Using code coverage to find bugs

Yesterday, I found two bugs whilst looking at a code coverage report.

I tend to think that shooting for 100% code coverage adds unnecessary overheard - often the last few percent doesn’t give you much benefit, and takes a disproportionate amount of time to reach, but it’s useful to at least understand why particular lines of code aren’t hit by your tests. Perhaps those lines are dead code, or perhaps - as was the case for me yesterday - it’s because your code is broken.

Bug #1 - overriding the wrong method

The first bug I found yesterday was in my feed generation code for tinyblog. Because of the way feed generation works in Django (see the docs if you’re interested), provided you have a single test that hits your feed URL, you’ll probably have covered 100% of your feed generation code[1. This shows fairly obviously the problem with 100% coverage - just by executing a GET request on my feed URL I’ve hit 100% coverage, even though I’ve no idea if the code’s correct. All I know is that running the code doesn’t cause an exception to be raised, which is valuable, but hardly sufficient to show my code’s working correctly.]. Strangely, my coverage report showed my tests were failing to hit one method - copyright.

Taking a quick look at the base class for my RSS feed class, I spotted that it contained no reference to a method named copyright, though it did reference a method named feed_copyright. Renaming the method and re-running my tests showed that I now hit the previously missing lines of code (and more importantly, my feed now contained the copyright information I’d always intended to be there).

Presumably, that name’s always been wrong - having fixed up the name I also discovered a glaringly obvious bug in my implementation of feed_copyright which meant it would always raise an exception. I can only assume I copy-pasted from a broken example of how to do feeds in Django, without checking whether it worked[2. I wish I could tell you this didn’t sound like me, but never mind.].

Bug #2 - a broken import

More strangely, I was missing a whole chunk of one file[3. Normally coverage reports in don’t include blank lines.]. Turned out that one of my templatetags files had a bad import, which Django silenced, since TEMPLATE_DEBUG was set to False[4. The lesson here is to make sure that DEBUG and TEMPLATE_DEBUG are set to True in unit tests - the tests fail loudly if I set those two settings in my, and show me exactly where the problem is.]. This bad import would have meant my template tags just didn’t work. Fixing up the bad import raised the coverage of the module with the broken import to 100%, which was encouraging, though yet another sign that 100% coverage is not sufficient (I’d clearly not been checking the output of any of those template tags, or other tests would have failed).

Self-evident conclusions

Aiming for 100% code coverage might not be that useful - it doesn’t tell you anything about whether your code works, and is probably more effort than it’s worth on a project rather more serious than my tiny blogging application.

However, I do think it is worth at least understanding why your code coverage isn’t 100% - take a look at the lines you’re missing and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Would you expect your tests to hit this code?
  2. What would it take to make sure your tests do hit this code?
  3. Is it worth the effort?