What I Learned from James Grenning's Remote TDD Course

Test Driven Development (TDD) is an important software development practice which is typically foreign to embedded teams. James Grenning has put a tremendous amount of effort into teaching embedded systems developers how to adopt TDD. He published an embedded systems classic, Test-Driven Development for Embedded C, and regularly conducts TDD training seminars.

Admittedly, TDD is one of those concepts that I've heard about but never actually got around to studying and implementing. After seeing a tweet about a remote TDD training class, I decided to sign up and see if it was really all it's cracked up to be.

If you're looking to grow as an embedded developer, I recommend taking a TDD class with James - it has transformed my development approach. TDD helps us to decouple our software from the underlying hardware and OS, as well as to develop and test embedded software on our host machines. We've all felt the pain of the "Target Hardware Bottleneck" - this class shows you how to avoid the pain and to adapt to sudden requirements changes.

Aside from getting hands-on experience with TDD, I learned many valuable lessons from James's course. Below I will recount my experience with James's remote TDD training, review my lessons learned, and share my thoughts on taking the course vs reading the book.

Table of Contents:

  1. Why I Took the Course
  2. Course Structure
  3. Lessons Learned
  4. Course vs Book
  5. In Conclusion
  6. Further Reading

Why I Took the Course

I've come to believe that the common approach for developing software, especially embedded systems software, must be dramatically overhauled. I see far too many projects which skimp out on design, testing, code reviews, continuous integration, or other helpful practices which can improve code quality and keep our projects on schedule.

I've also noticed that I spend too much time with "debugging later programming", as James calls it. I write a bunch of code, get it to compile, and then deploy it and test on the target. The debugging time often ends up being much longer than the coding time - there must be a better way to approach development. Furthermore, why do I need to flash to the target to do most of my testing? Can't I build my programs in such a way that I can test large pieces of them on my host machine, where I have an extensive suite of debugging tools on hand?

When I was a junior embedded engineer, I believed other developers when they told me that unit tests weren’t useful or feasible for embedded systems due to our dependence on hardware. After studying architecture, design principles, and experiencing sufficient pain on multiple projects, I realize that there is immense value in changing our current approach to building and testing embedded systems. James’s course is the perfect way to dive head-first into TDD and unit testing.

Course Structure

I signed up for the remote training course, which consists of three five-hour days of training. The training is conducted with a suite of web-based tools:

  • Zoom meeting for video/audio
  • CyberDojo for programming exercises
  • A central course website with links to resources & exercises
  • A "question board" where we could post questions as we thought of them without interrupting the flow of the class

The course follows this pattern each day:

  • Discuss theory
  • James performs a TDD demo
  • Class members perform a hands-on programming exercise (~2 hrs long) while receiving live feedback from James (~2 hours each day)
  • James answers questions, reflects on the exercise, and discusses more theory

We used the CppUTest framework throughout the training, which is the same test framework featured in his book. I had not used CppUTest before the course, so it was great to get experience with a new test framework.

Day 1

Day 1 started with introduction into TDD. James opened with a discussion about the impact of the typical Debug-Later programming style and the value propositions of TDD. He introduced us to the TDD cycle:

  • Write a test
  • Watch it not build
  • Make it build, but fail
  • Make it pass
  • Refactor (clean up any mess)
  • Repeat cycle until work is finished

The cycle is directly related to Bob Martin’s TDD rules which we continually referred to throughout the course:

  • Do not write any production code unless it is to make a failing unit test pass
  • Do not write any more of a unit test than is sufficient to fail; and compilation failures are failures
  • Do not write any more production code than is sufficient to pass the one failing unit test

We also discussed a TDD-based development cycle for embedded systems, which involves writing code on the host machine first, then incrementally working up to running the code on the target hardware. This development cycle enables embedded software teams to prototype, create modules, and test driver logic before target hardware is available.

We followed the TDD cycle with “design for testability” concepts, which are the same general design concepts we should already be applying:

  • Data hiding
  • Implementation hiding
  • Single responsibility principle
  • Separation of concerns
  • Dependency inversion (depend on interfaces not implementations)

After this introduction to TDD, we dove right in with live programming exercises. James performed a demo where he used TDD to create and test a circular buffer library in C. After showing us the TDD approach, he set us loose to write our own circular buffer library. The exercise took 2 hours, and James gave each of us direct feedback as we worked through the exercise.

We ended the day with a discussion of the next day’s exercise, which involved creating a light scheduler for a home automation system. He gave us optional homework to write a “spy” for a light controller, which took me around 15 minutes to complete.

Day 2

Day 2 started with a discussion of “spies”, “fakes”, and strategies for testing modules in the middle of a hierarchy. We reviewed TDD strategies, focusing on how to write a minimal number of tests and how each new test should encourage us to write new module code.

We quickly moved to the programming exercise, which involved TDD for a Light Scheduler. The tests were written using the Light Controller Spy that we created prior to class as homework, and demonstrated how to apply spies in our testing process. As with the circular buffer exercise, James monitored our progress and offered live feedback while we worked.

After the exercise was completed, James performed a refactoring demo, showing how we can use our unit tests to maintain confidence while performing major changes to our code base. We also discussed code coverage tools and ran gcov on our unit tests.

At the end of class, James gave a brief introduction to CppUTest’s mocking support. Our homework on day 2 was to play around with the mocking functions to get a feel for how the framework functions and how expectations can be used during testing.

Day 3

Day three opened with a discussion of test doubles, mocking, and run-time substitution. After a brief introduction, we started the day’s programming exercise: writing and testing a flash driver off-target using mocking.

After finishing the exercises, we recapped the lessons we had learned up until that point and reviewed the value propositions for TDD.

After the review, we moved into a discussion on refactoring. James covered general refactoring theory, code smells, design principles, and refactoring strategies. He introduced a method for refactoring legacy code (“Crash to Pass”), and pointed us to resources to help us test and refactor our existing code.

After the refactoring discussion, we had one last general Q&A session and then wrapped up the training course.

Lessons Learned

There were more lessons packed into the workshop than I can reasonably relate here. Many of them are simple one-offs to guide you as you develop your TDD skills:

  • Use a test harness that will automatically find your test cases and run them, saving you the headache of manual registration
  • Write the minimal amount of code you need to exercise your program paths (aka "don't write too many tests")
  • Ruthlessly refactor your tests whenever they are passing to keep the tests maintained and understandable
  • Even though we are incrementally building our modules, we want to try to invent the full parameter list up-front (TDD will show you exactly how painful it is to update APIs)
  • Mocking can be a refactoring code smell, as it identifies coupling within your system

Aside from these practical tidbits, here are some of the deeper lessons learned during the course:

Feedback Loop Design: Work in Small Steps

In system design, I've been struck by the importance of feedback loops. Donna Meadows frequently touches on their importance and impact on undesirable behavior:

Delays in feedback loops are critical determinants of system behavior. They are common causes of oscillations. If you’re trying to adjust a system state to your goal, but you only receive delayed information about what the system state is, you will overshoot and undershoot. Same if your information is timely, but your response isn’t.

One of the key challenges with building embedded products is that there are numerous delayed feedback loops in play. Firmware engineers are writing software before hardware is available, hardware issues aren't identified until it's too late for another spin because the software wasn't ready yet, critical bugs aren't discovered until integration or acceptance testing starts, and the list goes on.

Shortening our firmware engineers' feedback cycles can dramatically impact a program lifecycle. With TDD, developers get immediate feedback when errors are introduced. We can correct these errors right away, one at a time, and stay on track.

TDD also helps us keep our modules decoupled and testable, allowing firmware to be increasingly developed and tested on a host machine. We can make full use of debugging tools and avoid hundreds of time-consuming flashing steps. We can also utilize mocking, spies, and fakes to develop interfaces, modules, and higher-level business logic before hardware is available.

If you're not getting the system behavior that you want, you likely need to adjust your feedback loops and feedback delays. TDD is one approach to improving feedback loops for embedded systems development.

TDD Feels Slower, But I Programmed Faster

TDD certainly feels like it is more work and that you're moving slower. However, this was merely an illusion in my experience. By working in small steps and addressing problems as they arise, we can stay engaged, move forward continually, and avoid many of those intense debugging sessions.

Let's consider the circular buffer exercise, which I finished in 1 hour and 20 minutes. One of the most popular articles on this website is Creating a Circular Buffer in C and C++. It took me at least 4 hours to get my libraries implemented correctly thanks to debugging tricky logic errors. That's quite a difference!

You might say that I had an advantage in the exercise, having written such a library before. Sadly, I will admit that I made the same mistakes that I struggled with in my initial implementation - some logic errors are just easy to make. However, with the TDD approach I noticed the flaws immediately, rather than having them pile up at the end.

As the popular military maxim goes, "Slow is smooth, smooth is fast". James repeatedly emphasizes this point with his own motto: "Slow down to go fast".

Trust the Process

If you read my website, you know that I am a great believer in processes. We can turn much of our operation over to autopilot, allowing us to allocate our brain’s valuable critical thinking resources to the problem at hand.

When I’m deep in thought, it’s maddening to be interrupted, as the house of cards in my mind comes tumbling down. I always took this as “Just The Way It Is”, but TDD showed me that it doesn’t have to be that way. By working in small steps through a defined process, we know exactly where to jump back in if we get interrupted. We are kept from being overwhelmed because we know what the next step is. We can enter a state of flow more easily - small steps and continual progress keep us moving forward and helps me feel more productive.

Having a defined process also helps when you are stuck. You’re never really wondering what to do next - simply move on to the next step in the process.

Keep a Test List

There's no need to worry about writing all of your unit tests at once. Maintain a test list for each module that describes any work which still needs to be completed. The best place to store this list is inside of the test source code itself, e.g. as a block comment at the top of the file.

If you think of a new test to write, make a note. Then you never need to worry about remembering all of the tests.

TDD is Not the Holy Grail

James emphasizes throughout the course that while TDD reduces the errors that are introduced into our programs, TDD is not sufficient for proving that our programs are bug-free. The best that TDD can do for us is to show us that our code is doing what we think it should do. This does not equate to correctness - our understanding may still be incomplete or incorrect.

TDD only helps us ensure that our code is working on purpose. You still need design and code reviews, integration testing, static analysis, and other helpful developmental processes.

Course vs Book

If you have James's Test Driven Development for Embedded C book, you may be wondering whether the course is still worth taking. I respond with an emphatic yes. I recommend the course in conjunction with the book for one simple reason: the course requires you to actually program in the TDD style. Practice makes perfect.

 
 

During the course, you'll work through multiple hands-on programming exercises and receive direct feedback. Whenever I skipped steps or started writing code without tests, James noticed and helped me get back on track. Without this feedback, I would not have been successful at noticing and breaking my existing development habits.

When reading a book, we commonly acquire knowledge but never take the time to apply it. By getting a chance to try out the method for yourself, you're more likely to feel the benefits and adopt the process. Once you have experience with TDD, the concepts in the book can be easily connected to real experiences. You will be much more likely to make connections in your mind and apply the concepts in practice.

There's one more reason I recommend the course in addition to the book: when you are a beginner, you have many questions. It's hard to get help if you don't know what, how, or where to ask questions. James is willing to answer your testing questions and provides you with plenty of resources and forums for finding answers. Even better, once the course is finished, you have access to email support from James. As long as your questions aren't easily Google-able, you will always have a resource to help guide you.

In Conclusion

I really enjoyed James's remote TDD training and think can help developers at any skill level (in fact, most of the attendees were experienced programmers). The hands-on programming exercises were unexpected and enjoyable. The direct and immediate feedback from James was an invaluable aid for adopting the process and correcting our default behaviors.

If you're interested in taking the TDD class, you can find the course options and schedules on James's website.

I adopted TDD immediately after completing the course. I spent a day setting up my development environment so I can compile and run tests with a keystroke, just like we did in CyberDojo. The process is addictive - writing new tests and getting them to pass is a continual reward cycle that keeps me focused on programming for much longer periods of time.

I've already found myself refactoring and updating my code with increasing confidence, since I have tests in place to identify any glaring errors which are introduced.

A key advantage of well tested code is the ability to perform random acts of kindness to it. Tending to your code like a garden. Small improvements add up and compound. Without tests, it's hard to be confident in even seemingly inconsequential changes.
--Antonio Cangiano (@acangiano)

Further Reading

James's book, Test Driven Development for Embedded C is an excellent starting point for TDD, especially for embedded systems developers. Again, I recommend this book in conjunction with the online training course. You can find the courses and schedules on James's website.

These talks by James provide an introduction into the how and why of TDD:

James has written extensively about TDD on his blog. Here are some of my favorite posts:

Other TDD-related links:

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