Pair programming is hard. When most developers start pairing it feels unnatural. After a lifetime of coding alone, headphones on, no human contact; suddenly talking about every damned line of code can seem weird. Counter-productive, even.
And yet… effective pairing is the cheapest way to improve code quality. Despite what superficially seems like a halving in productivity – after all, your team of eight developers are only working on four things now instead of eight! – it turns out that productivity doesn’t drop at all. If anything, I’ve seen the opposite.
Going it Alone
In my experience most developers are used to, and feel most comfortable, coding on their own. It seems the most natural way to write code. But it introduces all sorts of problems.
If you’re the only person that wrote this code there’s only one person that knows it, that means at 3am in 6 months time guess who’s getting the phone call? And what happens when you decide to leave? No, worse, what happens when that other guy decides to leave and now you’ve got a metric fuckton of code to support. And of course, he couldn’t code for shit. His code stinks. His design stinks. You question his ability, his morals, even his parentage. Because everybody codes to a different style it’s hard to maintain any consistency. This varies from the most trivial of stylistic complaints (braces on new lines, puhleeze, what a loser) to consistency of architectural approach and standardised tools and libraries. This makes picking up other people’s code hard.
When you’re coding on your own, it’s harder to be disciplined: I don’t need to write a unit test for this class, it’s pretty trivial. I don’t need to refactor this mess, I know how it works. With nobody looking over your shoulder it takes a lot more self-discipline to write the high quality code you know you ought to.
Getting Started Pairing
The easiest way to get started is to pair with someone that’s experienced at doing it. It can feel quite strange and quickly become dysfunctional if you’re not used to it, so having an experienced hand show you what effective pairing feels like is really important.
The most important thing to realise is that pairing is incredibly social. You will spend a massive amount of time talking. It turns out that days of coding can save literally minutes of thought up front. When you’re pairing, this thinking happens out loud as you argue about the best way to approach the design, the best way to test this class, the best way to refactor it.
This can feel alien at first and incredibly wasteful. Why don’t you just shut up and let me code? Because then we’ll just have to delete your crap code and you’ll feel bad. Or worse, we’ll push it so you don’t feel bad and then we’ll come back to this mess again and again over the coming months and pay an incredibly high price instead of spending another few minutes discussing it now until we agree.
When pairing we traditionally label the two roles “driver” and “navigator”. The driver is the person with their hands on the keyboard, typing. The navigator isn’t. So what the hell’s the navigator doing? The critical thing is that they’re not just sitting there watching. The driver is busy writing good code that compiles; the driver is focused on details. The navigator is looking at the bigger picture: making sure that what we’re doing is consistent with the overall design.
One thing I really struggle with, but as a navigator it’s really important: don’t interrupt the driver’s flow. Resist the temptation to tell the driver there’s a missing bracket or semi-colon. Resist the urge to tell them what order to fix the compile errors in. Keep track of what needs to be done, if the driver misses something small write it down and come back to it.
The navigator should be taking copious notes, letting the driver stay hands-on-keyboard typing. If there’s a test we’ve spotted we’re missing, write it down. If there’s an obvious design smell we need to come back to, write it down. If there’s a refactoring we should do next, write it down. The navigator uses these notes to guide the coding session – ensuring details aren’t missed and that we keep heading in the right direction and come back to every detail we’ve spotted along the way.
The navigator can also keep track of the development “call stack”. You know how it goes: we started writing the shopping basket returns a price in euros test; but to do that we need to change the basket item get price method; this breaks a couple of basket item unit tests, the first of these shows we don’t have a currency conversion available for a basket item; so now we’re changing how currency conversion is constructed so we can pass it into the basket item factory. This call stack of development activities can get very deep if you’re not careful, but a disciplined navigator with a clear navigator’s pad will guide the way.
Generally the person that knows the domain / code base / problem the best should spend the least time being the driver. If I don’t know this code and you’re driving, I’m just gonna sit here watching you type. I can’t really contribute any design ideas because you know the domain. I can’t ask questions because it stops you typing. But the other way round: I can be busy typing learning the code as I go; while you use your superior knowledge to guide me in the right direction. I can ask lots of questions because when I don’t know, work stops until I’m happy again.
A good approach can be ping-pong pairing: this is where one person writes a failing test, the other makes it pass then writes another failing test, back to the first to make this test pass and then write another failing test, and so on and so on… This can give a good balance to a pairing session as both developers write test and production code and gives a natural rhythm preventing any one developer from dominating the driver role.
Sometimes it’s necessary to impose a time limit, I find 25 minutes is long enough for one person to be driving. This can happen when someone has an idea about a refactoring, especially if it becomes a sprawling change. 25 minutes also puts a good upper limit on a change, if you’ve not been able to commit to source control in 25 minutes it is definitely time to abort and do-over.
At the end of the day, write up your navigator pad and email it your partner. The following day you can swap pairs allowing either of you to carry on from exactly where you left off today.
Pairing can feel strange at first, but with practice it will begin to feel normal. If you can keep pairing day-in day-out you will come to rely on having a second brain alongside you. You’ll realise you can get through complex work faster because you’ve got two people working at different detail levels. Keep pairing long enough and coding on your own will begin to feel strange, almost dangerous. Who’s watching my back?