Archive for the ‘Code Kata’ Category

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 LeanPub.com. 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:

medicine_clash

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:

TDDStatesMoves_003

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:

Love-All
Fifteen-All
Fifteen-Love
Thirty-Forty
Deuce
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.

I was at the local Ruby User Group last night, and I coded up KataMontyHall (see below) as a prepared Kata in front of the group. I got some great comments and feedback while I was coding, and I think the solution I ended up with was better than any I had created by myself during my practice sessions. I also got some new ideas about different approaches which I plan to try out and see if they improve the code even more.

Dave Hoover was visiting from the US, on his way to a speaking engagement at Ă–redev. He and I were both surprised to discover a common interest in the Monty Hall Dilemma. Dave has previously worked on it, and he showed us some code that he wrote 5 or 6 years ago when he was still learning Ruby. He even wrote an online version of the game when he was first learning ajax, that you can play yourself!

The Monty Hall Dilemma
There is a gameshow hosted by Monty Hall where contestants try to win a big prize, which is behind one of three doors. The contestant begins by choosing a door, but not opening it. Then Monty steps forward and opens one of the other doors. He reveals a goat (!). Then the contestant has the choice of either sticking with the door they have already chosen, or switching to the other unopened door. Whichever door the contestant decides on will be opened, and if they find the prize, they get to keep it. (I’m not sure what happens if they get the second goat!) So what’s the best strategy? Stick or switch?

People are biased towards sticking with what they’ve chosen, and the vast majority of people stick with the door they choose originally. Intuitively there should be an equal chance of the prize being behind any of the three doors, so it shouldn’t matter if you stick or switch. However, in this case, your intuition is wrong. You are twice as likely to win the prize if you switch to the other unopened door.

I am not the only one to think this result is incorrect, apparently famous mathematicians have also refused to accept it. What finally convinced them, was a computer simulation. Hmm I thought, that sounds like an interesting piece of code 🙂

Pigeons are smarter than Humans
I heard about the Monty Hall Dilemma listening to the quirks and quarks podcast. Apparently humans are strange, because they don’t learn to switch doors. Some researchers set up the same problem for pigeons, with birdseed behind one of the doors, and found the birds quickly learnt to switch doors. You can read the research for yourself!

So if you, like me, are keen to prove yourself more intelligent than a pigeon, why don’t you spend some time writing a little program that simulates the game? If you get it right, your version of KataMontyHall should clearly show that switching doors is the best strategy 🙂