Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Why is TDD so hard?

A little late is better than never, as they say.

I attended the Agile 2015 conference in Washington, D.C. back in August and was happy to see that there was at least one session about Test-Driven Development (TDD). I was even happier to see that someone was going to talk about sustaining TDD. I have also found that TDD can be very difficult to sustain and I have witnessed this with many of my colleagues at work. I suspect that it's not an uncommon problem across the board and the number of articles that Google turns up on this subject pretty much confirms this.

I had high hopes going into Scott Bain's session on "Sustainable Test-Driven Development" at Agile 2015 and he made some great points that I'll touch upon in subsequent posts. However, I think that Scott only scratched the surface of the problem and I believe his failure to dig deeper into it means that, ironically, his answers are not going to help much in sustaining the effort to promote TDD either.

TDD in Principle, not just Form

I just recently got to watch "Test-Driven Development: Ten Years Later," a presentation by Michael Feathers and Steve Freeman, both stalwarts of TDD, given way back in 2009.  Like I said, better late than never. Anyway, this is a great presentation and if you are an even bigger laggard than I am, you should go and watch it, too.

Despite having said them over six years ago, the things Michael and Steve talk about in the presentation are still very relevant today. And I see that Michael's skin condition still hasn't cleared up. Just kidding, Michael, I realize it's just a nervous habit you have. On the off chance that you really have been suffering from a recurring rash, I suggest a bit of moisturizing lotion or steroid-based itch cream <big grin, wink>. I kiiid, I kiiid. I'm a big fan of Michael's work and I think his WELC book should be on every programmer's desk, within easy reach for quick reference, right beside Steve's GOOS book.

One of the things in Michael's and Steve's presentation really resonated with me and got me thinking about possibly giving a presentation on it. Towards the end, at about the 45 minute mark, Steve says this about TDD:

"If you want to make this work, you have to understand how it works and what the practices are that go with it.  You have to understand the principles behind the practices."

Let me say that again with emphasis, because this is what I find myself saying over and over to the developers who attend my TDD workshop: "You have to understand the principles behind the practices."

I think that Steve is hinting at Cargo Cult TDD here. I always like to bring Aikido into the conversation so I compare it to what beginners experience in the Shu stage of ShuHaRi.  They are simply following the form, without necessarily fully understanding, or even partially understanding, the principles behind the practices.

The other thing that Michael and Steve mention at the end of their presentation that resonated with me was the need for craftsmanship and professionalism. Again, my Aikido training kicks in and tells me that this is not unlike the attitudes needed for shugyo, which is explained very briefly here and in great detail here. The documentary, "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," is really an exploration of the shokunin spirit, which is along the same lines.

The Truth about TDD

The hard truth is that TDD is difficult and I think the main reason people have a hard time learning and sustaining it is quite simple: It requires Mastery.

Just as with anything else that is worth doing, it's worth doing well. And you can't do something well without a healthy measure of Mastery.

Mastery takes Time

In "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," you learn that Jiro's sons spend years under their father's tutelage. Even young apprentices in their shop must spend many months paying their dues and doing other things in the kitchen before they are allowed to just cook the sushi rice. Getting moved up from cooking the sushi rice takes even longer and the standard of quality is higher and more difficult to meet.

In traditional Aikido dojos, uchi-deshi or live-in students have to help with the upkeep and care of the dojo, its surrounding compound, and the dojocho or headmaster, who often lives in the same compound. The uchi-deshi stay with the dojo for extended periods of time, anywhere from months to years, so that they can study intensively with the master. They put in a lot more time than the other students but it pays off for them in the long run.

It took me more than four years to work my way up through the kyu ranks before I was deemed ready to test for my shodan (1st degree black belt) in Aikido.  The black belt doesn't even mean that I'm really good at Aikido. It just means that I'm good enough and I understand enough to start actually learning Aikido. All that time before was spent just getting ready to learn. Again, I consider it time well invested.

It took me four years of dabbling and two years of more intensive solo TDD study to get comfortable with TDD and really grok it. That's a long time to be in the Shu phase of learning but it was well worth it.

Programmers are an impatient lot though. Ain't none of them got time for that! Well, most of them at least. Programmers need to get results in an internet minute and Mastery just doesn't go by that kind of timetable.

Mastery requires Virtue

In particular, Mastery requires the virtues of patience, humility, discipline, dedication, and perseverance. Each of these is challenging by itself, let alone all of them together. But that's what Mastery requires.

The master sushi maker, Jiro, had two sons. They learned about these virtues from their father. Only the eldest son would eventually take over the sushi shop from their father. The younger son would have to go and set up his own shop. He knew this all along and accepted his lot. He patiently studied and learned the trade over many, many years. He persevered for many, many years before he was given the blessing to set out on his own.  The same is true for Aikido instructors who want to branch off from the Hombu dojo, or the main school, and set up their own dojos.

Jiro's sons had no illusions about their ability to equal, much less surpass, their father's ability at making sushi. They knew that in time, they might be able to approach the kind of quality with which their father made sushi but they were humble enough to realize that they probably would never be as accomplished as he. This kind of attitude requires a tremendous amount of humility and self-awareness. It also requires dedication and perseverance to keep learning regardless.

I don't think being able to do TDD well demands quite those levels of virtue but mastery of it certainly requires levels that only a minority of programmers I have met seem to have or are willing to attain.

Mastery requires Perfect Practice

My son's viola teacher liked to say, "Practice makes habit. Only perfect practice makes perfect."

That's also true with sushi making, Aikido, and TDD. In fact, it's universally accepted that the only way to get to Carnegie Hall is through "Practice, Practice, Practice!" And even more practice.

Perfect practice.

Most developers who fail at TDD fail because of imperfect practice. Michael and Steve hint at that in their presentation, at around the 43 minute mark, where they show a table that involves some kind of magic number that has something to do with the spread of complexity within a code base and its relation to automated unit testing in various open source projects. You can search for related work by Keith Braithwaite if you're interested in the details. 

Anyway, Steve says that he feels that the kind of people who wrote the code in the projects that scored well (2.0 or higher) were the early adopters of TDD. He continues by saying that he's seen code bases with tests that are definitely not on the good side of the scale.

Steve's feeling and observation pretty much aligns with my suspicion that over time, the bulk of the later generations of programmers who have tried to do TDD have lost sight of what it means to practice it perfectly. Over time, TDD practice in the wild has become more and more cargo cultish. This happens in Aikido, too, and probably any other kind of practice of an art or craft as it proliferates among those who are further and further removed from the teachings of the original school of thought. I think it's very much like the phenomenon of Semantic Diffusion that Martin Fowler wrote about, only on a much larger scale.

What chance then do we mere mortal programmers have?

The above doesn't even begin to address the various challenges in adopting and sustaining TDD but it gives you an idea of how deep the problem goes, not just technically but philosophically as well.

I don't for one second believe that TDD is for everyone just as I do not think that Aikido is a martial art that everyone can get into or even just appreciate. Most long-time Aikido practitioners I have met have a certain kind of general mindset and attitude and I feel this is the same kind that you need to get into and appreciate TDD. You don't have to be a lifelong student of Aikido to have that mindset and attitude. You could just as well be a football player, a musician, or even a sushi maker. It's not an Aikido thing, it's a shokunin thing.

In subsequent articles, I plan to demonstrate some of the things I do when I practice TDD and delve deeper into the philosophy, principles, and mindset behind them. Hopefully, this will help other developers find a better understanding and some measure of sustainability in their TDD practice. I know it has helped me a lot.

And hopefully, after a few articles I'll have enough of my thoughts and material gathered and organized to be able to share in a presentation at Agile 2016 in Atlanta next year.

Next: TDD and the Backwards Brain

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