Trying Test Driven Development For the First Time with Rspec and Capybara

As a former product manager, I would hear my dev teams talk about TDD, but I didn’t have a great understanding of what it’s about. As a student at the Flatiron Software Engineering program, I’ve gotten a good amount of practice interacting with tests. Each of the coding labs we do has a suite of tests we have to make pass. But, those test are written by other people. As students we haven’t gotten too much opportunity to practice writing our own tests. So, I wanted to use my Rails portfolio project as an opportunity to practice TDD and writing tests in general.

I would say that my efforts at TDD were a moderate success. The primary issue has been time. Writing tests, particularly writing tests for the first time, takes time. We’re given a limited amount of time to complete our portfolio projects, and it’s not required that we write tests. So, I started out by doing real TDD, but it eventually became an effort to simply become familiar with Rspec and Capybara. My test coverage for my portfolio project is incomplete, but I was able to get a better sense of TDD and how to write tests generally. Here are the spark notes:

General takeaways

  • Writing tests takes time.
  • But those tests helped me identify bugs quicker. I can see how tests save time in the long term, particularly as applications become more complex.
  • Even though I don’t have great test coverage, I have more confidence that when I’m refactoring or adding new features later, I’ll know if I accidentally break something else. AND, I don’t have to click all over my website repetitively to get that confidence.
  • Writing tests helped me think through my design choices, and made it easier to see some features that weren’t needed.


  • Rspec + Rails expects you to write different types of tests that correspond roughly to the MVC convention. For example, you can’t access a session from a controller type test; you’d need to write a feature type test.
  • To access sessions from a test you need to add `config.middleware.use RackSessionAccess::Middleware` to your `config/environment/test.rb` file.
  • You can access seed data from a test, but you need to add ` Rails.application.load_seed` to your `rails_helper.rb` file to do so.

All in all, writing tests was a good learning experience. In terms of developing my app, I was able to quickly identify bugs that lead to learning. For example, when one test failed, I learned that the `belongs to` macro for Active Records associations makes it so that that association is required by default. You can change this by adding the option `required: false` to the macro. In addition, Capybara testing helped me understand an important distinction about the `form_with` Form Helper. In this case, my test was passing, but the behavior on the website wasn’t as expected. It turns out that the `form_with` helper (as opposed to the `form_for` and `form_tag` helpers I had used in Flatiron labs) submits your form using Javascript by default. If you’re rendering a template at the end of a controller action instead of redirecting to another page this creates problems. The template gets rendered on the backend but isn’t necessarily sent back to the browser. This can be fixed by reverting to `form_tag` or setting `local: true` as an option in your `form_with` tag. My test confirmed that everything was working on the backend making it easier to narrow down what was wrong.

Without writing tests, debugging may have been significantly harder. I’m not sure if I’m 100% sold on TDD, but I definitely see the value of writing tests in general.

Recent graduate of the Flatiron Software Engineering program. Former startup CEO and product manager. Writing about tech.