Listen to your tests. If it's too much bother writing a test for a property, perhaps it's telling you that you don't need a property there.

A couple of days ago I published a blog post that caused some people to react, telling me that I'm wrong. That's most certainly a possibility, but what if I'm not? In this post I'd like to provide a bit of background on why I wrote that previous post, and where it may lead us.

Craftmanship

My blog post was a reaction to Robert C. Martin's post on The Pragmatics of TDD. One of the qualities I've always appreciated of people like Robert C. Martin and Martin Fowler is that they consistently explain the reasoning behind their actions. The part of The Pragmatics of TDD that caused me to react was that it contains practices that aren't explained.

Notice that Robert C. Martin takes time to explain why he doesn't unit test UI code (too much fiddling is involved). To me, that's a fully satisfactory explanation, so I didn't react against that at all. On the other hand, he states that he doesn't write tests against obviously trivial members, but no satisfactory explanation is given.

Robert C. Martin has been programming for more than 40 years, and been doing TDD longer than me, so I have no doubt that this pragmatic approach works for him (as well as for many of the people who disagree with my previous post). However, if, for the sake of argument, we accept the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition, Robert C. Martin is clearly an Expert. He uses intuition and tacit knowledge to make appropriate decisions. Normally, as in Clean Code, he does a great job of making this tacit knowledge explicit, but in this case I found the explanation was missing, so I wanted to explore that question.

Perhaps I was a bit high on laying out a logical argument. Yesterday, my wife (who's not at all a programmer) kindly read through the article and let me know that my language could have been less aggressive. It could, and I apologize if I offended anyone - particularly Robert C. Martin from whom I've learned so much.

Most of all, though, I think I could have stated my motivation and context clearer.

As I have previously stated on Twitter, I have come to the realization that I'm a Programmer more than I'm a Developer. While I love software, I love code more. If you ask my past employers and customers, they will tell you that I can get stuff done, too. However, I often code just to learn. This is an aspect of Software Craftmanship that is sometimes overlooked: Yes, we want to ship working software. However, we must always strive to become better at our craft, and that means practice. That means writing code for code's sake. That means obsessing over details.

It also means thinking about aspects of programming that many people take for granted, such as properties.

Tests provide feedback

Several people attacked my previous post because they think it's not practical and that it puts TDD in a bad light. Actually, I think it puts TDD in a splendid light because it made me explicitly realize something that I've implicitly 'known' for a long time: we use way too many properties in our code.

As always, we should take to heart the advice from GOOS: Listen to your tests.

If you think that it's ridiculous to write tests for automatic properties, then what is the feedback really about?

Most of my critics present the choices like this:

Unit test No unit test
Property
Pick one of the boxes.

However, I think the choice is more like this:

Unit test No unit test
Property
No property
If you think that testing a property doesn't provide any value, then listen to the test: Does it even have to be a property? Couldn't a public field be equally good?

In his post on the Pragmatics of TDD, Robert C. Martin states that getters and setters (properties) will be indirectly covered by other tests. This would also be true for public fields. This is even more pronounced in C# where the syntax for accessing a property is identical to the syntax for accessing a field.

I agree with both Robert C. Martin and Mark Rendle that in a lot of cases, we don't really care about anything as nitty-gritty as a single property. What we often care about is the overall behavior of a system. This is also the approach I teach in my Pluralsight course on Outside-In Test Driven Development. You don't see me write tests of properties there.

However, I made a mistake in that course, and another mistake in my previous post, and that was to design View Models with properties. Why are we even adding properties to View Models? The purpose of a View Model is to render in a particular way, either as UI, XML, JSON or something else. We care about the end result, not what the View Model class looks like. At the boundaries, applications aren't object-oriented.

The JournalEntryModel from my Pluralsight course should really have look like this:

public class JournalEntryModel
{
    public DateTimeOffset Time;
 
    public int Distance;
 
    public TimeSpan Duration;
}

Notice that the class simply holds three public fields. This produces the same JSON as the version where those three members are properties.

Summary

There may still be cases where properties are appropriate. If, for example, instead of writing an end-to-end application, you are writing a reusable library, properties provide encapsulation. In such cases, the property has a particular purpose, and it still makes sense to me to capture that behavior (yes: behavior, not data) in a regression test.

However, most of the times properties aren't warranted, and you might as well use a public field - this is the YAGNI principle applied. You don't have to test public fields because they can't possibly have any behavior.


Comments

In my opinion disciplines like TDD fall under a precise science and giving arbitrary rules to follow could be misleading.

Totally agree with Mark Seemann, tests give us control. I dare add that also a bad wrote test give us information; for example it can put in evidence a code smell in the system under test.

This discussion remind me a Stack Overflow question, How deep are your unit tests?.

It's interesting how Kent Beck start replying I get paid for code that works, not for tests...

In conclusion writing good test code and applying TDD is finalized to prove the correctness of a system.

It's a science; a lot of good literature (as books quoted here) and we can't rely on bunch of practical points.

2013-03-11 18:01 UTC

I don't understand your line of reasoning. If I understand you correctly, you're saying auto-properties should be tested, because they might be later changed to properties with some behavior. And you're also saying that it might be a good idea to use public fields instead of auto-properties, because you don't have to test those. But public fields might also be changed to properties with behavior later.

In other words, I don't really see the distinction between public fields and auto-properties. Either you should test both, or neither. But it doesn't make much sense to me to test auto-properties, but not public fields.

Also, one thing you ommited is that auto-properties can have private setters. I think that's extremely useful and it's something public fields can't do. But, according to your reasoning, those should be tested too, using trivial tests. What does listening to those tests say?

2013-04-01 12:40 UTC
Svick, if you change a public field into a property, it would be a breaking change, so there's a very real distinction there.
2013-04-01 14:27 UTC


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Published

Monday, 11 March 2013 13:57:00 UTC

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