EGAD! How Do We Start Writing (Better) Tests?

Some have never automated tests and can’t check themselves before they wreck themselves. Others have 1000s of tests that are flaky, duplicative, and slow. Wa-do-we-do? Well, I gave a talk about this problem at PyOhio 2018. The language used for example code was Python, but the principles apply to any language. Please watch it below!

The Testing Pyramid

The “Testing Pyramid” is an industry-standard guideline for functional test case development. Love it or hate it, the Pyramid has endured since the mid-2000’s because it continues to be practical. So, what is it, and how can it help us write better tests?


The Testing Pyramid has three classic layers:

  • Unit tests are at the bottom. Unit tests directly interact with product code, meaning they are “white box.” Typically, they exercise functions, methods, and classes. Unit tests should be short, sweet, and focused on one thing/variation. They should not have any external dependencies – mocks/monkey-patching should be used instead.
  • Integration tests are in the middle. Integration tests cover the point where two different things meet. They should be “black box” in that they interact with live instances of the product under test, not code. Service call tests (REST, SOAP, etc.) are examples of integration tests.
  • End-to-end tests are at the top. End-to-end tests cover a path through a system. They could arguably be defined as a multi-step integration test, and they should also be “black box.” Typically, they interact with the product like a real user. Web UI tests are examples of integration tests because they need the full stack beneath them.

All layers are functional tests because they verify that the product works correctly.


The Testing Pyramid is triangular for a reason: there should be more tests at the bottom and fewer tests at the top. Why?

  1. Distance from code. Ideally, tests should catch bugs as close to the root cause as possible. Unit tests are the first line of defense. Simple issues like formatting errors, calculation blunders, and null pointers are easy to identify with unit tests but much harder to identify with integration and end-to-end tests.
  2. Execution time. Unit tests are very quick, but end-to-end tests are very slow. Consider the Rule of 1’s for Web apps: a unit test takes ~1 millisecond, a service test takes ~1 second, and a Web UI test takes ~1 minute. If test suites have hundreds to thousands of tests at the upper layers of the Testing Pyramid, then they could take hours to run. An hours-long turnaround time is unacceptable for continuous integration.
  3. Development cost. Tests near the top of the Testing Pyramid are more challenging to write than ones near the bottom because they cover more stuff. They’re longer. They need more tools and packages (like Selenium WebDriver). They have more dependencies.
  4. Reliability. Black box tests are susceptible to race conditions and environmental failures, making them inherently more fragile. Recovery mechanisms take extra engineering.

The total cost of ownership increases when climbing the Testing Pyramid. When deciding the level at which to automate a test (and if to automate it at all), taking a risk-based strategy to push tests down the Pyramid is better than writing all tests at the top. Each proportionate layer mitigates risk at its optimal return-on-investment.


The Testing Pyramid should be a guideline, not a hard rule. Don’t require hard proportions for test counts at each layer. Why not? Arbitrary metrics cause bad practices: a team might skip valuable end-to-end tests or write needless unit tests just to hit numbers. W. Edwards Deming would shudder!

Instead, use loose proportions to foster better retrospectives. Are we covering too many input combos through the Web UI when they could be checked via service tests? Are there unit test coverage gaps? Do we have a pyramid, a diamond, a funnel, a cupcake, or some other wonky shape? Each layer’s test count should be roughly an order of magnitude smaller than the layer beneath it. Large Web apps often have 10K unit tests, 1K service tests, and a few hundred Web UI tests.


Check out these other great articles on the Testing Pyramid:

Let Me Google That For You

A brief memoir on self-improvement through self-humility.

I learned one of my most important life lessons before my career officially started. From 2007 to 2009, I interned on-and-off for the Rational Business Developer team in IBM’s Software Group. The team was great and let me do everything: development, testing, automation, builds, and even fun Web examples. However, my junior-level experience often made me doubt myself (e.g., imposter syndrome), and there were “known unknowns” by the truckload.


A photograph of me as an IBM intern. (j/k)

For my own survival, I quickly learned to fearlessly ask questions. This was a big step for a shy guy like me. My team mates were more than happy to help me, which put me at ease. Asking questions was a good thing.

…Until one time, it became a bad thing.

I forget exactly when it happened and what my specific question was, but I do remember the person and the method. I “pinged” (IBM lingo for “send an instant chat message to”) one of the senior developers with a question, and he replied with a link. When I clicked it, the browser loaded Google, moved the cursor, typed my question, and clicked the search button.

He sent me to Let Me Google That For You.

I was horribly embarrassed. It was an introvert’s worst nightmare come true. I never knew about LMGTFY before, and the sarcasm didn’t hit me until after the search was complete. My fledgling confidence was shattered.


My face after my first LMGTFY.

I couldn’t tell if the guy:

  1. Thought lowly of me
  2. Was annoyed with me
  3. Was trying to coach me
  4. Was having a bad day
  5. Was just a jerk

The reason didn’t matter, though. He made a valid point: the question was Google-able, and I could have searched for an answer myself before asking others. As I picked up the pieces of my confidence, I introspected on how to do better next time. Was it wrong to ask questions? No. It is never wrong to ask questions, and anyone who says otherwise is a jerk. Was it wrong for him to send me to LMGTFY? It certainly was unprofessional and harmful to our team dynamic. But, was there a better way to ask questions? Yes:

When faced with an unknown, pose it as a question. Then, ask yourself the question first before asking others.

I call this the “self-Socratic method.” Whenever I don’t know something, I write a list of questions. Then, I try to answer those questions using my own resources, like Google, Wikipedia, and books. When I answer a question, I cross it off the list. Inevitably, answers lead to more questions, which I add to the list. As the list grows, new questions become increasingly specific because the unknowns become smaller. I also find that I can answer most factual, knowledge-based questions myself. The questions that require me to ask someone are typically wisdom-based or experience-based. For example, the question, “How do I build a Web app?” could reduce to, “Why do you prefer to use Angular over React as the JavaScript framework?” because the World Wide Web already has much to say about the technologies behind itself. At the very least, even if I can’t find much by my own searching, my due diligence shows good faith when asking others.


A photograph of me as a professional, self-Socratic software engineer. (j/k)

How much time do I spend searching for an answer before asking somebody who knows? This is a popular interview question. When using the self-Socratic method, I’d say (a) when the first two pages of Google results yield nothing, (b) when I spend more than 15 minutes absolutely stuck in code (from the time of the last “epiphany”), or (c) when I hit a wisdom- or experience-based question.

I’ve used the self-Socratic method for everything from learning how Web apps work to learning how to cut my lawn. I learned my lesson the tough way, but I’m glad I learned it early!

Why Python is Great for Test Automation

Python is an incredible programming language. As Dan Callahan said in his PyCon 2018 keynote, “Python is the second best language for anything, and that’s an amazing aspiration.” For test automation, however, I believe it is one of the best choices. Here are ten reasons why:

#1: The Zen of Python

The Zen of Python, as codified in PEP 20, is an ideal guideline for test automation. Test code should be a natural bridge between plain-language test steps and the programming calls to automate them. Tests should be readable and descriptive because they describe the features under test. They should be explicit in what they cover. Simple steps are better than complicated ones. Test code should add minimal extra verbiage to the tests themselves. Python, in its concise elegance, is a powerful bridge from test case to test code.

(Want a shortcut to the Zen of Python? Run “import this” at the Python interpreter.)

#2: pytest

pytest is one of the best test frameworks currently available in any language, not just for Python. It can handle any functional tests: unit, integration, and end-to-end. Test cases are written simply as functions (meaning no side effects as long as globals are avoided) and can take parametrized inputs. Fixtures are a generic, reusable way to handle setup and cleanup operations. Basic “assert” statements have automatic introspection so failure messages print meaningful values. Tests can be filtered when executed. Plugins extent pytest to do code coverage, run tests in parallel, use Gherkin scenarios, and integrate with other frameworks like Django and Flask. Other Python test frameworks are great, but pytest is by far the best-in-show. (Pythonic frameworks always win in Python.)

#3: Packages

For all the woes about the CheeseShop, Python has a rich library of useful packages for testing: pytest, unittest, doctest, tox, logging, paramiko, requests, Selenium WebDriver, Splinter, Hypothesis, and others are available as off-the-shelf ingredients for custom automation recipes. They’re just a “pip install” away. No reinventing wheels here!

#4: Multi-Paradigm

Python is object-oriented and functional. It lets programmers decide if functions or classes are better for the needs at hand. This is a major boon for test automation because (a) stateless functions avoid side effects and (b) simple syntax for those functions make them readable. pytest itself uses functions for test cases instead of shoehorning them into classes (à la JUnit).

#5: Typing Your Way

Python’s out-of-the-box dynamic duck typing is great for test automation because most feature tests (“above unit”) don’t need to be picky about types. However, when static types are needed, projects like mypy, Pyre, and MonkeyType come to the rescue. Python provides typing both ways!

#6: IDEs

Good IDE support goes a long way to make a language and its frameworks easy to use. For Python testing, JetBrains PyCharm supports visual testing with pytest, unittest, and doctest out of the box, and its Professional Edition includes support for BDD frameworks (like pytest-bdd, behave, and lettuce) and Web development. For a lighter offering, Visual Studio Code is taking the world by storm. Its Python extensions support all the good stuff: snippets, linting, environments, debugging, testing, and a command line terminal right in the window. Atom, Sublime, PyDev, and Notepad++ also get the job done.

#7: Command Line Workflow

Python and the command line are like peanut butter and jelly – a match made in heaven. The entire test automation workflow can be driven from the command line. Pipenv can manage packages and environments. Every test framework has a console runner to discover and launch tests. There’s no need to “build” test code first because Python is an interpreted language, further simplifying execution. Rich command line support makes testing easy to manage manually, with tools, or as part of build scripts / CI pipelines.

As a bonus, automation modules can be called from the Python REPL interpreter or, even better, a Jupyter notebook. What does this mean? Automation-assisted exploratory testing! Imagine using Python calls to automatically steer a Web app to a point that requires a manual check. Calls can be swapped out, rerun, skipped, or changed on the fly. Python makes it possible.

#8: Ease of Entry

Python has always been friendly to beginners thanks to its Zen, whether those beginners are programming newbies or expert engineers. This gives Python a big advantage as an automation language choice because tests need to be done quickly and easily. Nobody wants to waste time when the features are in hand and just need to be verified. Plus, many manual software testers (often without programming experience) are now starting to do automation work (by choice or by force) and benefit from Python’s low learning curve.

#9: Strength for Scalability

Even though Python is great for beginners, it’s also no toy language. Python has industrial-grade strength because its design always favors one right way to get a job done. Development can scale thanks to meaningful syntax, good structure, modularity, and a rich ecosystem of tools and packages. Command line versatility enables it to fit into any tool or workflow. The fact that Python may be slower than other languages is not an issue for feature tests because system delays (such as response times for Web pages and REST calls) are orders of magnitude slower than language-level performance hits.

#10: Popularity

Python is one of the most popular programming languages in the world today. It is consistently ranked near the top on TIOBE, Stack Overflow, and GitHub (as well as GitHut). It is a beloved choice for Web developers, infrastructure engineers, data scientists, and test automationeers alike. The Python community also powers it forward. There is no shortage of Python developers, nor is there any dearth of support online. Python is not going away anytime soon. (Python 3, that is.)

Other Languages?

The purpose of this article is to highlight what makes Python great for test automation based on its own merits. Although I strongly believe that Python is one of the best automation languages, other choices like Java, C#, and Ruby are also viable. Check out my article The Best Programming Language for Test Automation for a comparison.


This article was posted with the author’s permission on both Automation Panda and PyBites. and the Future of Web Testing

What is is an up-and-coming Web test automation framework. It is open source and written entirely in JavaScript. Unlike Selenium WebDriver tests that work outside the browser, Cypress works directly inside the browser. It enables developers to write front-end tests entirely in JavaScript, directly accessing everything within the browser. As a result, tests run much more quickly and reliably than Selenium-based tests.

Some nifty features include:

  • A rich yet simple API for interactions with automatic waiting
  • Mocha, Chai, and Sinon bundled in
  • A sleek dashboard with automatic reloads for Test-Driven Development
  • Easy debugging
  • Network traffic control for validation and mocking
  • Automatic screenshots and videos

Cypress was clearly developed for developers. It enables rapid test development with rapid feedback. The Cypress Test Runner is free, while the Cypress Dashboard Service (for better reporting and CI) will require a paid license.

How Do I Start Using Cypress?

I won’t post examples or instructions for using Cypress here. Please refer to the Cypress documentation for getting started and the tutorial video below. Make sure your machine is set up for JavaScript development.

Will Cypress Replace WebDriver?

TL;DR: No.

Cypress has its niche. It is ideal for small teams whose stacks are exclusively JavaScript and whose developers are responsible for all testing. However, WebDriver still has key advantages.

  1. While Selenium WebDriver supports nearly all major browsers, Cypress currently supports only one browser: Google Chrome. That’s a major limitation. Web apps do not work the same across browsers. Many industries (especially banking and finance) put strict controls on browser types and versions, too.
  2. Cypress is JavaScript only. Its website proudly touts its JavaScript purity like a badge of honor. However, that has downsides. First, all testing must happen inside the bubble of the browser, which makes parallel testing and system interactions much more difficult. Second, testers must essentially be developers, which may not work well for all teams. Third, other programming languages that may offer advantages for testing (like Python) cannot be used. Selenium WebDriver, on the other hand, has multiple language bindings and lets tests live outside the browser.
  3. Within the JavaScript ecosystem, Cypress is not the only all-in-one end-to-end framework. Protractor is more mature, more customizable, and easier to parallelize. It wraps Selenium WebDriver calls for simplification and safety in a similar way to how Cypress’s API is easy to use.
  4. The WebDriver standard is a W3C Recommendation. What does this mean? All major browsers have a vested interest in implementing the standard. Selenium is simply the most popular implementation of the standard. It’s not going away. Cypress, however, is just a cool project backed with commercial intent.

Further reading:

What Does Cypress Mean for the Future?

There are a few big takeaways.

  1. JavaScript is taking over the world. It was the most popular language on GitHub in 2017. JavaScript-only stacks like MEAN and MERN are increasingly popular. The demand for a complete JavaScript-only test framework like Cypress is further evidence.
  2. “Bundled” test frameworks are becoming popular. Historically, a test framework simply provided test structure, basic fixtures, and maybe an assertion library (like JUnit). Then, extra test packages became popular (like Selenium WebDriver, REST APIs, mocking, logging, etc.). Now, new frameworks like Cypress and Protractor aim to provide pre-canned recipes of all these pieces to simplify the setup.
  3. Many new test frameworks will likely be developer-centric. There is a trend in the software industry (especially with Agile) of eliminating traditional tester roles and putting testing work onto developers. The role of the “Software Engineer in Test” – a developer who builds test systems – is also on the rise. Test automation tools and frameworks will need to provide good developer experience (DX) to survive. Cypress is poised to ride that wave.
  4. WebDriver is not perfect. Cypress was developed in large part to address WebDriver’s shortcomings, namely the slowness, difficulty, and unreliability (though unreliability is often a result of poor implementation). Many developers don’t like to use Selenium WebDriver, and so there will be a constant itch to make something better. Cypress isn’t there yet, but it might get there one day.

A Cucumber Kimchi Recipe

My wife and I love to eat kimchi. Recently, I started making it at home instead of buying the big (expensive) jars at our local Asian market. I just made oi-sobagi (오이소박이), a cucumber kimchi, for the first time. Given that “Cucumber” is a test automation buzzword, I figured I’d share the recipe here. I hope you enjoy it as much as my Chinese cucumber recipe!

The recipe I used came from Maangchi, “YouTube’s Korean Julia Child.” She has many other delicious Korean recipes, too. Her oi-sobagi recipe is here:

Clicking Web Elements with Selenium WebDriver

Selenium WebDriver is the most popular open source package for Web UI test automation. It allows tests to interact directly with a web page in a live browser. However, using Selenium WebDriver can be very frustrating because basic interactions often lack robustness, causing intermittent errors for tests.

The Basics

One such vulnerable interaction is clicking elements on a page. Clicking is probably the most common interaction for tests. In C#, a basic click would look like this:


This is the easy and standard way to click elements using Selenium WebDriver. However, it will work only if the targeted element exists and is visible on the page. Otherwise, the WebDriver will throw exceptions. This is when programmers pull their hair out.

Waiting for Existence

To avoid race conditions, interactions should not happen until the target element exists on the page. Even split-second loading times can break automation. The best practice is to use explicit waits before interactions with a reasonable timeout value, like this:

const int timeoutSeconds = 15;
var ts = new TimeSpan(0, 0, timeoutSeconds);
var wait = new WebDriverWait(webDriver, ts);

wait.Until((driver) => driver.FindElements(By.Id("my-id")).Count > 0);

Other Preconditions

Sometimes, Web elements won’t appear without first triggering something else. Even if the element exists on the page, the WebDriver cannot click it until it is made visible. Always look for the proper way to make that element available for clicking. Click on any parent panels or expanders first. Scroll if necessary. Make sure the state of the system should permit the element to be clickable.

If the element is scrolled out of view, move to the element before clicking it:

new Actions(webDriver)

Last Ditch Efforts

Nevertheless, there are times when clickable elements just don’t cooperate. They just can’t seem to be made visible. When all else fails, drop directly into JavaScript:


Do this only when absolutely necessary. It is a best practice to use Selenium WebDriver methods because they make automated interaction behave more like a real user than raw JavaScript calls. Make sure to give good reasons in code comments whenever doing this, too.

Final Advice

This article was written specifically for clicks, but its advice can be applied to other sorts of interactions, too. Just be smart about waits and preconditions.

Note: Code examples on this page are written in C#, but calls are similar for other languages supported by Selenium WebDriver.