Grumpy Programmers Like Pair Programming post

May 9th, 2012

Some of you might have a vision of me, the self-described and oft-labeled Grumpy Programmer as the type who prefers to work in solitude. Uninterrupted, I crank out code while in The Zone.

I prefer working in collaborative environments where the entire team gets to work on the entire application. None of this siloing bullshit that I see happen time and time again. "Borat is the only guy who understand our reporting system. We can't possibly let anyone else work on it!" That sort of nonsense doesn't belong on any team and also speaks of ridonkulous communication problems.

At Kaplan Professional they've chosen to use pair programming as a normal, everyday development practice. Our team consists of 3 developers in the main offices in La Crosse, 7 remote workers spread across 3 time zones, 2 QA staff, one testing engineer, and our development manager. Pair programming has worked out awesomely and I want to try and explain why.

One of the biggest hurdles facing a team with in-house and remote workers is communication issues. Your classic pair programming setup is two developers sitting together at the same desk, one typing while the other helps out with suggestions on how to write the tests we're going to need and how to hand-crafted our artisanal code. Sadly we still have people writing the tests AFTER they've written the code, but grumpiness is not eliminated in one day.

At Kaplan we use the dynamic duo of Join.me and TeamSpeak for pair programming. Whomever is driving will start a join.me session, share the link with their partner and away they go. There is much coding and playful banter as Shit Gets Done. I cannot put it any other way.

Your partner keeps you honest and focussed on the task you're trying to solve. For example, when I was coding a feature I was not 100% familiar with I was able to get my pair to do research on other parts of the code base while I was creating the skeletons for some tests. Many times my pair would suggest "don't you think we could make that bit of code better by...", and more often than not we'd have a good discussion about writing easy-to-understand-yet-efficient code or discuss how what we are doing is out of character with the rest of the code. Object calisthenics is a favourite topic of mine and has led some of my other fellow developers to rethink how they have been building things.

See, people have this idea that pair programming means that one guy codes while the other sullenly watches or surfs the internet instead. Or it means two developers fucking around instead of working. I cannot speak for other developers, but I don't put up with that shit while paired. I am expecting my pair to devote as much attention to the task at hand as I am, and I return the favour by being attentive and helpful towards my pair when I am not driving the session.

Because developers are taking turns solving problems and implementing solutions, the amount of tribal knowledge (knowledge about the application itself locked up in people's brains instead of shared and/or documented) decreases and everyone's understanding of the system goes up. This transfer of knowledge can only really happen as one developer shows another just what the hell is going on inside this application. There is no better way I can think of to do this than while paired.

Pair programming also has the added good side effect of allowing team members to get to know each other. It's only the most anti-social of co-workers who won't end up discussing things outside of work while pair programming. I don't see any reason to work with robots who only care about how many story points we are cranking out every sprint. We are people first and coders second. Don't forget that.

Finally, pair programming results in more than one person understanding how a particular problem was solved and how the solution was implemented. At Kaplan we always have a sprint demo day at the end where we demonstrate the various features that were implemented during the sprint. With everyone having used pair programming, it's much easier for the group as a whole to decide who will demonstrate what. No need for one developer to hog all the glory!

This also ends up being a great way for those who already understand the application to teach new hires how things work. Kaplan Professional had expanded its team quite rapidly when I started and I think that without pairing we would still be struggling to meet our sprint commitments. Nothing prompts rage-quitting more than a situation where it is incredibly difficult for new hires to make positive contributions to the team within a few days of starting.

I understand that not every organization is ready to make a commitment to use pair programming. Just like not every organization is ready to make a commitment to writing tests as part of their normal flow. But don't harbour any misconceptions about what pair programming really is: two developers working together towards solving problems, alternating who is mashing keys on a keyboard. Both developers are working, they are just working together.

The goal is to solve problems within a unit of time that you have committed to. Kaplan Professional is no different in that it expects you to honour your commitments. Pair programming has been a way for problems to get solved faster than if individual programmers had been trying to solve them. Communication is up, non-working features are done, and the amount of work actually getting done has increased noticeably in the two months since I started working in pairs.

I cannot recommend enough giving pair programming an honest try in your work environment. You might be surprised to find out that you are Getting More Shit Done than you realize.