Unit Tests as Specifications

Quite often I hear the idea, that one team should specify a software system and get the development done by another team. Only good documentation is needed and good API contracts and beyond that, no further cooperation and communication is needed. Often a complete set of unit tests is recommended as a way or as a supplement to specify the requirements. Sounds great.

We have to look twice, though. A good software project invests about 30 to 50 percent of its development effort into unit tests, at least if we program functionality. For GUIs it is another story, real coverage would be so much more than 50%, so that we usually go for lower coverage and later automated testing, when the software is at least somewhat stable and the tests do not have to be rewritten too often.

For a library or some piece of code that is a bit less trivial, the effort for a good unit test coverage would be more around 60% of the total development, so actually more then the functionality itself.

Also for APIs that are shared across teams, maybe a bit more is a good idea, because complete coverage is more important.

So the unit tests alone would in this case need about 50% of the development effort. Adding documentation and some other stuff around it, it will become even a bit more than 50%.

In practice it will not work out without intensive cooperation, unless the APIs have been in use by tons of other organizations for a long time and proven to be stable and useful and well documented.

So what exactly are we gaining by this approach of letting another team write the code and just providing a good unit test suite?

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