Testing legacy code with Golden Master

Sandro Mancuso · 11 Nov 2012

As a warm up for SCNA, the Chicago Software Craftsmanship Community ran a hands-on coding session where developers, working in pairs, should test and refactor some legacy code. For that they used the Gilded Rose kata. You can find links to versions in java, C# and ruby here and for clojure here.

We ran the same session for the London Software Craftsmanship Community (LSCC) early this year and back then I decided to write my tests BDD-style (I used JBehave for that). You can check my solution here.

This time, instead of writing unit tests or BDD / Spec By Example to test every branch of that horrible code, I decided to solve it using a test style called Golden Master.

The Golden Master approach

Before making any change to the production code, do the following:

  1. Create X number of random inputs, always using the same random seed, so you can generate always the same set over and over again. You will probably want a few thousand random inputs.
  2. Bombard the class or system under test with these random inputs.
  3. Capture the outputs for each individual random input

When you run it for the first time, record the outputs in a file (or database, etc). From then on, you can start changing your code, run the test and compare the execution output with the original output data you recorded. If they match, keep refactoring, otherwise, revert back your change and you should be back to green.

Approval Tests

An easy way to do Golden Master testing in Java (also available to C# and Ruby) is to use Approval Tests. It does all the file handling for you, storing and comparing it. Here is an example:

package org.craftedsw.gildedrose;

import java.util.ArrayList;
import java.util.List;
import java.util.Random;

import org.approvaltests.Approvals;
import org.junit.Before;
import org.junit.Test;

public class GildedRoseTest {

    private static final int FIXED_SEED = 100;
    private static final int NUMBER_OF_RANDOM_ITEMS = 2000;
    private static final int MINIMUM = -50;
    private static final int MAXIMUN = 101;

    private String[] itemNames = {"+5 Dexterity Vest",
                      "Aged Brie",
                      "Elixir of the Mongoose",
                      "Sulfuras, Hand of Ragnaros",
                      "Backstage passes to a TAFKAL80ETC concert",
                      "Conjured Mana Cake"};

    private Random random = new Random(FIXED_SEED);
    private GildedRose gildedRose;

    public void initialise() {
        gildedRose = new GildedRose();

    @Test public void
    should_generate_update_quality_output() throws Exception {
        List<Item> items = generateRandomItems(NUMBER_OF_RANDOM_ITEMS);



    private List<Item> generateRandomItems(int totalNumberOfRandomItems) {
        List<Item> items = new ArrayList<Item>();
        for (int cnt = 0; cnt < totalNumberOfRandomItems; cnt++) {
            items.add(new Item(itemName(), sellIn(), quality()));
        return items;

    private String itemName() {
        return itemNames[0 + random.nextInt(itemNames.length)];

    private int sellIn() {
        return randomNumberBetween(MINIMUM, MAXIMUN);

    private int quality() {
        return randomNumberBetween(MINIMUM, MAXIMUN);

    private int randomNumberBetween(int minimum, int maximum) {
        return minimum + random.nextInt(maximum);

    private String getStringRepresentationFor(List<Item> items) {
        StringBuilder builder = new StringBuilder();
        for (Item item : items) {
        return builder.toString();


For those not familiar with the kata, after passing a list of items to the GildedRose class, it will iterate through them and according to many different rules, it will change their "sellIn" and "quality" attributes.

I've made a small change in the Item class, adding a automatically generated toString() method to it:

public class Item {
    private String name;
    private int sellIn;
    private int quality;

    public Item(String name, int sellIn, int quality) {

        // all getters and setters here

    public String toString() {
        return "Item [name=" + name +
                              ", sellIn=" + sellIn +
                              ", quality=" + quality + "]";

The first time the test method is executed, the line:


will generate a text file, in the same folder where the test class is, called: GildedRoseTest.should_generate_update_quality_output.received.txt. That mean, ..received.txt

ApprovalTests then will display the following message in the console:

To approve run : mv

Basically, after inspecting the file, if we are happy, we just need to change the .received with .approved to approve the output. Once this is done, every time we run the test, ApprovalTests will compare the output with the approved file.

Here is an example of how the file looks like:

Item [name=Aged Brie, sellIn=-23, quality=-44]
Item [name=Elixir of the Mongoose, sellIn=-9, quality=45]
Item [name=Conjured Mana Cake, sellIn=-28, quality=1]
Item [name=Aged Brie, sellIn=10, quality=-2]
Item [name=+5 Dexterity Vest, sellIn=31, quality=5]

Now you are ready to rip the GildedRose horrible code apart. Just make sure you run the tests every time you make a change. :)


If you are using Eclipse or IntelliJ, you can also use Infinitest. It automatically runs your tests every time you save a production or test class. It is smart enough to run just the relevant tests and not the entire test suite.  In Eclipse, it displays a bar at the bottom-left corner that can be red, green or yellow (in case there are compilation errors and the tests can't be run).

With this, approach, refactoring legacy code becomes a piece of cake. You make a change, save it, look at the bar at the bottom of the screen. If it is green, keep refactoring, if it is red, just hit CTRL-Z and you are back in the green. Wonderful. :)


Thanks to Robert Taylor and Balint Pato for showing me this approach for the first time in one of the LSCC meetings early this year. It was fun to finally do it myself.

Sandro Mancuso Image

Sandro Mancuso

Software craftsman, author, and founder of the London Software Craftsmanship Community (LSCC). Sandro has been coding since a very young age but only started his professional career in 1996. He has worked for startups, software houses, product companies, international consultancy companies, and investment banks.

During his career Sandro had the opportunity to work in a good variety of projects, with different languages, technologies, and across many different industries. Sandro has a lot of experience in bringing the Software Craftsmanship ideology and Extreme Programming practices to organisations of all sizes. Sandro is internationally renowned by his work on evolving and spreading Software Craftsmanship and is frequently invited to speak in many conferences around the world. His professional aspiration is to raise the bar of the software industry by helping developers become better at and care more about their craft.

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