Matt Segal Dev

There's no one right way to test your code

Sat 11 July 2020, by Matthew Segal
Category: Programming

Today I read a Reddit thread where a beginner was stumbling over themself, apologizing for writing tests the "wrong way":

I'm now writing some unit tests ... I know that the correct way would be to write tests first and then the code, but unfortunately it had to be done this way.

This is depressing... what causes newbies to feel the need to ask for forgiveness when writing tests? You can tell the poster has either previously copped some snark or has seen someone else lectured online for not doing things the "correct way".

I feel that people can be very prescriptive about how you should test your code, which is puzzling to me. There are so many different use-cases for automated tests that there cannot be one right way to do it. When you're reading blogs and forums you get the impression that you must write "unit tests" (the right way!) and that you need to do test driven development, or else you're some kind of idiot slacker.

In this post I am going to focus on the quiet dominance of "unit tests" as the default way to test your code, and suggest some other testing styles that you can use.

You should write "unit tests"

People often say that you should write unit tests for your code. In brief, these tests check that some chunk of code returns a an specific output for a given input. For example:

# The function to be tested
def add(a: int, b: int):
    """Returns a added with b"""
    return a + b

# Some tests for `add`
def test_add__with_positive_numbers():
    assert add(1, 2) == 3

def test_add__with_zero():
    assert add(1, 0) == 1

# etc. etc. etc

This style of testing is great under the right circumstances, but these are not the only kind of test that you can, or should, write. Unfortunately the name "unit test" is used informally to refer to all automated testing of code. This misnomer leads beginners to believe that unit tests are the best, and maybe only, way to test.

Let's start with what unit tests are good for. They favour a "bottom-up" style of coding. They're the most effective when you have a lots of little chunks of code that you want to write, test independently, and then assemble into a bigger program.

This is a perfect fit when you're writing code to deterministically transform data from one form into another, like parts of an ETL pipeline or a compiler. These tests work best when you're writing pure functions, or code with limited side effects.

When unit tests don't make sense

The main problem with unit tests is that you can't always break your code up into pretty little pure functions.

When you start working on an existing legacy codebase there's no guarantee that the code is well-structured enough to allow for unit tests. Most commercial code that you'll encounter is legacy code, and a lot of legacy code is untested. I've encountered a fair few 2000+ line classes where reasoning about the effect of any one function is basically impossible because of all the shared state. You can't test a function if you don't know what it's supposed to do. These codebases cannot be rigourly unit tested straight away and need to be gently massaged into a better shape over time, which is a whole other can of worms.

Another, very common, case where unit tests don't make much sense is when a lot of the heavy lifting is being done by a framework. This happens to me all the time when I'm writing web apps with the Django framework. In Django's REST Framework, we use a "serializer" class to validate Python objects and translate them into a JSON string. For example:

from django.db import models
from rest_framework import serializers
from rest_framework.renderers import JSONRenderer

# Create a data model that represents a person
class Person(models.Model):
    name = models.CharField(max_length=64)
    email = models.EmailField()

# Create a serializer that can map a Person to a JSON string
class PersonSerializer(serializers.ModelSerializer):
    class Meta:
        model = Person
        fields = ["name", "email"]

# Example usage.
p = Person(name="Matt", email="[email protected]")
ps = PersonSerializer(p)
ps.is_valid() # True
# '{"name":"Matt","email":"[email protected]"}'

In this case, there's barely anything for you to actually test. Don't get me wrong, you could write unit tests for this code, but anything you write is just a re-hash of the definitions of the Person and PersonSerializer. All the interesting stuff is handled by the framework. Any "unit test" of this code is really just a test of the 3rd party code, which already has heaps of tests. In this case, writing unit tests is just adding extra boilerplate to your codebase, when the whole point of using a framework was to save you time.

So if "unit tests" don't always make sense, what else can you do? There are other styles of testing that you can use. I'll highlight my two favourites: smoke tests and integration tests.

Quick 'n dirty smoke tests

Some of the value of an automated test is checking that the code runs at all. A smoke test runs some code and checks that it doesn't crash. Smoke tests are really, really easy to write and maintain and they catch 50% of bugs (made up number). These kinds of tests are great for when:

Here's a smoke test for a neural network. All it does is construct the network and feed it some random garbage data, making sure that it doesn't crash and that the outputs are the correct shape:

def test_processes_noise():
    input_shape = (1, 1, 80, 256)
    inputs = get_random_input(input_shape)
    outputs = MyNeuralNet(inputs)
    assert outputs.shape == (1, 1, 80, 256)

This is valuable because runtime errors due to stupid mistakes are very common when building a neural net. A mismatch in array dimensions somewhere in the network is common stumbling block. Typically it might take minutes of runtime before your code crashes due to all the data loading and processing that needs to happen before the broken code is executed. With smoke tests like this, you can check for stupid errors in seconds instead of minutes.

In a more web-development focused example, here's a Django smoke test that loops over a bunch of urls and checks that they all respond to GET requests with happy "200" HTTP status codes, without validating any of the data that is returned:

def test_urls_work(client):
    """Ensure all urls return 200"""
    for url in SMOKE_TEST_URLS:
        response = client.get(url)
        assert response.status_code == 200

Maybe you don't have time to write detailed tests for all your web app's endpoints, but a quick smoke test like this will at least exercise your code and check for stupid errors.

This crude style of testing is both fine and good. Don't let people shame you for writing smoke tests. If you do nothing but write smoke tests for your app, you'll still be getting a sizeable benefit from your test suite.

High level integration tests

To me, integration tests are when you test a whole feature, end-to-end. You are testing a system of components (functions, classes, modules, libraries) and the integrations between them. I think this style of testing can provide more bang-for-buck than a set of unit tests, because the integration tests cover a lot of different components with less code, and they check for behaviours that you actually care about. This is more "top down" approach to testing, compared to the "bottom up" style of unit tests.

Calling back to my earlier Django example, an integration test wouldn't test any independent behaviour of the the Person or PersonSerializer classes. Instead, we would test them by exercising a code path where they are used in combination. For example, we would want to make sure that a GET request asking for a specific Person by their id returns the correct data. Here's the API code to be tested:

# Data model
class Person(models.Model):
    name = models.CharField(max_length=64)
    email = models.EmailField()

# Maps data model to JSON string
class PersonSerializer(serializers.ModelSerializer):
    class Meta:
        model = Person
        fields = ["name", "email"]

# API endpoint for Person
class PersonViewSet(viewsets.RetrieveAPIView):
    serializer_class = PersonSerializer
    queryset = Person.objects.all()

# Attach API endpoint to a URL path
router = routers.SimpleRouter()
router.register("person", PersonViewSet)
urlpatterns = [path("api", include(router.urls))]

And here's a short integration test for the code above. It used Django's test client to simulate a HTTP GET request to our view and validate the data that is returned:

def test_person_get(client):
    """Ensure a user can retrieve a person's data by id"""
    p = Person.objects.create(name="Matt", email="[email protected]")
    url = reverse("person-detail", args=[])
    response = client.get(url)
    assert response.status_code == 200
    assert == {
        "name": "Matt",
        "email": "[email protected]",

This integration test is exercising the code of the Person data model, the PersonSerializer data mapping and the PersonViewSet API endpoint all in one go.

A valid criticism of this style of testing is that if the integration test fails, it's not always clear why it failed. This is typically a non-issue, since you can get to the bottom of a failure by reading the error message and spending a few minutes poking the code with a debugger.

Next steps

Testing code is an art that requires you to apply judgement to your specific situation. There's a bunch of styles and methodologies for testing your code and your choice depends on your codebase, your app's risk profile and your time constraints. I think you can cultivate this judgement by trying out different techniques. If you haven't already, try a new style of testing on your codebase and see if you like it.

I've enjoyed poking around the Undertand Legacy Code blog, which suggests quite a few novel testing methods that I've never heard of. I've got my eye on the "approval test" for a codebase I'm currently working on.

If you're interested in reading more about automated testing with Python, then you might enjoy this post I wrote on how to automatically run your tests on every commit with GitHub Actions.

If you have any feedback or questions email me at [email protected]