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Still more reflections from CodeRetreat

I’ve had some decent response to the posts about CodeRetreat. I had some more thoughts come to me in the days following, mostly on pair programming, but no time to write it until now. Here’s a brain dump:


This was my first opportunity to try it out, and I instantly liked pair programming. Much of my frustration in trying to learn how to program has come from trying to learn in isolation, getting stuck, and having no one to go to for help. Pairing means you have someone right there who you can talk to, and who can also catch mistakes that you might not have caught until much later.

Be Likeable

I think pairing is a great idea, but with the caveat that it requires you to like your partner. Establishing rapport is critical. I would say that if you are trying to program with someone and have yet to click on a personal level, it might be a good idea to stop trying to program and start trying to connect. Find some way to do this. Play a game that fosters working together with a common goal, like Jenga. If you can’t connect, then it might well be better to not try to pair up, or even not try to program together at all. Divorce is greater than the sum of its parting.

There’s only so much you can do about your partner, but you can do a lot to be likeable. Don’t focus immediately on the problem, but on the partner first. Smile. Be cheerful and enthusiastic. Remember names. Listen. Avoid negativity. Try out your partner’s ideas. When you think something, explain why you think it. When you want to try something, explain why you want to do it and what you hope to accomplish. Then don’t spend a lot more time talking about it — do it. What works becomes a lot more apparent at runtime than any other time, and the quicker you get there the better.

Assert(IsEqual(Life.Spice, Variety));

That’s not to say that you should never pair up with someone who has a very different style from yours. Very often that is precisely the type of person who you should be looking to pair with, because their differences will be the things that you learn from. Still, someone who you can communicate with easily is a must. You’re not going to enjoy learning from seeing a different style if the person demonstrating it is incapable of explaining it in a way that you can understand. Programming style is not the same thing as personality.

If you don’t get along well, or have very different styles, there’s a risk of ego clashes. Frankly, there’s always going to be a risk of ego clashes. Fortunately, this did not come up at CodeRetreat — the people who attended were there because they wanted to be there, which I think makes a huge difference. If your partner isn’t at least pair-curious, if not outright interested, they’re apt not to be a very good partner.

Swing your partner

Much like… uh… square dancing, pairing is even better if you can do it with more people. Try to find more people to pair with. Put on a snazzy shirt, go to bars, wear a lot of jewelry, buy someone a drink, and ask them if they code. See where that leads.

Good pairings are unequal

Intuition suggests the best pairing combinations are unequal. The value two great programmers contribute to a pair is not as great as the value created by pairing a great programmer with an average programmer. The great-great pair may be more productive, but the great-average pair will produce another great programmer in time.

Pairing isn’t just about mentoring and learning, it’s also about collaboration, error catching, and creativity. But mentoring and learning is a hugely valuable part of it — in most cases, probably more valuable than the resulting product.

Dance like no one’s watching, Code like your repository is /dev/null

Being willing to give things a try is a huge factor to pair success. I think what made CodeRetreat so easygoing was that it was deliberately structured to be coding without consequences. We threw out what we’d written at the end of each session, so there was no goal of getting it done, no stake in one person’s approach “winning”.

In the real world, there are consequences. But if you can, try to structure the project workflow in such a way that you can code as though there were no consequences. Be willing to take risks and experiment. Don’t just stick with what you know; grow.

If the established code base is getting in the way of this, don’t be afraid to cut it. From working on numerous development projects over the past five years, I’ve learned that the actual coding takes hardly any time at all, relative to the rest of the project. Requirements gathering, design, and testing all take considerably more time in my shop. Therefore, starting over rewriting code should not be intimidating.

In fact, going back over 20 years, to the bad old days when operating systems didn’t have protected memory and applications didn’t have automatic data recovery, in every instance I can think of when I was writing something and lost it, whether it was prose or code, the re-write was always faster and the results better. So don’t be afraid to take a clean-slate approach at times.

Start over

If CodeRetreat had taught me only one thing, it would have been that it’s not just OK to start over sometimes, sometimes it’s quite helpful. Too often, though, we attach value to code that has already been written and are reluctant to throw it out. Even if it was written as a short term stopgap, if it basically works no one wants to let you throw it out. “Reusable” code is something of a mantra in a lot of shops, as well it should — rewriting the same thing over and over again sucks. But if it wasn’t the right code to begin with, reusing code is about as appealing as reusing toilet paper. Before you try to re-use code, be sure that it is in fact re-usable.

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  1. One of the best pairing experiences I’ve had recently was with an asymmetrical equal. I knew way more about programming, and about Unix, than the other person, but he was much more proficient with Ruby and Rails. I learned a ton of Rails stuff from him, and he got to pick up some problem-solving ideas from me.

    About reusing code… ideally that’s where refactoring comes in. Say the existing candidate-class-to-reuse more or less works but needs a couple new methods to accommodate the new application. You can add tests to the class if they’re not already there, refactor the class to make it better, run tests again, add tests for the new methods, code the new methods, run the tests again, and refactor. Blam-o. Done.


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