The great testing pyramid of devops

Utilising the test pyramid effectively in software development requires thoughtful consideration before reaping its benefits. Let’s delve into the principles of the Cheops DevOps’ Great Testing Pyramid and ensure its proper application for maximum value.
What is the test pyramid?

The test pyramid, much like actual pyramids, may seem simple on the surface but proves to be intricate and challenging to navigate internally, without the inclusion of deadly traps. While not a perilous structure, its complexity requires careful consideration for effective use in software development.

In its essence, the test pyramid serves as a heuristic for guiding efforts in test automation projects. Originating in agile circles around 2009, it proposes that the longer tests take to run, the fewer of those tests should be implemented. A more detailed explanation can be found on the same site, with Mike Cohn introducing it in his work “Succeeding with Agile,” though it has gained recognition through Google’s testing blog as well.

While some hail it as a silver bullet for agile development, there is a contrasting viewpoint from those less impressed, a group I happen to align with. In this post, my aim is to elucidate why I hold this perspective.

What is the problem with it?

The initial challenge arises from the fact that unit tests, despite their name, do not hold substantial value from a Quality Assurance (QA) perspective. They tend to uncover fewer bugs and, notably, miss many common bug types, such as integration bugs. Additionally, unit tests demand significant maintenance during the early phases of projects and may not be suitable for certain types of code. It’s important to note that perceptions of unit tests may differ among individuals, and my perspective might not align exactly with yours.

The second, more apparent issue stems from the lack of a standardised definition for terms like unit tests and integration tests. Varied interpretations among different practitioners contribute to the confusion, making consensus on these definitions challenging. This lack of agreement is a fundamental issue and a primary cause of ongoing debates regarding best practices in the field.

The third challenge involves diverse requirements for different teams based on factors like size, project type, and codebase. A best practice endorsed by a larger organisation like Google may not necessarily translate well into a smaller shop, as the optimisation efforts of a larger entity may not address problems encountered by smaller organisations. This variability in needs adds another layer of complexity to the ongoing discussions surrounding best, better, and good practices in the field.

Can we fix the problems?

It’s quite common for people to engage in online disputes over differing definitions, and I found myself falling into that pattern with the test pyramid. Initially, I never looked beyond my own interpretations of unit and integration tests, dismissing the entire concept as a somewhat silly notion—a new silver bullet for agile consultants and evangelists to wield against their teammates. However, I later discovered that, with appropriate definitions of units and integrations, the test pyramid can indeed be meaningful.

Despite my personal reservations about the definitions of unit tests and integration tests, when it comes to understanding the benefits of the pyramid, these specific interpretations prove to be spot-on. It’s a reminder that sometimes adopting different perspectives can shed new light on established practices, even if those definitions might initially seem inappropriate from a personal standpoint.


Code-only tests. Possibly testing multiple genuine classes interacting. Only testing non-trivial code (no getters, setter, or otherwise trivial functions).


System-level integrations: External dependencies and running services needed by the app.


UI-driven testing. Click, type, and get-text your way to glory.

The internal model of what those should be is very different.


One class (or one file, or one function). Test the contents in absolute isolation. To verify and document correct interface behavior.


ALL THE OTHER CODE-BASED TESTS. If you don’t mock all the things you now have an integration test.


All the tests that require actual running software to be able to run.


To effectively use the test pyramid, it’s essential to grasp the specific testing levels your project requires. Consider the unique needs of unit tests, integration tests, and end-to-end (e2e) tests, recognising that not every project is suitable for unit tests, and traditional UI-based e2e tests may not be universally applicable. Projects differ in terms of quality expectations, execution speed, and available resources.

  1. Begin by clearly defining the terms specific to your project. What constitutes a unit test, an integration test, or an end-to-end (e2e) test in your context?
  2. Evaluate how these tests should be grouped and determine when and how they will be executed. Explore ways to organise and execute them effectively.
  3. Discard the pyramid metaphor and shape the testing strategy to align with the unique requirements of your project. Find the structure that best suits your needs.
  4. Identify heuristics that fit your project and figure out how to apply them. Tailor these principles to your specific context for optimal results.

What do they call this process? It’s simply test strategy and test planning, infused with a bit of test design. Surprisingly, these three activities prove too intricate to be adequately represented by a simplified three-layer pyramid.

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