Trust No One or a Strange Automated Test

Nullius in verba (Latin for “on the word of no one” or “Take nobody’s word for it”)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nullius_in_verba

This is the motto for the Royal Society, UK’s Academy of Science. I bring this up because I inherited an automated test suite and I am in the process of clearing current errors and developing a maintenance plan for them. As I went through the test I questioned whether I could trust them.  In general its difficult to trust automated tests and its worse when I didn’t write them. Then I remembered “nullius in verba” and decided that although I will run these tests, fix them and maintain them, I can not trust them. In fact, since I am now responsible for all automated tests I can’t put any value in any test unless I watch them run, understand their purpose, and ascertain the validity of their assumptions. This is not to say that the people that write tests that I maintain cannot be trusted because of incompetence. In fact, many of the tests that I maintain have been crafted by highly skilled professionals. I just trust no one and want to see for myself.

Even after evaluating automated tests, I can’t really trust them because I don’t watch every automated test run. I can’t say for certain that they passed or failed or that they are a false positive. Since I don’t watch every test run I can only hope they are OK. I can’t even trust someone else’s manual testing with the infallibility of man, so I can’t trust an automated check written by an imperfect human. So, I view automated tests like manual test, they are tools in the evaluation of the software under test.

It would be impractical to manually run every test covered by the automated suite so a good set of tests provide more coverage than manual execution alone. One way automated tests provide value is when they uncover issues that point to interesting aspects of the system that warrant further investigation. Failing tests or unusually slow tests can give a marker to focus on in manual exploration of the software. This is only true if the tests are good, like being focused on one concept, not flaky or sometimes passing or failing, and other attributes of a good automated test. If the tests are bad, their failures may not be actual and take away all value from the automated test because I have to waste time instigating them. In fact, having an automated test suite plagued with bad tests can increase the effort required to maintain test so much that it negates any value they provide. The maintainability of a test is a primary criteria that I evaluate when I inherit them from someone else and I have to see for my self if each test is good and maintainable before I can place any value in them.

So, my current stance is to not trust anyone else’s test. Also, I do not elevate automated tests to being the de facto standard that the software works. Yet, I find value in the automated tests as another tool in my investigation of the quality of the software. If they don’t cost much in terms of maintenance or running them, they provide value in my evaluation of software quality.

Nullius in verba

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