Pairing Hell

pair hell
Image courtesy Chris Martin; altered from original. License.

“Pairing is hell. Okay, it’s also fun. But it’s also hell.” —Alex Harms, on pair programming.
Over fifteen years of pairing, and I too am similarly ambivalent about it. Don’t think I’m making a case for not pairing, however. I’ve written numerous times in support of pairing:

At least 16 more blog entries on this site discuss pairing, as do many at the Agile in a Flash blog.

So “hell,” really? Seems strong. Let me explain what I find to be a few serious problems with pairing cultures that can make it hell.

Overuse

As an introvert, I have a limit on the number of hours I can interact with people before I need to recharge (i.e. on my own). I regularly stretch this amount, which is ok. It doesn’t mean I’m not enjoying the interaction–particularly if it’s going well. It is heavily draining, however, which demands more recharging.

Pair programming was never meant to be the only thing you do all day. And yet I’ve done regular stints of 9-10 hour pairing days (at HEB in San Antonio for 7 months), or 7-8 hour days (remote at Outpace for the past few years). Trust me, those aren’t 100% fun hours for an introvert, no matter how well it’s going.

Sensible pairing shops set a limit on pairing. Six hours is plenty: three hours in the morning, three in the afternoon, a break in each. One shop I’ve helped mandates such a schedule to positive effect–no one feels pressured to stretch beyond reasonable amounts.

Pair-holes

Some people either never learned to play well with others or are incapable of it (i.e. it’s not their fault). Still, I believe most individuals are capable of learning how to interact effectively as a pair.

Having said that… there are definitely a (very small) number of pair-holes: people who should just not pair. Ever. Again. And I hope to never have to pair with these folks again. Fortunately for them and me, plenty of shops don’t mandate pairing, and shops that pair usually have other non-pairing things to do.

What makes a pair-hole? Mostly it’s someone who’s “always right,” or worse, someone who wants to argue (and not code) just for the sake of arguing. A keyboard dominator can sometimes be a pair-hole.

Many bad pair habits (inattentiveness, timidness, loud, etc.) can be corrected or overcome. A pair-hole is someone who doesn’t care enough to do so.

I’m not talking about people who want to think through problems on their own instead of with a pair. I think just about everyone feels that way some of the time, including me. I find that exploring things on my own is necessary as a regular thing. I find time regularly to do so–that’s one reason I seek slightly less than a full day’s pairing.

Poor Practice

Other than pairing too long, I’m mostly talking about pair marriages. We promote pair switching to increase coverage on everything. A pair can go down a rathole, just like a solo dev can. I suggest all shops incorporate a rule that says “at least 3 sets of eyes review every story,” whether through pairing or some other mechanism.

That’s the practical concern regarding pair marriage. The painful part: Being stuck with the same person day after day–or even all day long–can be a big pairing turn-off, like long walks down the beach can be (because you know you have to walk back). Switching at lunchtime can work well.

Pairing is a Tool

Pairing can be a highly entertaining, effective tool. For me, it’s often joyful. But it can at times be painful. The more you understand the extreme feelings and concerns people have with respect to pairing, the more you’ll learn how and when to effectively employ the tool.

If you’re not actively coaching your pairing and not continually adjusting your pairing practice (perhaps as a result of retrospectives), chances are good that you have the above dysfunctions.

TDD: No Fun, No Gain?

Party DogIn “TDD Is Not a Silver Bullet” I reproduced part of an interview with Tim, a sharp young corporate developer that I’d paired with very briefly in 2006. In 2008, he sent me an email about his experiences in the interim. Tim’s stories are what prompted me to want an interview with him. Here’s a portion of the email.

Much to my surprise, it is being conveyed from the head of our development that we need to be “stressing” TDD.  My surprise was… I thought we already were practicing TDD on an enterprise level.  Regardless, I guess they had brought in this guy named [Very Big Agile Name deleted].  (I am sure he runs in your circles.) If you are friends with him, take what I am about to say not as an insult, rather my perception; but if he would have been the expert to introduce me to TDD, I would never even thought of adopting/agreeing with it.  And, as it turns out, the teams he consulted felt the same way.

I have been telling my boss about my experiences with you, and told her it would be like night and day.  I respected the fact, that while TDD was the stressed point with you, you also provided more than just using TDD as a silver bullet per se.  Basic things… like knowing the language, having fun, communicating, and so on.

I got in touch with Tim this week to make sure he was ok with me publishing this stuff four years later. No surprise, Tim is still doing (and presumably enjoying) TDD.

If you’re a “real” programmer, you find coding fun at least some of the time. Of course, it might not necessarily be fun when the code fights you all the way, hiding bugs and throwing nasty dependencies in your path. Still, I happen to enjoy coding always, despite the challenges. Test-driving is fun, too–it’s more code, and it gives me confidence to craft cleaner code, which is even more fun.

Maybe learning doesn’t have to be fun to be effective, but I have to figure sucking the fun out of it on purpose can’t possibly work. (I’m disappointed that a Very Big Agile Guru could do that.) Yes, the sticky challenges of real code mean that you can’t teach TDD with a few trivial, “non-real-world” examples. That’s why I employ a deliberately horked-up, fairly realistic codebase in my training. But the class also learns that it’s only a challenge, not a barrier, and they quickly learn a few simple techniques to surmount the challenge. They have a good time learning TDD.

Ultimately, my students leave the classroom enthusiastic about the prospects for TDD, and confident that they at least have the basic understanding needed to begin tackling their challenges. After that, it’s a matter of their having good support for the practice. (Being the minority in a team, as I’ll relate in a later blog post through Tim’s stories, is a great way to lose that enthusiasm.) When I get to pair with developers to help them through learning TDD, both of us have a good time.

If you’re interested in coming up to speed on TDD, make sure you pick trainers and consultants who don’t suck the fun out of it.

Code Socialization

The first rule of Fouled-up-code* Club is you don’t talk about the code.
The second rule of …

We don’t talk about the code, and so most of us are members of F’d-up-code Club. We’re not socializing the code enough. Shop upon shop I visit, I ask when the programmers discuss what’s in the code with each other. The usual answer?  “Once in a while.”

If you’re not regularly talking about the code as a team, it’s getting worse. And “it” includes the time to understand the code, the time to fix the code, the pain the code causes you, the defect count, and ultimately the extent to which you have a real team.

We create standards but they idle and adherence falls off, and the code shows it, and attempts to get back on track fall short. We pair-program, but don’t switch pairs mid-story, and the solutions show it. (Yes, two heads produce a better-than-one solution, but a pair deep into understanding of their feature can easily produce a solution that makes little sense to others.) We hold tepid brown-bags that bore attendees and ultimately taper off in quantity. We hold retrospectives, sometimes, but the process crud dominates, and the audience isn’t usually right for talking about code problems. We sit in the same area (well, a small number of us do), but rarely call others over to our monitor to look at some cool or challenging code.

Try this (the opposite of the prior paragraph, duh):

  • Revisit your standard once a quarter at least, or simply when someone wants to visit a specific standard issue.
  • Pair program and take advantage of the two-heads effect. If you can’t pair, incorporate a streamlined inspection process. If you can pair, switch pairs at least once mid-feature. See if the third party can make sense of your tests and solution with minimal assistance from you.
  • Run end-of-day code sharing sessions on the LCD projector. Limit them to 15 minutes, and shoot for 5 minutes. “Hey, can we stop doing this in the code?” Or, “Here’s a new reusable construct that we should all be using.” Or, “Here’s an effective tool tip I learned.”
  • Find 60 minutes for a programmer-only retrospective each iteration. Make sure what comes out of them are commitments to improve that are actually met (otherwise don’t bother).
  • Don’t wait for the end of the day or a pair switch to discuss something important in the code. People should feel comfortable about standing up and finding an audience for a 5-minute ad hoc code discussion.

* More blunt folks can substitute other words for “fouled.”

Don’t Stop Reading…

When writing, be careful of presenting an opposing point first with the notion that you’ll make your counterpoint in a subsequent paragraph or page. That first pitch is often as far as some readers get. Royce’s article “Managing the Development of Large Software Systems” led to decades of waterfall for this reason.

Recently, a pair-developer expressed concern over the use of multiple returns in a short method. I said I knew about the long-standing rule but that it created little value for very short methods. Two days later, I heard the same concern during another pairing session. Twice in one week? Curious!

I asked where they’d read about the rule. “Uncle Bob’s Clean Code” was the surprising response. “Hand me your copy!” I insisted, a bit worried, and quickly located the text in the functions chapter. The very last paragraph on page 48, starting a new section, states: “Dijkstra rules of structured programming… [say] …every function … should have one entry and one exit. Following these rules means that there should only be one return statement in a function…” Oh! Yeah, I learned that 30 years ago. Really, Bob?

Page 49, top paragraph: “”While we are sympathetic to the goals and disciplines of structured programming, these rules serve little benefit when functions are very small. It is only in larger functions that such rules provide significant benefits.”

Oh, ok. Whew! Crisis of faith averted.

Readers: Inattentive reading can be embarrassing!
Writers: Don’t assume readers will get to your point. Make it first.

Abandoning Pairing

For almost a year, I pair programmed on a daily basis as part of a team working for GeoLearning, a small software company that is no more. My enjoyment was tempered by the fact that I was pairing remotely, online with a headset and sometimes a camera, using Skype and WebEx. The contrast to live pairing was marked.

Remote Pairing Cons

  • Lag. Whoever was not hosting the session suffered enough lag to make the experience a bit painful. We didn’t switch enough, probably because of the cost of switching overhead (not only the desktop switching itself, but also getting the source across, which really isn’t all that big a deal with git).
  • Noise. Some people breathe rather heavily, others swallow loudly, and some like to chomp on snacks too much. I did mention it from time to time, but it always felt awkward. And either I was a very good pair, not making these sorts of noises–I doubt it–or others similarly didn’t want to speak up.

Pairing or not, as a remote developer I didn’t feel like I was a real part of the larger, “live” team. I felt that my influence as a remote person was insufficient.

The remote pairing also carried the same issues that “live” pairing can create, most of which are minor. For example, the team had very few standards, which led to some wasteful debates during many of the pairing sessions, still not that big a deal. But couple a lack of standards with stubborn people, and you have a useless pairing session.

I can get along with just about everybody; not the case this time out. I paired with one developer whose concept of TDD was almost completely opposite mine. We produced virtually no useful product during our two or three pairing sessions (we then ended up on different teams, thankfully). In attempts to stop the arguments, I would often say, “Let’s just go with your preferred way of doing things for now.” No such luck. Some folks are simply contrarians.

Remote Pairing Pros

  • It allowed me to stay at home, very welcome after many years of travel, which had created a significant negative impact on my family life.
  • Learning a new system without the ability to lean on someone for several hours a day is tremendously wasteful and frustrating. Remote and isolated, it’s even worse. Pairing rapidly brought me up to speed to the point where I was able to contribute.
  • I could work with the remote pair and not be uncomfortable about things like sitting too close, bad breath, or my laziness on some days when I didn’t feel like showering.
  • The slow cycle times (waiting on compiles, test runs, etc.) were almost bearable due to the fact that you had someone to talk to for the minute or two or more.

Being remote sucks in so many ways–primarily the isolation from the rest of the team–that I wouldn’t have even considered the position had it not been for the ability to pair. I never felt like I was a real part of the larger, “live” team, and I felt that as a remote person I was unable to influence the team much.

So despite the negative aspects of my remote pairing experience, it was the best that I could expect for this opportunity. Ultimately, having this opportunity remotely was better than not having it. And the pairing brought me a small but significant step toward feeling like I was a real part of something.

Pairing No More

I’m currently working a three-month contract for a local firm. It’s a very stable company, there’s no travel on the near horizon, and my commute is about seven minutes door-to-door (it’s three miles away, with only one stoplight inbetween). Those three elements are great, but just about every other element–ranging from pay to preferred way of working to technology–is a concession.

There’s no pairing. My first “real” week (i.e. past most of the HR and setup BS) was spent sitting in an office, digging through a (test-less) codebase, occasionally IMing my teammate a couple offices over to ask questions. It’s a typical no-process environment.

Here’s how I feel about no longer pairing:

  • Bored. Cycle times are again high. I miss having someone to discuss things with during the waits. Checking email, tweets, RSS feeds, and Amazon book ranks helps only a little.
  • Lonely. Stuck in my office with no one to talk to and bounce ideas off, I don’t really feel like I’m part of a team, just one of a number of individuals who happen to work on the same code base and project.
  • Conflicted. I second-guess myself continually. “Is this the company way? Is this the [unfamiliar-to-me technology] way? Does it violate standards? Is it the best design? Did I just do something really stupid? Am I going to get chewed out or look bad for checking this code in?” Unfortunately, second-guessing produces far weaker answers than simply asking someone who already knows and can quickly tell me the answers.
  • Released. One downside of pairing most of the time is it tends to suppress learning by exploration. While I don’t want to work that way all of the time, I’ve found I often learn better when I probe about and try things. With a pair, I usually feel the pressure (even if I’m really the one creating that pressure myself) to move on. And many people who already know the answer tend to simply prefer to tell you it, or more typically grab control and do it themselves rather than wait while you muck around.
    While this may sound damning, it’s easily rectified in a pairing environment: Set a time limit to pairing. I’ve found that a six-hour window is plenty, but it’s up to you and your team to figure out how much works well for you.

Pairing is not for everyone or every team. The bullets above suggest that there are serious challenges both with pairing and with not pairing. But most of the time, I’ve found pairing to be far more enjoyable and productive than not.

Roaming Keymap Profiles

When pairing, I often learn little shortcuts and tips that I might never pick up otherwise (even though I’m the compulsive sort who comprehensively reads things like the entire list of commands, just to find some new trick). I try to impart at least as many tips as I take on. Pairing makes it happen, as there’s little better than to have an insistent partner who keeps reminding you to “just hit Ctrl-Alt-v” (introduce variable in IDEA, an essential refactoring). In the absence of a pair, IDEA’s Key Promoter plugin helps a bit.

As someone who pairs across many teams, I regularly encounter different IDEs and programmer editors. Usually teams standardize on one tool, but not long ago I worked in a C++ team where there were 8, count ’em, 8 different editors in play. Currently I am working with a team where some people are piloting Eclipse, while the rest of the team uses IDEA.

Give me a few minutes and I can ramp up OK, but switching IDEs throughout the day will make just about anyone feel stupid. Ctrl-d, duplicate line in IDEA. Switch to Eclipse, oops, Ctrl-d, I just deleted a line. Nope, it’s Alt-Ctrl-Down to duplicate a line. Move a line up, Ctrl-Shift-Up in IDEA. Wait, though, I can’t remember the Eclipse corollary, but I do have muscle memory, and so I now have to go try it… wait for me… it’s Alt-Up. And so on.

Why don’t I just change the keymaps so that they’re more in synch with each other? Or why not use, say, a vi keymap everywhere? The problem is that I’m pairing with others, and so the simplest thing is to go along with the IDE defaults (which is what the predominance of programmers uses).

On my wish list and/or backlog of things to work on, I’d love it if IDEs would support a standardized roaming keymap protocol, as well as a simple mechanism for toggling profiles. I would be able to specify a URL from which the IDE would download my profile. From there on, a simple keystroke would toggle from the active keymap profile to mine and vice versa, in order to expedite pairing.

I’ve been hoping to see more support in IDEs for things like TDD and pairing. It’s coming, albeit slowly. Any plugin fanatics out there who want to give this one a go?

Pairing Smells

Tim Ottinger and I are working on a new project, an agile agile reference guide. (Yes, that’s supposed to be two “agile”s in a row.) One of the things we’re debating is a list of pairing smells. Here’s what we have so far:

  • Unequal access to keyboard and/or screen
  • Keyboard domination
  • Pair marriages / no switching during story
  • Worker/rester pairing
  • Second computer
  • “Everyone does their own work”
  • 90% of stories 90% done
  • Reluctant pairings
  • Debates lasting longer than 10 minutes with no new code

Thoughts welcome, and incorporated ideas will be rightly attributed. What might we remove from or add to this list? What could be worded better?

Open Source Pairing Scheduler

Rather than whine about not having enough good pairing experiences, I’ve decided to do something about it. Recently I’ve had a few pairing sessions online, and I decided that the software to build would start around the simple notion of scheduling online pairing sessions.

The idea is to slowly start building an online pairing community. I imagine there are many kinds of participants, people who want to:

  • build quality software via pairing and TDD
  • promote their services and ability to mentor via pairing
  • get some work done on a real product
  • get in touch with other members of the agile community
  • learn about either pairing or TDD
  • learn about the effectiveness of distributed pairing
  • learn a specific technology (Java, Rails, JMock, RSpec, etc.)
  • improve their Ward number for bragging purposes

I hope that the scheduler software will be all that and many more. Initially, I created a wiki as a scratch pad area, to help set up sessions, to hold an initial backlog of stories around the scheduler itself, and to record experiences.

I chose Java, but only because of interests in my pairing partner. I’m not sure that the pairing scheduler should be Java, but for now it is. If Java, what represents the best choice for front end (web) technologies?

Please feel welcome to join up and post your recommendations and experiences at the wiki site. Interested developers should send me an email with their intents, and I’ll set up their SourceForge account to have appropriate access.

Pair Programming Withdrawal

Once again, I find myself without peers. I’ll spare the details, but I used to work with some great agile technical mentors. I had some (never enough) opportunities to just sit and pair on a solution, not as a mentor, but as a peer on a programming effort. Unfortunately they’ve all disappeared, one way or another.

I’m reminded of my feelings when I left a 7-month programming gig a few years ago. During that seven months, I paired almost continually. I looked forward to going to work every morning. There’s a significant social aspect to pairing, but mostly I looked forward to learning new things.

Some of my favorite pairing sessions in the past half-year were with Tim O.**, and more recently with a guy named Rick. I learned, and I think they may have learned too. I improved in capability and thus effectiveness on vi while working with Tim. With vi, a very powerful editor, I think there are a number of rungs: 1, where it just beeps at you, 2, where you’ve figured out how to survive, 3, where you’re reasonably proficient, 4, where you know quite a bit and are very effective, and 5, a true master that knows everything in there. Tim is certainly at 4 and approaching 5 (there were a few things he had to look up). The nice thing about our pairing sessions is that Tim helped me to step up from rung 2 to 3.

Now, I’m all alone (*sob*). Sympathy cards are welcome, but smacks upside the head for my whining are also welcome. The way I look at it is that every day that I’m not pairing, there are many, many things that I could be learning that I’m not. That’s a shame. I now second-guess my work. “This sucks. There has to be a better way. Is there a better way?” I’m pretty sure that I also develop more slowly.

As an aside, I’ve heard suggestions that expert-to-expert pairings are a waste of time. That’s absolutely not true. A good tennis player and friend once told me that the best way to hone your game and take it to the next level is to play with someone as good as you or better. It works in programming, too.

**Tim is an Object Mentor consultant who coaches agile teams in just about everything. I think he’d like it that I added this information.

 

Comments:

I love to play Enemy Territory, online objective based first person perspective shooter.
Sometimes it happened there are only few people left on a server at early morning. The most exiting moment for me is, when I face enemy much better than I’m. That’s the unique time when I’m given a chance to improve my: aiming, decision making, orientation and coordination skills.
Although I don’t consider myself an expert, I’m not a total lame as I was few times recruited for medium skill clans.

Apparently, those who consider expert-to-expert paring to be a wast of time, are ashamed to admit they are not as good as they thought.

 

A Case for Pairing: Open Workspaces and Distractions

I currently work as part of an agile mentoring team in a large organization. Up until recently, we shared a project room. At any given point in time, there might have been one of four to six or seven team members (including a manager), plus one to three people that we were working with. On average there were four people in the room at any given time.

Up until this experience, I had always had positive sentiments about open workspaces and team rooms. In this current setting, I did benefit significantly from getting to converse frequently with all of the other people in the room. I learned things I probably would never have learned otherwise. And, I had a grand old social time.

But I also found that I wasn’t getting much work done when I had things I need to concentrate on. It seemed like I could be guaranteed a distraction at least every five minutes. Either someone was asking a question, or I was overhearing something that I felt compelled to respond to. It got to the point where if I had to find a couple hours to work on something (such as preparing training material), I ended up leaving the open workspace to find somewhere quiet.

The problem wasn’t the open workspace, it was the fact that none of us were really working on the same thing. The other mentors were usually working on a different project than I was. And my manager, well, you know how managers are, there’s always something they want you to pay attention to right away.

Escaping the room on occasion was an adequate solution, but the better solution ended up being pairing. I noted that as soon as I found a partner to help build a solution, or someone that I was mentoring, the distractions disappeared. I surmise two reasons: first, as a pair we were focusing on a problem. That meant I was no longer listening to any external conversations. Second, people are more reluctant to interrupt two people that they see obviously engaged in a conversation or task.

As I’ve paired more and have worked with teams employing pairing, I’ve grown a long list of benefits that I’ve seen accrue from the practice. My experience here adds a new bullet item: pairing minimizes distractions.

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