LISP

The Best Programming Language for Test Automation

Which programming languages are best for writing test automation? There are several choices – just look at this list on Wikipedia and this cool decision graphs for choosing languages. While this topic can quickly devolve into a spat over personal tastes, I do believe there are objective reasons for why some languages are better for automating test cases than others.

Dividing Test Layers

First of all, unit tests should always be written in the same language as the product under test. Otherwise, they would definitionally no longer be unit tests! Unit tests are white box and need direct access to the product source code. This allows them to cover functions, methods, and classes.

The question at hand pertains more to higher-layer functional tests. These tests fall into many (potentially overlapping) categories: integration, end-to-end, system, acceptance, regression, and even performance. Since they are all typically black box, higher-layer tests do not necessarily need to be written in the same language as the product under test.

My Opinionated Choices

Personally, I think Python is today’s best all-around language for test automation. Python is wonderful because its conciseness lets the programmer expressively capture the essence of the test case. It also has very rich test support packages. Java is a good choice as well – it has a rich platform of tools and packages, and continuous integration with Java is easy with Maven/Gradle/ANT and Jenkins. I’ve heard that Ruby is another good choice for reasons similar to Python, but I have not used it myself.

Some languages are good in specific domains. For example, JavaScript is great for pure web app testing (à la Jasmine, Karma, and Protractor) but not so good for general purposes (despite Node.js running anywhere). A good reason to use JavaScript for testing would be MEAN stack development. TypeScript would be even better because it is safer and scales better. C# is great for Microsoft shops and has great test support, but it lives in the Microsoft bubble. .NET development tools are not always free, and command line operations can be painful.

Other languages are poor choices for test automation. While they could be used for automation, they likely should not be used. C and C++ are inconvenient because they are very low-level and lack robust frameworks. Perl is dangerous because it simply does not provide the consistency and structure for scalable, self-documenting code. Functional languages like LISP and Haskell are difficult because they do not translate well from test case procedures. They may be useful, however, for some lower-level data testing.

8 Criteria for Evaluation

There are eight major points to consider when evaluating any language for automation. These criteria specifically assess the language from a perspective of purity and usability, not necessarily from a perspective of immediate project needs.

  1. Usability.  A good automation language is fairly high-level and should handle rote tasks like memory management. Lower learning curves are preferable. Development speed is also important for deadlines.
  2. Elegance. The process of translating test case procedures into code must be easy and clear. Test code should also be concise and self-documenting for maintainability.
  3. Available Test Frameworks. Frameworks provide basic needs such as fixtures, setup/cleanup, logging, and reporting. Examples include Cucumber and xUnit.
  4. Available Packages. It is better to use off-the-shelf packages for common operations, such as web drivers (Selenium), HTTP requests, and SSH.
  5. Powerful Command Line. A good CLI makes launching tests easy. This is critical for continuous integration, where tests cannot be launched manually.
  6. Easy Build Integration. Build automation should launch tests and report results. Difficult integration is a DevOps nightmare.
  7. IDE Support. Because Notepad and vim just don’t cut it for big projects.
  8. Industry Adoption. Support is good. If the language remains popular, then frameworks and packages will be maintained well.

Below, I rated each point for a few popular languages:

Python Java JavaScript C# C/C++ Perl
Usability  awesome  good  good  good  terrible  poor
Elegance  awesome  good  okay  good  poor  poor
Available Test Frameworks  awesome  awesome  awesome  good  okay  poor
Available Packages  awesome  awesome  okay  good  good  good
Powerful Command Line  awesome  good  good  okay  poor  okay
Easy Build Integration  good  good  good  good  poor  poor
IDE Support  good  awesome  good  good  okay  terrible
Industry Adoption  awesome  awesome  awesome  good  terrible  terrible

Conclusion

I won’t shy away from my preference for Python, but I recognize that they may not be the right choice for all situations. For example, when I worked at LexisNexis, we used C# because management wanted developers, who wrote the app in C#, to contribute to test automation.

Now, a truly nifty idea would be to create a domain-specific language for test automation, but that must be a topic for another post.

UPDATE: I changed some recommendations on 4/18/2018.