TDD or Not TDD? That is the question!

What actually is TDD (Test Driven Development) ? Is TDD Dead?

Do you associate this term for when Tests actually Drive Development,  or use the label TDD for the practice of ensuring code coverage by having units tests? TDD can be taken to mean different things than the original meaning, and there are some risks from that shift in meaning.

I recently was searching online for discussion on TDD, and was surprised to find many pages describing TDD as simply ensuring unit tests are in place, but then other pages using TDD to refer to when Test actually Drive Development.  This difference in definition result in considerable confusion.

This page looks at what people is accepted as best practice today, how that fits with the original meaning of TDD, and the dangers and problems that do, and have already, resulted from a shift in meaning of TDD, what is dead and what is not dead.



Unit Test

It is generally assumed that a reader of this page will know what a ‘unit test’ is, but for clarity, a unit test a is program function that sets up specific inputs and then calls a target software ‘unit’  in order to verify the output of the target software unit is as expected, when given those specific inputs.  A software unit could be a function, a class or a module or even an overall software package.

Unit Tests

‘Unit Tests’, plural, or perhaps even clearer (but longer) a ‘unit test suite’ denotes a set of unit tests that should contain sufficient individual tests to infer that a software ‘unit’ will perform as expected, for each possible combination of inputs that the software unit under test could be expected to encounter in normal use.

TDD (Test Driven Development)

There is no universal agreed meaning of TDD.  There is the original meaning by Kent Beck, and some say even Kent has changed ideas as we all do, but the original meaning is the only one in a book, so on this page I will tend use that original meaning, except where I specifically discuss how people take TDD to mean something different.

From the original meaning, TDD is using tests to drive development. Such tests are specifically created not to form a test suite, but to enable software design and development. Some tests created during Test Driven Development are useful for a test suite, some may become redundant once software has been developed, and the TDD process does not automatically result in a complete set of Unit Tests.

Assertion Test.

This is a term introduced here, and can help reading this page if nothing else.  Unit tests can have one or more assertions. These assertions should together make a cohesive Unit test and that is discussed on another page. In the following examples, Uncle Bob sometimes says he is adding a new unit test, when in fact he then adds a new assertion to an existing unit test.  How many assertions does it take to make a unit test? Ideally one, but in real world it may take more.  When this page refers to an assertion test, it is a an individual (assertion) component of a unit test, and it could be confusing to describe that as a unit test.

Common to both TDD tests & Unit Tests (Test Suites)

Tests: The Only Real Specification

What does a program actually do? It passes the tests.

Any other specification is what someone believes the program should do, not what the program actually does.

A program is measured by its tests, and the result of those tests are the only real specifications.  Confusingly, sometimes design goals are described as specifications.

If you consider the specification of a camera, or car. Almost all specifications are established by measuring the values that are specifications, eg. engine power in horse power or kilowatts.  Certainly, the measured value may match the value that was the design goal, but for example if the car had a design goal of engine power 110kw but actually is measured to produce 105kw, it is only the measured value, not the design goal, which can be quoted as the product specification.  If the design goal was quoted as a specification, a customer would feel mislead.

A program is measured by its tests, and the result of those tests is the real specification.

Easily Repeatable Automated Tests Are Best.

Some code is difficult to test automatically. How do you test a function with a program that prints for example?  For some code it is simply far easier to run the program a see what prints.  In almost all cases, a system redesign to allow an automated Unit Test is the only satisfactory solution.  Unit tests can even be presented as a system specification.

A Failing Test Before Any Production Code.

No code should ever be written without first predetermining what the code should do.  This simply means do not start a task without first deciding what constitutes completing that task. For unit tests, add the unit test before the code is in place (if the production code already exists, still run the test before including the code in the system). For TDD as originally proposed, the test should be added before the solution has been determined.

TDD vs Unit Tests

A TDD Example with ‘Uncle Bob’

The following video of a talk by Uncle Bob is very useful, but quite long, so the main points will be discussed here without needing to watch entire video. Consider now the  video from 24m05s through to 42m:00s.

A total of 10 assertion tests are created.  The first 9 assertion tests are best described as TDD tests, with the 10th test the only actual unit test assertion.  This is because as the story unfolds, as told in the video, assertion tests 1 though 9 are all created without first creating the algorithm.  There is no algorithm other than what emerges as a result of incrementally adjusting code to pass tests. These tests drive development of a solution to the requirements of each test.  Test 10  (line 18) fits the definition of a conventional unit test.  The algorithm code already exists and works before this last test is written, and this test never exists as a failing test.

In fact it could be argued that all of the first 9 assertions are no longer required once test #10 is added.  It could be argued that at least the first test helps at least with documentation.  Perhaps even the first and second test add to explanation of the code, but clearly having an assertion test for every value from 1 through 9 is somewhat redundant.

On the other extreme, test cases such as factoring 0 (zero), or negative numbers, are not considered.  Sufficient tests to drive the development does not automatically ensure a full set of tests for all case, and can result in some tests not really required once the development is complete.

Unit Test Without TDD Example

TDD or not, there is a important rule that the test should be in place before the code to be tested is in place, which enable verification that can fail,  but that requirement does make the test drive the solution.  In fact, if the solution is obvious, the solution will drive the test.

Clearly, at least by the time of example video,  Uncle Bob actually knew in advance how to code to solution to prime factors. If you are Uncle Bob and already know how to code the solution, why not move directly to test #10?  The advantage of using tests to drive development, is that you can built up to the solution by adding new tests cases.  while having certainty that previous functionality still works.  A solution can be developed step by step, with the increasing set of tests providing certainly every previous step is not being broken.  But what is the point of those steps if you already know the complete solution?   In that case, why not just  create a tests that validate the overall solution.

If you have an algorithm at the outset, then you could move directly to test number 10  factorsOf(2x2x3x3x5x7x11x11x13) and bypass all the simplistic tests 1 through 9, that test cases so simple that if any of those simple cases failed, test 10 would fail anyway.

Benefits and Limitations of TDD.


The promise of TDD is that the problem can be reduced to the simplest solution that passes the required tests, and allowing a simple solution.  When a complete solution seems challenging, instead of being locked out by the design challenge, development can commence immediately and build the solution piece by piece.  In the Uncle Bob example, a solution to factorsOf()arises from the tests without any formal design process.  In the late 90s, when Kent Beck and others first developed TDD this seemed like magic.  Not only did solutions arise without a formal design, process, they say that elegant solutions could arise as from testing. It seemed all solutions could be provided this way, something which most proponents (including Uncle Bob as discussed below)  have since come to realise is not true.  Design driven from tests can solve problems not solved otherwise, but it simply is not an optimum solution, or even a solution, for every problem


camel-is-a-horse-with-drop-shadowThere is a famous quotation  ‘a camel is a horse designed by a committee’. The implication being when design tasks are split, an elegant overall design can be missed.  Consider the factorisation function called with 101:   factorsOf(101)

The main loop will test if every number from 11 through 100 is a factor of 101, when once 11 (where 11×11 > 101) is reached, it is already clear the number is prime.  No number between 11 and 100 need be tested.  Perhaps development driven by tests would never discover this inefficiency?

Balancing Benefits and Limitations.

A solution arrived at through tests will not always be better than a solution planned by studying the overall problem.  The best approach is to consider both methods and compare solutions.  Driving to a solution through tests can breakthrough when no overall solution is clear, but in the end very few software projects are as simple overall as the factorsOf example.  Most often it is only parts of the solution that will have an immediate clear solution.

Solutions where possible should start with an architecture, but as code is built and tested the results allow for redefining the architecture.

In some ways, the only difference between may be immediately apparent solution and the solution driven by steps is the size of the steps a problem.  The factorsOf() project could actually be tacked as a single step, with a single test to be passed.  But if the solution is not apparent, then break it into steps and incrementally add tests.

Most software projects are more significant than ‘factorsOf” and are too large to be developed in one step before testing.  They should be broken into steps, but should those steps be broken into smaller steps?

The balance between driving to a solution with staged tests and simply testing for the end result comes down to choosing the right sized steps to tackle as a single step.

The full original TDD has its place, but a more balance development process should be taken overall.

The Three Rules of ‘TDD’?

Newton created three laws of motion.  There are three laws of thermodynamics.  Hey, even Isaac Asimov got to write three laws, so why not Uncle Bob?  Note there questions on to what definition of TDD these three rules apply. But in the case of both thermodynamics and Isaac Asimov, later review resulted in a more fundamental ‘zeroth’ law, so perhaps some review of Uncle Bobs laws is also acceptable?  Uncle Bob compares his laws to procedures that surgeons treats a ‘law’.  Although failure to follow the pre-surgery procedures suggest a surgeon is unprofessional, it should also be considered the following the procedures does not ensure a surgeon is a good surgeon. Following the laws for TDD alone will not ensure code is quality TDD code.

1. No production code without a failing test.

Recall that a test is a tangible specification, and at least at one level, this law should seem axiomatic. It could be translated as ‘have some specification of what you are going to code before you code, and you should not bother coding if the specification is already met’.

For example, if you set out to write a program that prints the national flag. Your test might be ‘when i run it, what it prints should look like the national flag’.  The test is very subjective, and could be considered an ad-hoc test, and it is very hard to automate, but it is a test.  There should always be a test before you write any code.

It is very important that the test is a unit test. However, in the rare cases a unit test is not practical, having a test that is as concrete as possible is still essential. The clear the specification..  A project can be started without a concrete overall specification, but at the very least each stage should be specified before that stage is commenced.  The specification, and hence the test, can still have flexibility.  But how flexible and deciding what test(s) to  apply is critical.

I suggest this law is essential to any software development. No production code without a failing test, and unless there is a very sound reason why it is impractical, that test should be a unit test.

2. Apply tests one at a time, in the smallest increments possible

I have changed this ‘law’, and in fact still do not regard it as a clear ‘law’, but more of a goal.   The goal is hard to word with the precision required for a ‘law’, and it is more difficult to determine when it is being broken or followed. The original wording from Uncle Bob: You are not allowed to write any more of a unit test than is sufficient to fail, and compilation tests are failures.  has two problems.  1) it is open to reading as making mandatory the  very part of the original Kent Beck definition of TDD  Uncle Bob is on the record as saying is ‘horseshit’ (more on this later on this page),  secondly the wording is open to different interpretation.

The original Kent Beck  definition of TDD would require strict adherence to tests driving all development- including design. The code to meet test number ‘n’  for a system (test=specification) must be in place prior to writing test number ‘n+1′  ( the next specification).   Strictly adhering to this principle would mean if someone says to you, “I want a new program, and it must do these three things…” you would stop them and say… “No, wait, I can only record one specification detail at a time!  Wait until the code is in place for the first thing, before considering any further functionality!”.   More normal convention would suggest that if it is planned that there are three things the program should do, surely what those three things are can be written down.  If you have good tools, the bet way to record those three ‘things’ or specifications is to record what they are as tests.  They those tests can still be activated one at a time, and that is what should be done.  Appropriate TDD is to activate tests on the code incrementally one at a time, but actually recording them ahead of time should not be banned.  It is sill possible to amend the specifications/tests as the system develops, without banning writing down suggested specifications/tests ahead of time in any form… either as code or as any other language form.

The second problem of the ‘law’ is that words are open to interpretation. What exactly is sufficient to fail?  Perhaps ‘sufficient to be used as a failing test’ makes more sense?  And what does ‘write’ mean?  If a future test occurs to you ahead of time, you should never write it down? In practice, there should be some way of recording that tests are not to be applied yet, even if it means commenting them out or preferably marking them as ‘future’ or some agreed notation.  With the factorsOf() example as explained and coded in the video, one assert at a time makes sense.  But if you know the solution, in which case there are too many asserts in the example, then adding all asserts you do need before adding code that should pass all asserts immediately simply makes sense. In fact, in the example, the last assert could be interpreted as several tests in one…..but it is still practical.

3. One there is code passes tests, do not progress before considering tests for other condition for the code just added.

Ok, this is not what Uncle Bob said in his laws (although it is followed in his example).  It could be claimed that this is about sound unit tests rather than under the heading TDD, but different people have different interpretations of terminology.

Uncle Bobs third law is stated as You are not allowed to write any more production code than is necessary to pass the one failing test.  This to me is simply restating the first law. Don’t write production code without a failing test.  Once the test is passes, then you no longer have a failing test.  This rule describes what you should not do once production code passes tests ….  but rather than a reminder of law 1, perhaps consider what you should do once production code passes tests.  What you should do is think of other tests that are need for that code.  In the factorsOf() example, Uncle Bob adds his final test, exactly as described here.  What other tests are needed?  In this case the factorsOf(2x2x3x3x5…)  test is added.  This test never fails, shows Uncle Bob actually follows this amended third law.

The Confusion: Is TDD Dead?

At least three interpretations of the term ‘TDD’ are in use, including :

  1. The Original Kent Beck Full Concept of Using Tests to Drive Development (including design)
  2. Never Code without a failing test
  3. Any Use of Unit Tests is TDD

With such variation of meaning confusion sets in.  One expert, who is using definition number 2, declares “any development not using TDD is unprofessional”.  Then another expert, hearing the statement but themselves using definition #1 responds “TDD has some uses, but more elegant designs can result from not using TDD”.  Then a third, non expert, hears that second statement, but connects the statement with definition #3 and declares “experts declare that Unit Tests block the writing of quality software”.

You can see this play out over and over on the internet. You will people claiming TDD is essential and others claiming TDD is dead….. without the posters  ever checking what exactly either those they are debating with our their sources actually specifically mean by TDD.

Here is Uncle Bob declaring that a key original idea of TDD is ‘horseshit’ .  Promoting a new definition to TDD has the problem as pointed out Jim Coplien, is that people will find the original definition from the books and talks defining the topic, and believe that original idea is what they are being instructed to do.

Is TDD dead?

One of the original ideas within the original definition of TDD, that building all system architecture from tests will always product the best solution,  is indeed dead.  Nothing else about the original TDD idea is dead.  Unit tests are not dead, and build tests before coding is certainly not dead.  Requiring all design to originate from tests  is the only part of TDD that is dead.  Building architecture from tests is also NOT dead,  but it now recognised that it will often not build the best architecture and is just one alternative, no longer a mandate.   It has since be realised that traditional system design still makes sense, and is still needed.  TDD is usually now redefined not included that one dead idea, and as such TDD is not dead, just the one idea that went too far.  In fact TDD is redefined to mean many different things. Redefining TDD as something new, like TDD=Unit tests, and then declaring this redefined TDD is dead is just confusing.

I have even seen more than one debate, as with the  example already quoted from, where the against-TDD speaker effectively concedes that TDD as defined by the pro-TDD  speaker does make sense, and it that one specific part of the original definition that is dangerous.   Arguments for and against TDD tend to be arise from different interpretation of  just what TDD actually means, and what definition different people are using.


Different definitions of what TDD means are in circulation. Before considering any point of view on TDD, it is advisable to check how the source of the opinion is interpreting the term TDD.  The originators of TDD did get ‘carried’ away with the capabilities which are very useful, but those original ideas should not be into laws.

Code should only be written with a test first identified, and unless there is a very good reason otherwise, that test should be a unit test.

Driving Development by Tests is useful, especially for specific detailed problems, but is not a practice that provides all the answers and may not answer the big picture of what is required.

In all cases, productions code should only be written with a test first identified, and unless there is a good reason why not, that test should be a unit test.

Neither full TDD, nor writing code only to failing tests,  will automatically result in a full Unit Test suite.


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