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Questions About Test Frameworks: Q&A Part #3 with J.B. Rainsberger

This is the third chapter of our three-part Q&A blog series with J. B. Rainsberger. In this chapter he adresses questions about “Questions About Test Frameworks. The first chapter and the second chapter is in our blog in case you missed it.

On June 3, 2020 J.B. Rainsberger spoke in our remote Intro Talk about managing the various kinds of uncertainty that we routinely encounter on projects that involve legacy code. He presented a handful of ideas for how we might improve our practices related to testing, design, planning, and collaboration. These ideas and practices help us with general software project work, but they help us even more when working with legacy code, since legacy code tends to add significant uncertainty and pressure to every bit of our work. Fortunately, we can build our skill while doing everyday work away from legacy code, then exploit that extra skill when we work with legacy code.


J. B. Rainsberger helps software companies better satisfy their customers and the business that they support.

Our next remote course Surviving Legacy Code from 14-17 September 2020.


If the code base is too old even for any available test frameworks, how you handle it?

**Testing does not need frameworks. Testing never needed frameworks.** You can always start by just writing tests and refactoring them. If you do this long enough, you will extract a testing framework. If you’ve never tried it, then I recommend it! Kent Beck’s _Test-Driven Development: By Example_ included this exercise.

Every test framework began life with `if (!condition) { throw Error(“Test failure.”) }`. If you can write this, then you can build a testing framework; if this suffices, then you don’t need a testing framework. Start there!

If you can execute one part of the system in isolation from the rest, then you can write unit tests. In the early days of web browsers, we could only execute Javascript in the browser, because even so, we could (and did!) write unit tests without frameworks. We merely had to run those tests in a browser window. Eventually, someone decided to run Javascript outside the browser, which made it easier to write microtests for Javascript code. This made it _easier_ to write tests, but we were writing tests long before NodeJS existed.

If you can invoke a function (or procedure or division or block of code) and you can signal failure (such as by raising an error), then you can write tests without waiting for someone else to build a framework.

In addition, you don’t need to write your tests in the same language or environment as the running system. Golden Master technique helps us write tests for any system that offers a text-based interface. Any protocol could help us here: for example, think of HTTP as “merely” a special way of formatting requests and responses with text. If you have (or can easily add) this kind of interface or protocol to your system, then you can write tests in any language that might offer a convenient test framework. Use Python to test your COBOL code. Why not?

Finally, not all testing must be automated. As I wrote earlier, programmers have a strong habit of forgetting alternatives to techniques that they’ve found helpful. If you don’t know how to automate your tests easily, then don’t automate them yet. Instead, make them repeatable and document them. One day, someone will have a good idea about how to automate them.

You may have to write your own test framework but it can prove a daunting task.

In addition to what I wrote in the previous answer, I encourage you to follow the general advice about building any software with a Lightweight (Agile, Lean, …) approach: build the first feature that you need, then start using it, then add more features one at a time. You don’t need to build a fully-featured testing framework before you start to benefit from it. Start with `if (!assertion) throw Error()` and then use it! The testing framework SUnit was built incrementally. All the testing frameworks you know began from there. You can do it, too. Merely start, then take one step at a time.

You also need this refactoring-without-tests skill, to effectively refactor your tests!

Maybe! I don’t say you _need_ it, but it would probably help you. Your production code helps you to refactor your tests: if you change your tests and they now expect the wrong behavior, then your production code will fail that test for “the right reasons”. It doesn’t provide perfect coverage, but it helps more than you might expect. In that way, the production code helps to test the tests.

There are testing frameworks for COBOL and NATURAL. What could be older?

Indeed, the “framework” portion of testing relates to identifying tests, collecting test results, and reporting them in a unified way, as well as adding standard mechanisms for “set up” and “tear down”. We don’t need those things to start writing tests, although eventually we will probably want to have them. **Simply start writing tests, then remove duplication in any way that your programing language allows.** I don’t know what might be older than COBOL or NATURAL.


➡️ Also read our last two Q & A Blogposts with J.B. Rainsberger Part #1 “Managing the Uncertainty of Legacy Code” and Part #2 “The Risks Related to Refactoring Without Tests“! Follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn to get new posts.


The Risks Related to Refactoring Without Tests: Q&A Part #2 with J.B. Rainsberger

This is the second chapter of our three-part Q&A blog series with J. B. Rainsberger. In this chapter he adresses questions about “The Risks Related to Refactoring Without Tests. The first chapter and the third chapter is in our blog in case you missed it.

On June 3, 2020 J.B. Rainsberger spoke in our remote Intro Talk about managing the various kinds of uncertainty that we routinely encounter on projects that involve legacy code. He presented a handful of ideas for how we might improve our practices related to testing, design, planning, and collaboration. These ideas and practices help us with general software project work, but they help us even more when working with legacy code, since legacy code tends to add significant uncertainty and pressure to every bit of our work. Fortunately, we can build our skill while doing everyday work away from legacy code, then exploit that extra skill when we work with legacy code.


J. B. Rainsberger helps software companies better satisfy their customers and the business that they support

Our next remote course Surviving Legacy Code from 14-17 September 2020.


What we should say to project planners who are afraid to let us do refactoring without tests, because some folks in our team are not very good at refactoring and make mistakes? How to convince them it can work for some good programmers?

First, I recognize that if I were the project planner, then I would worry about this, too! I probably don’t know how to judge the refactoring skill of the programmers in the group, so I wouldn’t know whom to trust to refactor without tests. Moreover, I probably can’t calculate the risk associated with refactoring without tests, so I wouldn’t know when to trust _anyone_ to refactor without tests, even if I feel confident in their skill. Once I have thought about these things, it becomes easier to formulate a strategy, because I can ask myself what would make _me_ feel better in this situation? I encourage you to ask yourself this question and write down a few ways that you believe you could increase your confidence from the point of view of the project planner. I can provide a few general ideas here.

I encourage you to build trust by telling the project planner that you are aware of the risks, that you care about protecting the profit stream of the code base, and that you are prepared to discuss the details with them. It often helps a lot simply to show them that you and they are working together to solve this problem and not that you are doing what helps you while creating problems for them.

I would ask the project planners what specifically they are worried about, then matching my strategies to their worries. For example, microcommitting provides one way to manage the risk of refactoring without tests, because it reduces the cost of recovering from a mistake. At the same time, if the project planner worries about different risks than the ones I have thought about, then my strategies might not make them feel any more secure! If I know more about which risks affect them more or concern them more, then I can focus my risk-management work on those points, which also helps to build trust.

I would emphasize that we do not intend to do this as a primary strategy forever. We don’t feel comfortable doing it, either! Even so, we _must_ make progress _somehow_. We refactor without tests because it would be even more expensive to add “enough” tests than to recover from our mistakes. Of course, we have to be willing to explain our judgment here and we have to be prepared that we are wrong in that judgment! I am always prepared to take suggestions from anyone who has better ideas, but outside of that, they hired me to do good work and make sound decisions, so if they don’t trust me, then I must try to earn their trust or they should give my job to someone that they trust more. I don’t mean this last part as a threat, but merely as a reminder that if they hire me to do the job, but they never trust me, then they _should_ hire someone else!

How about pair-refactoring?

I love it! Refactoring legacy code is often difficult and tiring work, so pair-refactoring fits well even in places where “ordinary” pair programing might not be needed. Refactoring legacy code often alternates periods of difficulty understanding what to do next with long periods of tedious work. Working in pairs significantly increases the profit from both of those kinds of tasks.

You also need this refactoring-without-tests skill, to effectively refactor your tests!

Maybe! I don’t say you _need_ it, but it would probably help you. Your production code helps you to refactor your tests: if you change your tests and they now expect the wrong behavior, then your production code will fail that test for “the right reasons”. It doesn’t provide perfect coverage, but it helps more than you might expect. In that way, the production code helps to test the tests.

Moreover, tests tend to have simpler design than the production code. This means that we might never need to refactor tests in certain ways that feel common when we refactor production code. I almost always write tests with a cyclomatic complexity of 1 (no branching), so the risk when refactoring tests tends to be much lower than when refactoring legacy code. This makes refactoring tests generally safer.


➡️ Also read our two Q&A Blogposts with J.B. Rainsberger Part #1 The Risks Related to Refactoring Without Tests” and Part #3 “Questions About Test Frameworks“! Follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn to get new posts.


Managing the Uncertainty of Legacy Code: Q&A Part #1 with J.B. Rainsberger

In this first chapter of our three-part Q&A blog series he adressed questions that came up during his session.

On June 3, 2020 J.B. Rainsberger spoke in our remote Intro Talk about managing the various kinds of uncertainty that we routinely encounter on projects that involve legacy code. He presented a handful of ideas for how we might improve our practices related to testing, design, planning, and collaboration. These ideas and practices help us with general software project work, but they help us even more when working with legacy code, since legacy code tends to add significant uncertainty and pressure to every bit of our work. Fortunately, we can build our skill while doing everyday work away from legacy code, then exploit that extra skill when we work with legacy code.

Our next remote course Surviving Legacy Code from 14-17 September 2020.

J. B. Rainsberger helps software companies better satisfy their customers and the business that they support.

Here are some questions that came up during this session and some answers to those questions.

One of the issues is that the legacy code base consists of useful code and dead code and it’s hard to know which is which.

Indeed so. Working with legacy code tends to increase the likelihood of wasting time working with dead code before we feel confident to delete it. I don’t know how to avoid this risk, so I combine monitoring, testing, and microcommitting to mitigate the risk.

Microcommits make it easier to remove code safely because we can recover it more safely. Committing frequently helps, but also committing surgically (the smallest portion of code that we know is dead) and cohesively (portions of code that seem logically related to each other) helps. If our commits are more independent, then it’s easier to move them backward and forward in time, which makes it easier to recover some code that we mistakenly deleted earlier while disturbing the live code less. We will probably never do this perfectly, but smaller and more-cohesive commits make it more likely to succeed. This seems like a special case of the general principle that as I trust my ability to recover from mistakes more, I feel less worried about making mistakes, so I change things more aggressively. When I learned test-driven development in the early years of my career, I noticed that I become much more confident to change things, because I could change them back more safely. Practising test-driven development in general and microcommitting when working with legacy code combine to help the programmer feel more confident to delete code—not only code that seems dead.

Even with all this, you might still feel afraid to delete that code. In that case, you could add “Someone executed this code” logging statements, then monitor the system for those logging statements. You could track the length of time since you last saw each of these “heartbeat” logging messages, then make a guess when it becomes safe to delete that code. You might decide that if nothing has executed that code in 6 months, then you judge it as dead and plan to remove it. This could never give us perfect confidence, but at least it goes beyond guessing to gathering some amount of evidence to support our guesses

More testing, especially microtesting, puts more positive pressure on the design to become simpler: less duplication, better names, healthier dependencies, more referential transparency. I have noticed a pattern: as I simplify the design, I find it easier to notice parts that look irrelevant and I find it clearer that those parts are indeed dead code. Moreover, sometimes obviously dead code simply appears before my eyes without trying! This makes it safer to delete that code, using the microcommitting and monitoring as a recovery strategy in case I get it wrong.

So not all legacy code adds value to the business… but it is hard to know which part does.

Indeed so. We have to spend time, energy, and money to figure this out. I accept responsibility as a programmer to give the business more options to decide when to keep the more-profitable parts running and to retire the less-profitable parts. As I improve the design of the system, I create more options by making it less expensive to separate and isolate parts of the system from each other, which reduces the cost of replacing or removing various parts. Remember: we refactor in order to reduce volatility in the marginal cost of features, but more-generally in the marginal cost of any changes, which might include strangling a troublesome subsystem or a less-profitable feature area.

The Strangler approach describes incrementally replacing something in place: adding the new thing alongside the old thing, then gradually sending traffic to the new thing until the old thing becomes dead. Refactoring the system to improve the health of the dependencies makes this strangling strategy more effective, which gives the business more options to replace parts of the legacy system as they determine that a replacement would likely generate more profit. As we improve the dependencies within the system, we give the business more options by reducing the size of the smallest part that we’d need to replace. If we make every part of the system easier to replace, then we increase the chances of investing less to replace less-profitable code with more-profitable code.

This illustrates a general principle of risk management: if we don’t know how to reduce the probability of failure, then we try reducing the cost of failure. If we can’t clearly see which parts of the legacy code generate more profit and which ones generate less, then we could instead work to reduce the cost of replacing anything, so that we waste less money trying to replace things. This uses the strategy outlined in Black Swan of accepting small losses more often in order to create the possibility of unplanned large wins.

What do you think about exploratory refactoring? Do you use this technique sometimes?

Yes, I absolutely do! I believe that programmers can benefit from both exploratory refactoring and feature-oriented refactoring, but they need to remain aware of which they are doing at any time, because they might need to work differently with each strategy to achieve those benefits.

When I’m refactoring in order to add a feature or change a specific part of the code, I remind myself to focus on that part of the code and to treat any other issues I find as distractions. I write down other design problems or testing tasks in my Inbox as I work. I relentlessly resist the urge to do those things “while I’m in this part of the code”. I don’t even follow the Two-Minute Rule here: I insist on refactoring only the code that right now stands between me and finishing the task. Once I have added my feature, I release the changes, then spend perhaps 30 minutes cleaning up before moving on, which might include finishing a few of those Two-Minute tasks.

The rest of the time, I’m exploring. I’m removing duplication, improving names, trying to add microtests, and hoping that those activities lead somewhere helpful. This reminds me of the part of The Goal, when the manufacturing floor workers engineered a sale by creating an efficiency that nobody in the sales department had previously thought possible. When I do this, I take great care to timebox the activity. I use timers to monitor how much time I’m investing and I stop when my time runs out. I take frequent breaks—I use programming episodes of about 40 minutes—in order to give my mind a chance to rise out of the details and notice higher-level patterns. I don’t worry about making progress, because I donI ’t yet know what progress would look like—instead I know it when I see it. By putting all these safeguards in place, I feel confident in letting myself focus deeply on exploring by refactoring. I avoid distracting feelings of guilt or pressure while I do this work. I also feel comfortable throwing it all away in case it leads nowhere good or somewhere bad. This combination of enabling focus and limiting investment leads me over time to increasingly better results. As I learn more about the code, exploratory refactoring turns into feature-oriented refactoring, which provides more slack for more exploratory refactoring, creating a virtuous cycle.

What is your experience with Approval Tests, in cases where writing conventional unit tests might be to expensive?

I like the Golden Master technique (and particularly using the Approval Tests library), especially when text is already a convenient format for describing the output of the system. I use it freely and teach it as part of my Surviving Legacy Code course. It provides a way to create tests from whatever text output the system might already produce.

I get nervous when programmers start going out of their way to add a text-based interfaces to code that doesn’t otherwise need it only for the purpose of writing Golden Master tests. In this case, checking objects in memory with equals() tends to work well enough and costs less. I notice it often that programmers discover a helpful technique, then try to use it everywhere, then run into difficulties, then invest more in overcoming those difficulties than they would invest in merely doing things another way. Golden Master/Approval Tests represents merely another situation in which this risk comes to the surface.

I get nervous when programmers start choosing to write integrated tests for code where microtests would work equally well. When programmers think about adding Golden Master tests, they tend to think of these as end-to-end tests, because they often judge that as the wisest place to start. Just as in the previous paragraph, they sometimes fall into the trap of believing that “since it has helped so far, we must always do it this way”. No law prevents you from writing unit tests using Golden Master/Approval Tests! Indeed, some of the participants of my Surviving Legacy Code training independently discover this idea and use it to great effect. Imagine a single function that tangles together complicated calculations and JSON integration: it might help a lot to use Approval Tests to write Golden Master tests for this function while you slowly isolate the calculations from the JSON parsing and formatting. The Golden Master tests work very well with multiline text, such as values expressed in JSON format, but probably make the calculation tests awkward, compared with merely checking numeric values in memory using assertEquals().

When programmers use Golden Master/Approval Tests, they need to treat it as just one tool in their toolbox. This is the same as with any technique! I tend to treat Golden Master as a temporary and complementary technique. I use it when I focus on writing tests as a testing technique, even though I tend to prefer to write tests for design feedback. Not everyone does this! If you find yourself in the stage where you’re drowning in defects and need to focus on fixing them, then Golden Master can be a great tool to get many tests running early. Once you’ve stopped drowning, it becomes easier to look at replacing Golden Master with simpler and more-powerful unit tests—eventually microtests.


➡️ Also read our two Q&A Blogposts with J.B. Rainsberger Part #2 The Risks Related to Refactoring Without Tests” and Part #3 “Questions About Test Frameworks“! Follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn to get new posts.


6 Questions about Intent-Based Leadership with Jenni Jepsen

You have never heard about Intent Based Leadership? Then this post is for you. Jenni Jepsen consults, writes and speaks worldwide about leadership, teams, and how to make transformations work. She was the keynote speaker at Agile Tour Vienna in 2019 and gives a two-day remote course on “Essential Intent Based Leadership” this September.

We reached out to Jenni and asked her six questions about Intent Based Leadership. If you are a manager, director, leader who wants to create environments where people succeed, then read on!

If someone heard never before about Intent Based Leadership, how would you describe it in 150 words?

Intent-Based Leadership™ is fundamentally the language leaders and teams use to communicate at work – the words we use with each other and how we ask questions – in order to give control to people, so people who are closest to the information are the ones making the decisions.With this leadership paradigm, team members come to the leader describing what they see, what they think, and what they intend to do. With Intent-Based Leadership,the culture of the organization shifts from one of permission and waiting, to intent and action. Not only does effectivity increase, people also feel motivated and are happier at work. 

As work becomes more cognitive and less physical, Intent-Based Leadership offers a how-to for organizations to redefine what leadership means in a way that creates a workplace where the passion, motivation, engagement, creativity and intellect of each member is maximized.

Are you as a manager, or head of an agile org. tired of having to always have all the answers? Check out two-day remote training course Essential Intent-Based Leadership September 2020 in Vienna.

How/When/Who developed the concept / methodology of Intent Based Leadership?

The concept of Intent-Based Leadership is the direct result of how David Marquet, former U.S. Naval submarine captain turned his ship the USS Santa Fe from worst to first in the U.S. Navy. David wrote an amazing book on how it all came to be: Turn the Ship Around!. It’s a great story, even if you skip the leadership tips! When David took over command of the USS Santa Fe, it was at the last minute. He only had three weeks to learn everything about the ship – an impossible task. When he took command, he quickly found out that if he followed the old ways of working with him giving commands in an environment where he didn’t know everything there was to know about the ship, and people following those commands blindly, people might get killed. This was when he decided to keep quiet and asked others to come to him with what they intended to do.

People implementing Intent-Based Leadership don’t have to have all the answers. When we stop “getting people to do things” and instead give control while increasing competence and clarity, we gain more engaged people who have the competency to make decisions, feel ownership and take responsibility.

Practical outcomes of Intent-Based Leadership

How is Intent Based Leadership related to Agile: Is the methodology based on Agile, can it be applied only in an agile organization?

When I first read Turn the Ship Around! in 2012 after the book was published, my partner and I (in goAgile) thought “This is it! This is a way of leading that supports Agile ways of working.” Because so much of Agile is about team members taking responsibility, about being self-organizing, about being self-directed and having clarity about where we’re headed and why, in order to make better decisions at every level in the organization. David actually did not know about the Agile community when we first contacted him. Since then, things have, obviously, taken off for David and for Intent-Based Leadership. We’re not the only ones who can see the advantages IBL brings around how to give control, and increase organizational clarity and technical competencies. In our experience, organizations that combine Agile transformation with Intent-Based Leadership reach their goals faster. It’s because IBL offers real tools to nudge people into new behaviors, and that is the key to lasting change. 

Attend our two-day remote training course and learn how to move in an Agile way to a culture where people take initiative and ownership. September 2020 in Vienna.

Can you give an example of how language increases the feeling of empowerment?

There is a lot of talk in organizations about how to empower people. What we know from neuroscience research, is that the only thing we can do is create an environment where people feel empowered. Empowering others is a contradictory statement. It says that I have the power to empower others. That is NOT what we are going for. We want people to have influence and control. And this happens when leaders create an environment where people feel empowered. 

Now, with that said… “I intend to” are the three most amazing, empowering words we can use to increase the feeling of empowerment. Rather than asking permission, just saying “I intend to…” works on both sides. For the person saying it, it is simply informing others about what the person will do. For others, it provides information ahead of time. So there is an opportunity to give more information before the action occurs. Of course, there are lots of other examples of language increasing empowerment, “I intend to” is my favorite. 

What is an example of a leadership tool that can be used to create an environment to adopt Intent-Based Leadership?

So one of the great tools from Intent-Based Leadership is called the Ladder of Leadership. It provides some simple questions leaders can ask based on how their people talk with them. For example, if someone says “Please just tell me what to do.” That person is at the lowest level on the Ladder. The leader wants to move them up the Ladder so that they will be more comfortable taking control. The question the leader asks is: “What do you see?” This is the next step on the Ladder. This allows the person to answer in a psychologically safe environment. The leader is asking for observations. Rather than jumping to “What do you intend to do?”, the leader needs to help people up the Ladder gradually. In that way, people become safe with taking more control, and over what is usually a very short time, you can move people up to the level where they come to you with what they intend to do.

Ladder of Leadership

Reading tips: If I think about attending the training, what should I read or watch, to be prepared best? (blog posts, YT videos etc.)

Of course, reading David’s book, Turn the Ship Around! is a great idea.

Here are a couple of other links to watch and read:

Attend our two-day remote training course and learn how to move in an Agile way to a culture where people take initiative and ownership. September 2020 in Vienna.