the other team. The tests didn’t transport this aspect good enough. See an example below.
  • The recreated production code turned out to be slightly more precise and concise than the original code. This surprised us a bit and is a huge hint that test driven development, if applied with the “right state of mind”, might improve code quality (at least for this problem domain and these developers).
  • The classes that were introduced during the reengineering phase were present in the original code, too. They just didn’t explicitely show up in the test code.
  • The test code alone wasn’t really helpful in several cases, like:
    • Deciding if a class was/should be an Enum or a normal class
    • Figuring out the meaning of arguments with primitive values. A language with named parameter support would alleviate this problem. In Java, you might consider to use Code Squiggles if you want to prepare for this scenario.
  • The original team would greatly benefit from watching the reengineering team during their coding. The reengineering team would not benefit from interference by the original team. For a solution to this problem, see below.

The revelation

One revelation we can directly apply to our test code was how to help with the distinction between a requirement (“has to be this way”) and implementator’s choice (“incidentally is this way”). Let’s look at an example:

In the poker hands coding exercise, every card is represented by two characters, like “2D” for a two of diamonds or “AS” for an ace of spades. The encoding is straight-forward, except for the 10, it is represented by a “T” and not a “10”: “TH” is a ten of hearts. This is a requirement, the implementator cannot choose another encoding. The test for the encoding looks like this:


@Test
public void parseValueForSymbol() {
  assertEquals(Value._2, Value.forSymbol("2"));
  [...]
  assertEquals(Value._10, Value.forSymbol("T"));
  [...]
  assertEquals(Value.ACE, Value.forSymbol("A"));
}

If you write the test like this, there is a clear definition of the encoding, but not of the underlying decision for it. Let’s rewrite the test to communicate that the “T” for ten isn’t an arbitrary choice:


@Test
public void parseValueForSymbol() {
  assertEquals(Value._2, Value.forSymbol("2"));
  [...]
  assertEquals(Value.ACE, Value.forSymbol("A"));
}

@Test
public void tenIsRequiredToBeRepresentedByT() {
  assertEquals(Value._10, Value.forSymbol("T"));
}

Just by extracting this encoding to a special test case, you emphasize that you are aware of the “inconsistency”. By the test name, you state that it wasn’t your choice to encode it this way.

The improvement

We definitely want to repeat this experiment again in the future, but with some improvements. One would be that the reengineering phases should be recorded with a screencast software to be able to watch the steps in detail and listen to the discussions without the possibility to interact or influence. Both original teams had great interest in the details of the recreation process and the problems with their tests. The other improvement might be an easing on the time axis, as with the recorded implementation phases, there would be no need for a direct observation by a game master or even a concurrent performance. The tasks could be bigger and a bit more relaxed.

In short: It was fun, challenging, informative and reaffirming. A great experience!