What are some good ways to convince the skeptical developers on the team of the value of Unit Testing?
Everyone here is going to pile on lots of reasons out of the blue why unit testing is good. However, I find that often the best way to convince someone of something is to listen to their argument and address it point by point. If you listen and help them verbalize their concerns, you can address each one and perhaps convert them to your point of view (or at the very least, leave them without a leg to stand on). Who knows? Perhaps they will convince you why unit tests aren’t appropriate for your situation. Not likely, but possible. Perhaps if you post their arguments against unit tests, we can help identify the counterarguments.
It’s important to listen to and understand both sides of the argument. If you try to adopt unit tests too zealously without regard to people’s concerns, you’ll end up with a religious war (and probably really worthless unit tests). If you adopt it slowly and start by applying it where you will see the most benefit for the least cost, you might be able to demonstrate the value of unit tests and have a better chance of convincing people. I realize this isn’t as easy as it sounds – it usually requires some time and careful metrics to craft a convincing argument.
Unit tests are a tool, like any other, and should be applied in such a way that the benefits (catching bugs) outweigh the costs (the effort writing them). Don’t use them if/where they don’t make sense and remember that they are only part of your arsenal of tools (e.g. inspections, assertions, code analyzers, formal methods, etc). What I tell my developers is this:
They can skip writing a test for a method if they have a good argument why it isn’t necessary (e.g. too simple to be worth it or too difficult to be worth it) and how the method will be otherwise verified (e.g. inspection, assertions, formal methods, interactive/integration tests). They need to consider that some verifications like inspections and formal proofs are done at a point in time and then need to be repeated every time the production code changes, whereas unit tests and assertions can be used as regression tests (written once and executed repeatedly thereafter). Sometimes I agree with them, but more often I will debate about whether a method is really too simple or too difficult to unit test.
If a developer argues that a method seems too simple to fail, isn’t it worth taking the 60 seconds necessary to write up a simple 5-line unit test for it? These 5 lines of code will run every night (you do nightly builds, right?) for the next year or more and will be worth the effort if even just once it happens to catch a problem that may have taken 15 minutes or longer to identify and debug. Besides, writing the easy unit tests drives up the count of unit tests, which makes the developer look good.
On the other hand, if a developer argues that a method seems too difficult to unit test (not worth the significant effort required), perhaps that is a good indication that the method needs to be divided up or refactored to test the easy parts. Usually, these are methods that rely on unusual resources like singletons, the current time, or external resources like a database result set. These methods usually need to be refactored into a method that gets the resource (e.g. calls getTime()) and a method that takes the resource as a argument (e.g. takes the timestamp as a parameter). I let them skip testing the method that retrieves the resource and they instead write a unit test for the method that now takes the resource as a argument. Usually, this makes writing the unit test much simpler and therefore worthwhile to write.
The developer needs to draw a “line in the sand” in how comprehensive their unit tests should be. Later in development, whenever we find a bug, they should determine if more comprehensive unit tests would have caught the problem. If so and if such bugs crop up repeatedly, they need to move the “line” toward writing more comprehensive unit tests in the future (starting with adding or expanding the unit test for the current bug). They need to find the right balance.
Its important to realize the unit tests are not a silver bullet and there is such a thing as too much unit testing. At my workplace, whenever we do a lessons learned, I inevitably hear “we need to write more unit tests”. Management nods in agreement because its been banged into their heads that “unit tests” == “good”.
However, we need to understand the impact of “more unit tests”. A developer can only write ~N lines of code a week and you need to figure out what percentage of that code should be unit test code vs production code. A lax workplace might have 10% of the code as unit tests and 90% of the code as production code, resulting in product with a lot of (albeit very buggy) features (think MS Word). On the other hand, a strict shop with 90% unit tests and 10% production code will have a rock solid product with very few features (think “vi”). You may never hear reports about the latter product crashing, but that likely has as much to do with the product not selling very well as much as it has to do with the quality of the code.
Worse yet, perhaps the only certainty in software development is that “change is inevitable”. Assume the strict shop (90% unit tests/10% production code) creates a product that has exactly 2 features (assuming 5% of production code == 1 feature). If the customer comes along and changes 1 of the features, then that change trashes 50% of the code (45% of unit tests and 5% of the production code). The lax shop (10% unit tests/90% production code) has a product with 18 features, none of which work very well. Their customer completely revamps the requirements for 4 of their features. Even though the change is 4 times as large, only half as much of the code base gets trashed (~25% = ~4.4% unit tests + 20% of production code).
My point is that you have to communicate that you understand that balance between too little and too much unit testing – essentially that you’ve thought through both sides of the issue. If you can convince your peers and/or your management of that, you gain credibility and perhaps have a better chance of winning them over.