Thursday, June 21, 2012

Artistic Test Harnesses

Modern object-oriented development is primarily cobbling small pieces of reusable functionality together. In the midst of development — during Spring training when you are hitting, running, throwing, and batting all day — you implement very specific business rules in small modules. Given certain input conditions and certain characteristics of the underlying data the invoker expects you to return the right properties or accomplish a persisted change in the data with a specified method.

Quite frequently the classes doing the heavy-lifting work behind the scenes without any visible interface to the user. How then do you make sure that your modules work properly? And how do you verify they work correctly under different conditions when called by different classes and when the underlying data changes? This job my friend calls for the use of a test harness.

A good test harness is like an automated batting cage where you can walk in, press a button for sixty mile per hour pitches, and have a machine throw consistent strikes.

Essentially a test harness is an ugly, quickly thrown together form with a handful of buttons and data-bound fields (or perhaps a data grid) that allows you full access to all of the ways possible to invoke your methods and set or get your public properties.

I like to use a tabbed interface when I’m building a harness; frequently I develop several objects simultaneously as part of a larger library and each tab tests the features of one of the objects. The complete form thus covers a large chunk of the library. Click a different tab to have a slower or faster pitch thrown toward you.

The best part about a harness, aside from the convenience it affords to unit testing, is that in the throes and craziness of implementation you can use it for quick and dirty fixes (invoking methods directly rather than bothering a fully implemented interface). Yes you can always take a shortcut and set debug checkpoints to carry out unit tests. But the extra flexibility and thoroughness afforded by a test harness, even though it requires an extra day to throw together, is always well worth the effort.