On deleting code
29 November 2016
This blog post is my journey on creating, debugging and deleting a unit test.
A frequent choice every programmer faces is whether a piece of code belongs in a program. I was working on a hobby project recently where I faced this choice. I had written a number of unit tests and after some reflection deleted one of the test to improve my code quality. At first read this sounds counter-intuitive. Don’t unit tests improve code quality? Generally, yes they do. But good unit tests need to be repeatable, maintainable and quick to run.
In my case I had created a Trie and some unit tests to validate it. In my test code I created a small Trie which contained 11 entries. However, I wanted to test against a larger set. So, I decided to use the dictionary file in
I created the following unit test:
def test_dictionary(self): t = trie.Trie() count = 0 with open('/usr/share/dict/words') as f: for line in f: t.insert(line) count += 1 assert(len(t.get_all_words())) == count
This test failed. The
len(t.get_all_words()) value was 234,371 but the value of
count was 235,886.
I assumed something must be wrong with my code. So, I compared the words returned by
t.get_all_words() against the words in the file. I added some print statements to my test code and expected to see 1515 words. However, there was no output. This surprised me!
Maybe my code was correct after all. I decided to look at the file to see if there were empty lines or duplicate entries. Time to use some command line tools! I used the following commands to get a count of the unique words in the file:
$ sort -f -b -u /usr/share/dict/words > file $ wc -l file $ 234371
Oh! The numbers matched, meaning there must be duplicate entries. Taking a quick look at the file I saw the first two entries were ‘a’ and ‘A’. In my Trie I convert everything to lower case, so they would be the same entry.
I added a unit test to cover the duplicates case and another to cover leading/trailing spaces.
After adding the new test cases I decided to remove the unit test which used the
/usr/share/dict/words file. Why? Because:
- I would need to hardcode the value 234,371 into the test.
- The location of the
/usr/share/dict/wordsfile is hardcoded. This test would fail on a Window’s machine because that file does not exist. In my case this is not a problem because I’m the only one that will use this program. But this would be a bad pattern if I were working with other people.
- The unit test takes a few seconds to run. It is a bit annoying waiting for it to run, even if it is only for a few seconds.
- The new unit tests cover the cases uncovered by the
I was a little attached to the test because it led me down a path that improved my test case scenarios. It was also nice to see my Trie work with 234,371 entries. However, it did not meet the requirements for a good unit test. It did not run quickly and it was not repeatable across platforms.
But I think this raises the question: is there a case for testing the Trie with a large data set? Yes, I think so, but not at the unit test level. If this was a real project then I think this could be covered in a volume or verification testing phase.
I won’t claim my code is elegant, but it is better without that test.