Blog of Rob Galanakis (@robgalanakis)

Teaching TDD: The importance of expectations

I read this interesting article from Justin Searls about the failures of teaching TDD, and his proposed improvements. Uncle Bob wrote up an excellent response on how Justin’s grievances are valid but his solutions misguided.

Justin’s article included an excellent image which he calls the “WTF now, guys?” learning curve. I think it sums up the problems with teaching TDD perfectly, and its existence is beyond dispute. I’ll call the gap in learning curve the WTF gap.

WTF now, guys?  learning curve

Uncle Bob, in his post linked above, touches on a very important topic:

Learning to refactor is a hill that everyone has to climb for themselves. We, instructors, can do little more than make sure the walking sticks are in your backpack. We can’t make you take them out and use them.

Certainly, giving a student the tools to do TDD is essential; but it is equally essential to stress the inadequacies of any tool an instructor can provide. A walking stick is not enough. A good instructor must lay down a set of expectations about TDD for students, managers, and organizations so they can deal with the frustration that arises once the WTF gap is hit.

First expectation: TDD describes a set of related and complicated skills. TDD involves learning the skills of writing code, test design, emergent design, refactoring, mocking, new tools, testing libraries, and more. You cannot teach all of these in a week, or even on their own. Instructors must introduce them via TDD, slowly. Until the student has proficiency with all of these topics, they cannot get over the WTF gap. This fundamentally changes how TDD must be practiced; students need a mentor to pair with them on work assignments when new TDD skills are introduced. If an organization or team is starting TDD, they need to have a mentor, or budget considerable time for learning.

Second expectation: Your early TDD projects will suck. Just like you look back in horror on your projects from when you first learned programming, or learned a new language, your first projects you use TDD on will have lots of problems. Tests that are slow, brittle, too high-level, too granular, code that has bugs and is difficult to change. This is normal. The expectation must be set that the first couple libraries or projects you use TDD for are going to be bad; the goal is to learn from it. The WTF gap is real; people must expect it and persevere past it.

Third expectation: If your organization isn’t supportive, you will fail. If you are one lonely person using TDD on a team of people who are not, you will fail. If you are one lonely team trying to use TDD in part of a larger codebase where others are not, you will fail. If your organization sets ridiculous deadlines and does not allow you to learn the TDD skillset over time, being slower initially, you will fail. If you want to do TDD and are not enabled, go somewhere you will be, budget time for changing the culture, or live with endless frustration and broken dreams. You need help to bridge the WTF gap.

Fourth expectation: TDD for legacy code is considerably more difficult. Learning environments are pristine; our codebases are not. There is a different set of strategies for working with legacy code (see Michael Feathers’ book) that require a pretty advanced TDD skillset. Beginners should stay away; use TDD for new things and do not worry about refactoring legacy code at first. At some point, pulling apart and writing tests for tangled systems will get easier, and may even become a hobby. The WTF gap is big enough; don’t make it more difficult than it need be by involving legacy code.

My feeling on teaching TDD is that no matter how you teach it, whether with some of Justin’s flawed ideas or Bob’s proven ones, you need to set proper expectations for students, managers, and teams.

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