Unit Tests Questioned: Reading List

2017-02-01, , , Comments

I enjoyed talking about unit testing last night, and would like to thank Swansea Software Development Community and especially Viv Richards for organising the event, TechHub for the venue, and everyone who turned up to listen, ask questions and offer feedback.

The slides are available here. You’ll find links in the slide deck to the various papers and articles I referenced, but for convenience I’m listing them here with some notes.

  1. How Did Software Get So Reliable Without Proof? by Sir Tony Hoare, published in 1996, is a considered and authoritative paper, in which the author calls into question much of his own research. It’s not necessary to prove your programs correct, he writes, you can create systems which are both large and reliable using more pragmatic techniques. Since then, his conviction has strengthened. I had the privilege of attending his keynote at Europython 2009, when he spoke about the science of computing and the engineering of software (this same talk is available on InfoQ). His closing slide stated: One day, software will be the most reliable component of every product which contains it; and software engineering will be the most dependable of all engineering professions.

  2. Why Most Unit Testing is Waste by James O Coplien calls out the unit testing zealots and makes the point that testers should be skeptical.

  3. How SQLite Is Tested details what it takes to make bomb-proof software. Most of the tests described are system level tests. It’s an impressive document which proves that writing tests requires creativity, determination and maybe even a sprinkling of malice.

  4. Flaky Tests at Google and How We Mitigate Them is an honest and all too familiar tale of unreliable tests. However hard you try to eradicate test instabilities, it seems they creep back in at the same rate.

  5. Goto Fail, Heartbleed, and Unit Testing Culture argues unit tests would have trapped some notorious bugs in low level security software. It goes on to describe in detail the changing culture of the Google Web Server team, which successfully adopted a test-focused regime. There’s some good advice on de-flaking, so I hope the author connected with his suffering colleagues.

  6. The correspondence between Donald E. Knuth and Peter van Emde Boas on priority deques during the spring of 1977 provides the background and context of Donald Knuth’s famous quotation, “Beware of bugs in the above code; I have only proved it correct, not tried it”. It’s a a witty admonition but Donald Knuth isn’t joking. Don’t trust code until you’ve run it. Better, run it repeatedly through automated tests.