Friday, July 20, 2012

Specify What, Not How

It was January 11, 2012 and I was attending Jim Weirich’s session on Vital Testing at CodeMash. Now I’ve seen his talks numerous times and continue to attend his talks any chance I have. Why? Because Jim is just that awesome! There is always something Jim says that triggers a challenge within myself that leads to improvement in how I approach crafting software. That day it was, “Specify what, not how

I already knew that specs should not describe implementation and I prided myself in being able to abstract the implementation details away from my specs. But as Jim elaborated further on specifying behavior and what was sufficient, I realized that I could not entirely rewrite my apps from just the specs. Why? Because even though I had abstracted away implementation details, my specs still contained some implementation details.

Take this snippet for example. What’s wrong with it?

Most Ruby developers would say nothing. And I used to too. Now look again at the very beginning. What is it that is being specified? The class name. The class name is being directly stated in our specification identifying how we are implementing our behavior. This is typically an accepted approach when using RSpec, but if our goal is to achieve the writing of specifications and remove implementation details from our code, then this is not ok.

“Ok then, how should it look?”, you ask. Let’s take a step back. In our example we are trying to describe converting roman numerals to integers, so let’s write that.

Ok, easy enough and it reads nicely and clearly states our intentions. “But how do you write the actual test?” Great question. If you could write it anyway you wanted, how would it look? Using our first example I propose “1 should be converted to I”. That’s great, but it will not execute without some heavy lifting. Not to fear! With a little tweaking we could write it instead as:

1.should be_converted_to "I"

Awesome (I <3 Ruby)! That is something we can work with. And the magic sauce that brings it all together ... custom matchers! Custom matchers easily allow us to be more expressive in how we write our specifications and provide nice wrappers for our implementation details.

Here is an example of what a custom matcher would look like based on how we just wrote our test.

All of our implementation details have now been abstracted away from the specifications and wrapped up in this cool little matcher. Now when we decide to change our implementation details we can leave our specifications alone and focus solely on our matcher. Expanded out a bit further our specifications could look something like this:

I don’t know about you, but those specifications are much easier to read AND to maintain. And yes, this does translate to your project. We've been taking this approach since January and have seen big gains in reducing any brittleness in our tests, but also we’ve seen the quality of our code increase significantly! 

The custom matchers have also helped identify when an object is doing too much. So when setup starts to creep into our matchers we quickly reevaluate our approach and refactor to remove the setup from the matchers, resulting in more independent objects. (Gotta love SRP!)

I hope this helps you in your quest to write better specifications. Special thanks to Jonathan Knapp for pairing with me that day as we explored this approach together in our quest to best roman numerals!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

What processes do you use?

I am often asked how we deliver software here at Dix Communications, to which I reply, “Our way”. Over the years I have been exposed to a variety of methodologies for developing and releasing software; the list includes RUP, eXtremeProgramming, Lean, Scrum, and even some Waterfall. The one aspect of all of those that sticks out above the rest is the opening sentence in Kent Beck’s book ‘Extreme Programming Explained’, “XP is about social change”.
Charles is happy! His tests are GREEN!

Everything about a software project requires social interaction. So if you are looking to improve your projects chances of success, look for ways to improve the social interaction with your project. Agile, Lean, eXtreme Programming and Scrum all introduce ways to improve social interaction and we have taken a best of bread approach that suits our needs and that is what we use here in the Digital dept.

In forthcoming posts I will describe which techniques we have found instrumental to us building and delivering successful software applications.