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Ten Years of Pair Programming

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My current team has pair-programmed and followed strict TDD on a single codebase for over ten years. The practices started from reading the literature on Extreme Programming, which resonated with both the developers and leadership. As the team changed, we continued to follow the practices.

In the last five years, the developers choose to implement Arlo Belshee’s “Promiscuous Pairing”. We switch pairs in short intervals: 180 minutes is our current preference.

The pairing sessions start at 8:45AM and 1:00PM with the typical five-minute stand-up. People report on any data that the rest of the team needs to hear, including noteworthy technical details. Afterwards, the developers crowd around a board with the current tasks in progress. We randomize the pairs, then each pair decides what to work on from the current tasks.

If a developer wants to not pair for a session, they go “odd”. We have a working agreement that no production code can be written while odd. The odd person works on automated testing, answering questions, researching technical debt, investigating root causes of bugs, and authoring throwaway “spikes” for major refactorings.

Pros

  • No siloed information or “I don’t touch that section” areas
  • The team must adopt a consistent set of styles, tools, shortcuts, workflow
  • Developers can take vacation whenever they please
  • Training is built in to the process from day one
  • Developers quitting doesn’t throw the team into disarray
  • Productivity is fairly stable across decades
  • Protected time every day for research, refactoring, and technical debt
  • Frequent rotation gives a natural cadence for fixing broken CI builds
  • I personally spend a lot less time puttering around on Reddit, HN, etc (I’m sure that is true for others)
  • Pairs have much more courage and stamina to aggressively pay down technical debt. Even the most mind-numbing technical debt isn’t so bad if you know you are rotating off in two hours.
  • Interruptions are much less disruptive, typically only one or two minutes to get back into “flow”

Cons

  • Huge system “owned by everyone” is a lot for new developers to handle - training takes a long time
  • Juggling tasks can be complex (e.g. what gets put on hold when not at full capacity)
  • Support issues get passed around from pair to pair
  • General feeling you are “not important” to the team

Partly Good, Partly Bad

  • Pairing is polarizing
    • - Hiring is slow: many developers hate pairing
      • Some developers we’ve interviewed unfortunately feel pairing is demeaning, disrespectful, or beneath them
    • - Poor new hire retention
      • Some developers love the idea of pairing, not the practice of pairing; they often leave when they discover that distinction
    • + Low employee churn: those that love pairing stick around far longer than industry average
  • No task ownership
    • - Less emotional reward when completing a task
    • + Less in-fighting about typical ‘code-ownership’ bike-shed issues
    • + No one cares if a task is rejected by QA
  • Rapid pair-switching can cause design churn on a task
    • - Tasks can take longer to complete
    • + Tough tasks get prototyped several times and seen by whole team

We’ve found this set of trade-offs works very well with our team. The ten of us are all doing active development on a 3.4 million-line enterprise banking application. Quality and the ability to quickly conform to new regulations are of paramount importance. The team regularly has a discussion as to whether we should keep or abandon the policy of enforced pairing, and the consensus thus far remains to keep it.

We plan to be around for at least the next decade. Our team requires a workflow that allows for the rapid development of high-quality features while keeping the team stress-free and happy with their work. Since we plan on a decade scale, our development process must take into account the importance of long-term happiness, training, and the courage to aggressively pay down technical debt.

How To Get Started

This system works best with a given a set of preconditions.

  • The whole team has to love pairing and want to adopt it

    If even a minority of developers hates pairing, it will be tortuous to force them to do it. In our experience, >80% of developers hate pairing. If some members are not interested, it would be better to split the team and codebase. Forcing even a single developer to pair can be disastrous for morale and productivity. No one wants to pair with someone who is sullen and bitter. When pairing, misery cannot be hidden.

  • Management has to accept not having assigned tasks

    Assigning tasks reduces the beneficial effects of pair switching. The assigned developer ends up “doing all the work with an observer”. This is much less effective. The “observer” ends up tuning out, since the assignee “probably already has it figured out”.

  • Proficiency at pairing is a discrete skill

    Many seasoned developers find themselves awkward and uncomfortable when pairing for the first few months. Pairing cannot be assessed in any meaningful way by just “trying it for a week” anymore than typing can be assessed over hand-writing in just a week. Feelings of discomfort and awkwardness in the first few months are completely normal and should not be the criteria used to decide to continue the practice.

  • Let any pair make any decision

    Any pair should be authorized to make any decision to implement their current task. They must however be ready to have that decision undone or changed if the next pair finds it was too large, a poor design, out of scope, etc.

  • Accept that others are better than you

    When trying out pairing, productivity doesn’t have to drop! Many developers at first are uncomfortable by the rapid speed. The law of averages says half the developers on the team will find their pair going much faster than they are used to! These feelings of inadequacy often lead to developers wanting to discontinue the practice. Over time, everyone realizes that it is okay to not be the fastest, and instead take self-worth in what skills they do bring. Maybe they are not the fastest, but they are good at catching little details, etc.

As a development system, this absolutely cannot be handed down from management. It has to be implemented “by the people and for the people”.

Conclusion

We have seen promiscuous pairing completely change our organization. As a team, we accomplish far more than we would otherwise. We are able to tackle new systems, languages, and tools with ease. When someone learns a new valuable technique, it spreads organically through the team.

Feel free to tweet at me if you have any questions or clarifications!

STEVE SHOGREN

software developer, manager, author, speaker

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