2014 December 22 00:00
Time to read: 3 minutes
Kata are a series of movements which, when repeated, migrate mindful action into muscle memory. An example kata is performed by Rika Usami of Japan during the 2012 World Karate Championship in Paris.
Kata can be thought of in terms of playing an instrument or a craft. During the warmup before a concert, listen to the musicians. They are playing their scales and odd passages, they are practicing their kata to get their brains and fingers in the right place to pull off something difficult and awesome.
Kata, like scales, are temporary in nature. They are to be practiced, then discarded, then practiced again.
Programming also requires practice; kata are a great way to formalize that practice.
Test-Driven Development (aka "TDD") is the practice of writing a test before any other code is written. Write a test that fails, then write the minimum of code to pass that test, then write another test that fails, etc. When there are no more tests to write, then the program is complete. In theory.
The blessing of TDD is that each test is like a public contract: when X is applied, Y shall happen, but not Z. If a change is made sometime later and the tests still pass, then relief can be sighed; otherwise, the failed tests right away point out that the recent change was not appropriate.
The curse of TDD is that it's hard, it takes too much time, quite a few of the tests are rendered useless over time, and if you start out a project in TDD, changing direction is rather difficult. DHH lobbed an anti-TDD bomb in April 2014 with "TDD is dead. Long live testing."
These are all valid points, but as Martin Fowler and Kent Beck also said in Is TDD Dead? [Part V & VI], TDD forces one to approach a hard problem one small step at a time; once the hugely difficult problem is reduced to smaller, easier to understand problems, the difficult bits are easier to approach and figure out. In the same video above, even DHH says that TDD is the gateway drug to better practices. Similarly, I have read elsewhere and have heard from several mentors that TDD is also an important step to take in learning good programming skills. For instance, learning TDD also forces one to learn and practice SOLID principals.
I will admit that at work, our codebase is not test-driven. Yet, we do utilize unit tests for core features and try to ensure 100% code coverage for those tests. This helps us feel better that changes we make to the core code will not break the code (or at least not as much) as compared to anxiety we would fee if we did not have tests in place.
Given that Kata help drive difficult movement into muscle memory and that TDD is beneficial to learning good programming practices, I try to incorporate TDD Kata into my weekly routine.
Some interesting TDD Kata to attempt can be found at the Cyber Dojo. In a near-future post, I will attempt to walk through the TDD Fizz Buzz Kata.
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