Archive for the ‘Code Kata’ Category

I’ve been favouring an Approval Testing approach for many years now, since I find it pretty useful in many situations, particularly for acceptance tests. Not many people I meet know the term though, and even fewer know how to use the technique. Recently I’ve put together some small exercises – code katas – to help people to learn about it. I’ll be going through them at a couple of upcoming conference workshops, but for all you people who won’t be there in person, I’m publishing them on github as well.

I’ve got three katas set up now, Minesweeper, Yatzy and GildedRose. If you’ve done any of these katas before, you’ll probably have been using ordinary unit testing techniques. Hopefully by doing them again, with Approval Testing, you’ll learn a little about what’s different about this technique, and how it could be useful.

Before you can do the katas, you’ll need to install an approval testing tool. I’m one of the developers of TextTest, so that’s the tool I’ve set up right now. Below are some useful commands for a debian/ubuntu machine for installing it.

I’m still developing these exercises, and would like feedback about what you think of them. For example I have Python versions for all three, but only one has a Java version as yet. Do people want more translations? Do let me know how you get on, and what you think!

Installation instructions

You will need to have Python 2, and TextTest. (Unfortunately TextTest uses a GUI library that doesn’t support Python 3). For example:

$ sudo apt-get install python-pip
$ sudo pip install texttest

For more detailed instructions, and for other platforms see the texttest installation docs. For more general documentation, see the texttest website.

You need to have an editor and a diff tool configured for texttest to use. I recommend sublime text and meld. Install them like this:

$ sudo add-apt-repository ppa:webupd8team/sublime-text-3
$ sudo apt-get update
$ sudo apt-get install sublime-text-installer
$ sudo apt-get install meld

Then you need to configure texttest to use them:

$ cd
$ mkdir .texttest
$ touch .texttest/config
$ subl .texttest/config

Enter the following in that file, and save:


For convenience, I also like to create an alias ‘tt’ for starting TextTest for these exercises. Change directory to one of the exercise repositories, then a ‘tt’ command should start the TextTest GUI and show the tests for that exercise. Define such an alias like this:

alias tt='texttest -d python -c .'

Two of the exercises start with a small test suite for you to build on. There should be instructions in the README file of each respective exercise, to help you to get going. If you really can’t work out what to do, have a look at the sample solutions and see if that helps. These are also on github: Minesweeper-sample-solution, Yatzy-sample-solution, GildedRose-sample-solution

I’ve been interested for a while in the relationship between TDD and good design for a while, and the  SOLID principles of Object Oriented Design in particular. I’ve got this set of 4 “Racing Car” exercises that I originally got from Luca Minudel, that I’ve done in coding dojos with lots of different groups. If you’ve never done them, I do recommend getting your editor out and having a go, at least at the first one. I think you get a much better understanding of the SOLID principles when you both know the theory, and have experienced them in actual code.

I find it interesting that in the starting code for each of the four Katas there are design flaws that make it awkward to write unit tests for the code. You can directly point to violations of one or more of the SOLID principles. In particular for the Dependency Inversion Principle, it seems to me there is a very direct link with testability. If you have a fixed dependency to a concrete class, that is always going to be harder to isolate for a unit test, and the Tyre Pressure exercise shows this quite clearly.

What bothers me about the 4 original exercises is that there are actually 5 SOLID principles, and none of them really has a problem with the Liskov Substitution Principle. So I have designed a new exercise! It’s called “Leaderboard” and I’ve put it in the same git repository as the other four.

I tried it out last week in a coding dojo with my colleagues at Pagero, and it seemed to work pretty well. The idea is that the Liskov principle violation means you can’t propely test the Leaderboard class with test data that only uses the base class “Driver”, you have to add tests using a “SelfDrivingCar”. (Ok, I confess, I’ve taken some liberties with what’s likely in formula 1 racing!) Liskov says that your client code (ie Leaderboard) shouldn’t need to know if it has been given a base class or a subclass, they should be totally substitutable. So again, I’m finding a link between testability and good design.

Currently the exercise is only available in Scala, Python and Java, so I’m very open to pull requests for translations into other programming languages. Do add a comment here or on github if you try my new Kata.

Recently I became intrigued with something Seb Rose said on his blog about ‘recycling’ tests. He talks about first producing a test for a ‘low fidelity’ version of the solution, and refining it as you learn better what the solution should look like. In a follow-up post he deals with some criticisms that other posters had of the technique, but actually seems to agree with Alistair Cockburn, that it’s probably not important enough a technique to need a name. I disagree, it’s a technique I use a lot, although most often when using an approval testing approach. I prefer to call it simply iterative development. A low fidelity version of the output that is gradually improved until the customer/product owner says “that’s what I want” is iterative development. It’s a very natural fit with approval testing – once the output is good enough to be approved, you check it in as a regression test that checks it never changes. It’s also a very natural fit for a problem where the solution is fundamentally visual, like printing a diamond. I also find it very helpful when the customer hasn’t exactly decided what they want. In this kata, it’s not such an issue, but in general, quickly putting out a low-fidelity version of what you think they want and then having a discussion about how to proceed can save you a lot of trouble.

The other posters seemed to be advocating a TDD approach where you find ‘universal truths’ about the problem and encode them in tests, so you never have to go back and revisit tests that you made pass earlier. In order to take small steps, you have to break down the problem into small pieces. Once you have identified a piece of the problem and solved it, it should stay solved as you carry on to the next piece. That seems to be what I would call ‘incremental’ development.

There’s a classic explaination of the difference between iterative and incremental that Jeff Patton came up with a few years ago using the Mona Lisa painting. It’s a good explaination, but I find experiencing abstract concepts like this in an actual coding problem can make a world of difference to how well you can reason about and apply them. So I thought it would be interesting to look at these two approaches to TDD using the Diamond Kata.

I have a regular coding dojo with my team these days, so a few weeks ago, I explained my thinking about incremental and iterative, showed them Jeff Patton’s picture, and asked them to do the kata one way or the other so we could compare. I probably didn’t explain it very well, because the discussion afterwards was quite inconclusive, and looking at their code, I didn’t think anyone had really managed to exclusively work one way or the other. So I decided to try to force them into it, by preparing the test cases in advance.

I came up with some starting code for the exercise, available here. I have two sets of unit tests, the first with a standard incremental approach, where you never delete any test cases. The second gets you to ‘recycle’ tests, and work more iteratively towards the final solution. In both cases, you are led through the problem in small steps. The first and last tests are the same, the difference is the route you take in between.

When I tried this exercise with my team, it went a lot better. I randomly assigned half the pairs to use the ‘iterative’ tests, and the rest to use ‘incremental’ tests. Then after about 45-55 minutes, I had them start over using the other tests. After another 45 minutes or so I stopped them and we had a group discussion comparing the approaches. I asked the ‘suggested questions for the retrospective‘ I’d prepared, and it seemed to work. Having test-driven the solution both ways, people could intelligently discuss the pros and cons of each approach, and reason about which situations might suit one or the other.

As Seb said, ‘recycling tests’ is a tool in your developer toolbox, and doing this kata might help you understand how to best use that tool. I’d love to hear from you if you try this excercise in your coding dojo, do leave a comment.

This Code Kata is included in my new book “The Coding Dojo Handbook”, currently published as a work-in-progress on You can also download starting code and these instructions from my github page.

As a Health Insurer,
I want to be able to search for patients who have a medicine clash,
So that I can alert their doctors and get their prescriptions changed.

Health Insurance companies don’t always get such good press, but in this case, they actually do have your best interests at heart. Some medicines interact in unfortunate ways when they get into your body at the same time, and your doctor isn’t always alert enough to spot the clash when writing your prescriptions. Sometimes, medicine interactions are only identified years after the medicines become widely used, and your doctor might not be completely up to date. Your Health Insurer certainly wants you to stay healthy, so discovering a customers has a medicine clash and getting it corrected is good for business, and good for you!

For this Kata, you have a recently discovered medicine clash, and you want to look through a database of patient medicine and prescription records, to find if any need to be alerted to the problem. Create a “Patient” class, with a method “Clash” that takes as arguments a list of medicines, and how many days before today to consider, (defaults to the last 90 days). It should return a collection of days on which all the medicines were being taken during this time.

If you like, you can also create a visualization of the clash, something like this:


Data Format

You can assume the data is in a database, which is accessed in the code via an object oriented domain model. The domain model is large and complex, but for this problem you can ignore all but the following entities and attributes:


In words, this shows that each Patient has a list of Medicines. Each Medicine has a list of Prescriptions. Each Prescription has a dispense date and a number of days supply.

You can assume:

  • Patients start taking the medicine on the dispense date.
  • The “days supply” tells you how many days they continue to take the medicine after the dispense date.
  • If they have two overlapping prescriptions for the same medicine, they stop taking the earlier one. Imagine they have mislaid the medicine they got from the first prescription when they start on the second prescription.

When you’ve tried the Kata for yourself

Then you might be interested in reviewing the sample solution I’ve put up on my github page. I find this code interesting because it is seemingly well written. The methods are short with thought-through names, and there are lots of unit tests. I also find it very difficult to follow. What do you think?

The biology of medicine clashes*

When you take a pill of medicine, the active substance will be absorbed through the lining of the gut, and enter your bloodstream. That means it will be taken all over your body, and can do its work. For example, if you take a headache pill, the active substance in the drug will be taken by your blood to where it can block your pain receptors. At the same time, there are enzymes at work in your liver, which break down medicinal substances they find in your bloodstream. Eventually all the medicine will be removed, so you have to take another pill if you want the effects to continue.

In the liver, there are several different enzymes working, and they are specialized in breaking down different substances. For example, the “CYP 2C9” enzyme will break down ibuprofen, the active ingredient in many headache pills. The trouble is, there are other medicines which will stop particular enzymes from doing their work, which can lead to an overdose or other ill effects.

One example is the clash between fluoxetine and codeine. Fluoxetine is known by its trade name “Prozac”, and is often taken for depression. Codeine is another ingredient used in headache pills, and is actually a “pro-drug”, so it works slightly differently. Codeine needs to be broken down in the liver by the enzyme “CYP 2D6” into the active substance, morphine, before it will do anything. Fluoxetine has the effect of blocking “CYP 2D6”, so if you take the two medicines together, you won’t get much painkilling effect from the codeine. That could be depressing!

The solution to the problem is to take a different painkiller – one that’s not affected by that liver enzyme. Simply switch codeine for ibuprofen, and you should be be a little happier.

* With thanks to Sara Sjöberg for helping me with this section

I’ve been working on a kata called “Tennis”*, which I find interesting, because it is quite quick to code, yet is a big enough problem to be worth doing. It’s also possible to enumerate pretty much all the allowed scores, and get very comprehensive test coverage.

What I’ve found is that when I’m using TDD to solve the Kata, I tend to only enumerate actually a very small number of the test cases. I generally end up with something like:

Advantage Player1
Win for Player1
Advantage Player2

I think that’s enough to test drive a complete implementation, built up in stages. I thought it would be enough tests to also support refactoring the code, but I actually found it wasn’t. After I’d finished my implementation and mercilessly refactored it for total readability, I went back and implemented exhaustive tests. To my horror I found three (of 33) that failed! I’d made a mistake in one of my refactorings, and none of my original tests found it. The bug only showed up with scores like Fifteen-Forty, Love-Thirty and Love-Forty, where my code instead reported a win for Player 2. (I leave it as an exercise for the reader to identify my logic error 🙂

So what’s the point of TDD? Is it to help you make your design good, or to protect you from introducing bugs when refactoring? Of course it should help with both, but I think doing this practice exercise showed me (again!) that it really is worth being disciplined and careful about refactorings. I also think I need to develop a better sense for which refactorings might not be well covered by the tests I have, and when I should add more.

This is something that my friend Andrew Dalke brings up when he criticises TDD. The red-green-refactor iterative, incremental rhythm can lull you into a false sense of security, and means you forget to stop and look at the big picture, and analyze if the tests you have are sufficient. You don’t get reminded to add tests that should pass straight away, but might be needed if you refactor the code.

So in any case, I figured I needed to practice my refactoring skills. I’ve created comprehensive tests and three different “defactored” solutions to this kata, in Java and Python. You can get the starting code here. You can use this to practice refactoring with a full safety net, or if you feeling brave, without. Try commenting out a good percentage of the tests, and do some major refactoring. When you bring all the tests back, will they still all pass?

I’m planning to try this exercise with my local python user group, GothPy, in a few weeks time. I think it’s going to be fun!

* Tennis Kata: write a program that if you tell it how many points each player has won in a single game of tennis, it will tell you the score.