What should we write tests for?

Another common question I get from developers who are starting to get into testing (or even from devs who have been doing it for a while): “how do you decide what to write tests for?”.

This question normally applies to brownfield cases (existing codebase). There’s already a lot of code there. Where do we even start? Yes, maybe we write tests for the new code, but what about the existing one?!

Here’s my personal technique for it. When working with an existing codebase, I’ll ask the business:

What is the single most important feature of this product?
Think of the feature that, if broken, will either cause the business to lose money or not make money.

THAT is where we start. Those are our must-have tests.

Once the most important features have been covered by tests, the next question is:

What is the feature or area of the system that when you tell developers they need to make changes to it, they feel like running away?

That’ll usually surface areas where the code is a mess, complex, convoluted. Hence, it needs tests, so developers can feel safe making changes to it, refactoring it. Now, we only move on to this one when the features that came out of the first question above have been covered by tests.

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