Testing With Intent: Testing as Triangulation

Later, in this series, I’ll be referring to an analogy called, “Testing as Triangulation”. While obscure, it is an important way to understand the goals and limitations of testing.

What is a function? It’s a way to group and reuse our code. But, in a mathematics sense, a function is:

\[f(x) = y\]

A function \(f\) takes some input \(x\), and returns a value \(y\). Pretty straightforward. The set of all possible inputs (\(x\)) is the “domain”. The set of all possible outputs (\(y\)) is the “codomain”. Then, function \(f\) is a mapping from inputs in the domain to outputs in the codomain.

If I asked you what \(f(5)\) is, you couldn’t say. It’s totally generic. This is how all of our code begins. By adding types, we can narrow down huge swathes of the input/output spectrum. Tests provide specific examples of inputs and outputs within that spectrum. By combining types and tests, we can convert our code’s requirements into a mould. Then, if our code passes the tests, we know it fits the requirements.

When you open the map on your smartphone, it contacts each nearby cell towers. With each cell tower we add our position gets more accurate. As we add tests the algorithm our tests define gets more and more precise. We narrow down the design space until the only design remaining is the correct one. Through this process the solution tends to grow organically. As we add tests, implement the code, and refactor, we continually refine the result.

Tests push our code into shape. Before writing tests, it is important to consider the shape we need our code to fill. Some code’s contract is extremely general, like a generic implementation of flat-map. Some is incredibly specific, like converting numbers to roman-numerals.

Simply put, think about what the user wants your code to do, then use tests to drive your design.