Tools Aren’t the Answer

date:2006-08-04 10:47:31
category:Economics of Software

See /dev/null ‘s post “And the Braindead Award goes to... ” for an interesting tale of things that turn up in spite of 100% test coverage.

Here’s the recap:

  1. They have 100% test coverage.
  2. Yet, they uncovered an error in an abstract superclass.

How is this possible? How was it possible to turn up an untested method in spite of 100% test coverage?

There’s a technicality in Java that makes some things hard to test. In this case, a method (isEmpty()) was overridden in each subclass. You can’t really test abstract superclasses very well, you can only test concrete subclasses. The superclass method was never used by any concrete subclass, and was never tested.

So, was the 100% coverage claim correct? Here’s one comment: “Clearly you did NOT have 100% test coverage, otherwise that error would have been caught.”

However, I disagree. I think they did test every API that was implemented.

That one overridden API could only be tested by creating a concrete subclass with the purpose of testing superclass methods. This subclass would be a contrived beast this isn’t deliverable, and only exists because someone concocted it to exercise the superclass methods.

Someone would have to understand the design well enough to build the necessary Proxy classes. This sounds suspiciously complex for any test coverage tool to tangle with.

How would they know?

How would they know that a method was always overridden? What test coverage tool does that analysis? Indeed, who knew that analysis even needed to be done in the first place?

“I believe that we (as an industry) can get to Zero Defect Software, but do we actually have the tools to get there today?” is Purdy’s rhetorical question.

I think the tools can never exist to provide the kind of 100% coverage he’s looking for. Why not? Why can’t we build a perfect unit test tool that absolutely proves our software works?

The root problem is that we can’t create an automated proof our software works. By prove, I mean absolute, iron-bound, 100% proof of correctness. Why not? We can’t create an automated proof of loop termination.

Assume that HP/Mercury wrote a utility called “terminates()” which returned True if a given function would terminate. Assume I wrote a function, whistle() which plays a MIDI file using samples of tea-kettle whistles. Then I wrote this unit test:

def test_whistler():
    while terminates( test_whistler ):
        whistle( "stars_and_stripes.mid" )

What does this do? If the terminates() function thinks that test_whistler() will terminate, it has to loop forever. Contradiction. Therefore, this terminates() function can’t exist.

If they can’t know, what can they do?

Since absolute proof can’t exist, what can we do? It has to involve much more than tools. It’s about people, process, tools, funding and organization.

People have to care about perfect software. People need the skills and education in what’s possible and how they contribute to it. A ruthless eye for quality is essential. Additionally, the empowerment to make change to meet quality objectives is also a necessary component.

Process is the most important part. Tools can’t do everything. Therefore, manual inspections, walkthroughs and reviews are as important as anything else. Properly scheduled reviews are critical; if you are forced to wait a week, you make assumptions and move on. It’s critical to get feedback early and often, or an assumption solidifies into design, accretes features and eventually fossilizes into coprolite.

Funding and Organization must assure that “shipping something which works”, and “passed all the tests”, and “deadlines matter most” are foreign concepts. Funding should never trump defect removal by reducing staff, tools or schedule. The organization, similarly, should never play the “too busy doing other things” trump card.

Tools are least important. Good tools help, but it’s the people and the processes that make a difference.

What they did right.

Purdy found the defect. Therefore, a process worked. It’s hard to say which process, but something worked.

Purdy says ”... we carefully designed, implemented, tested (100% API coverage!), reviewed, and it still slipped through” which isn’t quite correct. It didn’t slip through. An additional review caught it, or we wouldn’t have the benefit of the posting and the lessons learned.

That additional – possibly informal – review caught the error. I guess this means that the additional review process is important, and should be added to their current practices.

I say that what they’re doing worked, and they should do more of it.

Previous topic

Google vs. the Herd

Next topic

The Root Cause of Turnover in IT

This Page