What is the purpose of testing?

Last year I published in IEEE Computer a short paper entitled “Seven Principles of Software Testing” [1]. Although technical, it was an opinion piece and the points were provocative enough to cause a reader, Gerald Everett, to express strong disagreement. Robert Glass, editor of the “Point/Counterpoint” rubric of the sister publication, IEEE Software, invited both of us to a debate in the form of a critique by Mr. Everett, my answer to the critique, his rejoinder to the answer, and my rejoinder to his rejoinder. The result appeared recently [2].

Other than a matter of terminology (Mr. Everett wants “testing” to cover static as well as dynamic techniques of quality assurance), the main point of disagreement was my very first principle: to test a program is to make it fail. Indeed this flies in the face of some established wisdom, which holds that testing serves to increase one’s confidence in the software; see for example the Wikipedia entry [3]. My article explains that this is a delusion and that it is more productive to limit the purpose of the testing process to what it does well, finding faults,  rather than leting it claim goals of quality assurance that are beyond its scope. Finding faults is no minor feat already. In this view — the practical view, for example as seen by a software project manager  — Dijkstra’s famous dismissal of testing (it can prove the presence of bugs, never their absence) is the greatest compliment to testing, and the most powerful advertisement one can think of for taking testing seriously.

What do you think? What is testing good for?

I should add that in terms of research this debate is a bit of a sideline.  The real goal of our work is to build completely automatic testing tools. An article on this topic will appear in the next issue of Computer (September); I will post a link to it when the issue is out.


[1] Bertrand Meyer: Seven Principles of Software Testing, in IEEE Computer, vol. 41, no. 8, pages 99-101, Aug. 2008; available on the IEEE site, and also in draft form here. (An earlier version, without the beautiful picture of bees and flies in the bottle drawn by Computer‘s artist, appeared as an EiffelWorld column.)

[2] Gerald D. Everett and Bertrand Meyer: Point/Counterpoint, in IEEE Software, Vol. 26, No. 4, pages 62-64, July/August 2009.  Available on the IEEE site and also here.

[3] Wikipedia entry on Software Testing.

[4] Bertrand Meyer, Ilinca Ciupa, Andreas Leitner, Arno Fiva, Emmanuel Stapf and Yi Wei: Programs that test themselves, to appear in IEEE Computer, September 2009.

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  1. Craig Stuntz says:

    I think you’re both right. The purpose of testing is to explore the behavior of the application over its entire domain (if possible, or a representative subset of the domain, if impossible) and understand the relationship between the nature of the input and the correctness of the output.

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  2. […] One year after the “Seven Principles of Software Testing”, Meyer blogged “What is the purpose of testing?“ Posted by adamo Filed in Programming Leave a Comment […]

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