Your Tests are Armour

Recently I was updating a feature which provides a whitelist of postcodes. The list is used to limit who can use a service and the change request was to add further postcodes. Diving in I was surprised to discover a test with an expectation mirroring the exact list:

It("returns a list of postcodes", func() {
    expectedPostcodes := []string{
        "AB1 1",
        "AB1 2",
        "AB1 3",
        "AB1 4",
        "you get the idea... + 20 more postcodes",

    allowedPostcodes := postcodeProvider.LoadList("production")

This snippet is a just a tribute — the original is not mine to share.

This test will fail if the list is updated with any new postcodes or old ones are removed. It’s just mirroring the values in the source file. The path of least resistance is to simply update the test with the new anticipated values, see it fail, and update the implementation.

If that thought made you feel uneasy then you’re not alone. The postcodes in the list are direct values loaded from a file, part of the configuration of the application. Ideally the implicit virtues of the existing test can be teased out whilst rewriting it to be less brittle. Ultimately a change to the postcode list should not automatically necessitate a change to a test.

In my opinion the replacement tests would seek to verify:

If, for argument’s sake the values returned were more complex — say a computed property, based on a catchment area derived from a sales index — then more exhaustive assertions than a spot check may be in order. But this is just a slice of strings, loaded from a file.

Later on whilst reflecting about this little discovery and subsequently rewritten test I wondered if it was time well spent. To update both the test and postcode list in their original forms would have taken moments. To rewrite the test, check its validity by breaking the original implementation, then see it pass took a quarter of an hour, which has an opportunity cost.

I felt it was reasonable to take that extra time for a couple of reasons. Firstly bad practices can proliferate — acting as an inadvertent ‘example’ for less TDD-experienced contributors to copy & paste for a similar feature. Or perhaps the next developer who comes along observes the test in question, acknowledges it to be less than ideal, but writes tests in a similar vein because… well, broken windows.

Perhaps more importantly, in striving for the codebase to remain maintainable, it’s a small effort towards keeping the cost of change low. A test suite littered with over-specification and tests mirroring the implementation makes change harder, without giving you extra security that the application behaves as expected. This approach feels like encasing everything in concrete.

One way to think about your tests is as a suit of armour for your subject; you want your application to be protected but vitally still want your dear application to be able to move its arms and change direction. Encasing it in concrete means you do indeed know exactly where each skin fold is, but it’s lost the ability to move.

I have to stop writing this now, because the time spent rewriting the test and making this post is bordering on outrageous for such a simple feature. It wasn’t the burden which this one test weighed which made me pause, rather the thought behind it. If that thought spreads throughout your test suite, conspiring with other code gremlins along the way, it’s going make change hard and painful. Change should rarely be painful.