Introduction to Pair Programming

Published Fri 13 October 2017 in work
Updated Sat 06 November 2021

by Jonathan Sharpe pivotal pairing xp

As part of Pivotal London's grassroots diversity and inclusion efforts, a colleague and I have recently been talking to the team at Ada College, the UK's National College for Digital Skills, about their apprenticeship program.

They invited us to lead an introductory session on pair programming to around 40 of their higher level digital apprentices. This is the material from that session, rewritten as a blog post.

Pairing Table in San Francisco

"Pairing Table in San Francisco", © Pivotal

Why do you pair?

Pair programming is one of the core practices of Extreme Programming (XP), a software development methodology based on the principles laid out in the agile manifesto. A major part of XP, and any agile methodology, is feedback:

XP teams strive to generate as much feedback as they can handle as quickly as possible.

from Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change by Kent Beck with Cynthia Andres

With pair programming, you're getting immediate feedback on your code, as you're writing it. This also aligns with the idea of Extreme Programming being good practices taken to extremes - it's code review, turned all the way up. The specific practice is described as follows:

Write all production programs with two people sitting at one machine... Pair programmers:

  • Keep each other on task.
  • Brainstorm refinements to the system.
  • Clarify ideas.
  • Take initiative when their partner is stuck, thus lowering frustration.
  • Hold each other accountable to the team's practices.

from Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change by Kent Beck with Cynthia Andres

In a similar vein the Pivotal Labs website lists four benefits of pairing, for all of the roles in a balanced product team, which I'll address in turn in the following sections:

  • Boost efficiency through collaboration
  • Knowledge share and skill transfer
  • Prevent knowledge silo
  • 100% transparency

However, perhaps the most succinct response to the question is the following quote from Rob Mee, Pivotal Labs founder and current Pivotal CEO:

It's more efficient, and it produces better code.

from This Company Believes You Should Never Hack Alone

Specifically for new developers, pairing can be an effective way to ramp up quickly, avoiding impostor syndrome and the stress of feeling abandoned to fend for yourself in an unfamiliar codebase. Amy Simmons recently gave at talk at Pivotal's public lunch and learn series on the care and feeding of new devs, discussing the results of a survey that found that 81% of respondents thought that junior devs could be better supported; one of her recommendations was to adopt code reviews and pair programming with senior devs, at least on a weekly basis.

Boost efficiency through collaboration

The immediate benefit to pairing is how infrequently you find yourself stuck. If there's something you don't know how to do, or you aren't sure where to go next, nine times out of ten your pair will be able to get you moving again. It's like rubber duck debugging, except that now the rubber duck can provide additional ideas!

In addition pairing is great for maintaining focus; whereas it's easy to get sidetracked when you're working alone (especially with a high-speed connection to social networks, news websites and TV Tropes...), having a second person looking at your screen keeps you honest about what you're supposed to be working on. In my experience the "flow state" of pairing is different to the one you get into when working alone; it's easier to get into and more resilient to interruptions.

Knowledge share and skill transfer

As an engineer in Pivotal Labs, the majority of my job consists of pair programming with our client's engineers, with the aim being to help them develop the software they're working on and build an effective team that can continue collaborate effectively once the engagement ends and they return to their usual offices. I have found pair programming to be a very effective way to teach the other practices we follow, like test-driven development (TDD) and continuous integration and deployment (CI/CD).

It's also a productive way to introduce someone to a new technology or codebase. Pairing with someone with less experience helps to identify where the code could be clearer or easier to follow, which is easy to overlook when you're more comfortable with the language or domain.

Prevent knowledge silo

Have you ever started trying to work on something only to be told "Oh, that's so-and-so's part, you should leave it to them"? Or, even worse, "the person who did that left, so we try not to touch it"? Pairing helps to avoid this by ensuring that no single person is the only one with knowledge of any specific part of the product.

This is especially powerful when you're regularly rotating pairs. Generally we rotate on a daily basis, using tools like Parrit to make sure that every possible combination is occurring. If a story is still in flight from the previous day we "stick and twist", with one person staying with the story to pass along the context and the other moving on to something else. This has the natural side effect that the more complex stories, the ones that take multiple days, get more people's input.

100% transparency

On your own you might be tempted to rush, to cut corners; "I'll just skip writing this test", or "this isn't great but we can refactor it later". All-too-frequently, later never comes! Your pair can be your conscience, keeping the code quality high and suggesting tweaks or possible edge cases as you go along. They can also point out when you're overthinking something you aren't gonna need.

Anatomy of a pairing station

There are a few crucial things you need to pair effectively:

  1. Shared desk: sit close enough that you can easily talk about what you're working on. If you have access to them, sit-stand desks allow more flexibility to change your position throughout the day. If the two people are different heights, monitor risers can be useful to keep them both comfortable.

  2. Separate peripherals: while it's possible to pair by passing a single keyboard and mouse back and forth, it isn't ideal. It's much easier to work with a set each, although you have to be careful not to jump in and use them at the same time! Each developer should also have their own mirrored monitor.

    This is particularly important when the pairing station is a laptop - having two people trying to look at the same relatively small screen, in close proximity to where one of them is trying to type, is very awkward. At the very least have an external monitor, mouse and keyboard, either so one can use those while the other uses the laptop, or so you can swap back and forth more easily.

  3. Pen and paper: whether you're discussing potential architectures, explaining a workflow, or just want to take a quick TODO note, nothing is as low friction as simply writing it down. A Post-It note on the bottom edge of a monitor can help record valuable information without interrupting the flow of pairing, and a quick sketch in a notebook is often the easiest way to share a complex idea.

  4. Standard config: to keep both partners efficient, you need to agree on consistent tooling and settings up-front. The pair should adopt a specific IDE or editor, key bindings, shortcuts, etc. This will likely mean compromise on some preferred tools, but is all part of taking collective ownership of everyone's productivity, as well as of the code. Similarly, agree on styling conventions, and strongly consider making linting part of your continuous integration process to keep everyone honest.

    If you're working in a team across multiple machines, it can be useful to create scripts to set up each machine identically without manual work. For example, the standard configuration for a Pivotal workstation is provided by a set of Bash scripts, available on GitHub. Another useful tool some of my colleagues have been working with recently is Ansible, which can be used to automate a wide range of tasks including workstation setup.

Pairing roles

Each person in the pair has a specific role. Note that this isn't a permanent role; you can (and should!) switch frequently between the two.

  • Driver: the driver is responsible for actually implementing the ideas being discussed as code. They write out all production and test code, refactor existing code as required and regularly run the tests to get the automated feedback on how it is going.

  • Navigator: the navigator is responsible for aligning the driver's progress towards the overall goal. They provide suggestions on possible directions or course corrections. They can also point out any minor typo, but note that they should give the driver a few seconds to spot it themselves first!

Both people should be continually vocalising their thought processes; how do you think the task is going? What should you be trying to do next. It's also important to remain patient and kind when working so closely with someone for long periods of time.

Different methods of pairing

Within the basic principles outlined above, there are many specific variations. Here are a couple you can try out:

  • Switch on red: named for the Red step of test-driven development's Red-Green-Refactor process. Each person writes the code to pass the current failing test, then the next failing test, so you switch roles when the test status is "red".

  • Blitz: this is a time-based exercise, where you set an overall time for a task (e.g. ten minutes) and allot each person half of it. Have a countdown running while each person is driving - once their time is up, they can't drive any more. This is a good way to even up the driving and navigating time, and can be done with a physical chess clock. You can increase the total time as you get more comfortable with it.

  • Evil coder: one person writes all of the tests, and the other then tries to make each test pass in an unexpected (or even actively counter-productive) way. This forces the test writer to drive out the actual behaviour they are looking for by constraining the code through additional tests. This can be carried out silently, with the pair communicating their intentations solely through the code they're writing.

  • Mobbing: more than two programmers working on the same task is referred to as "mobbing". This can be done with a single big screen and shared peripherals (ideally wireless, to make it easier to pass them around), as it's much harder to make sure no two people are typing at the same time in a larger group. I've found this particularly useful early in a project, where there isn't much surface area for multiple pairs to cover, or when introducing multiple new people to an existing codebase.

Things to avoid

  • Loud noises: try not to talk too loudly, and get away from any loud noise sources before starting. There's a hum to a roomful of people pairing, but it shouldn't feel like you need to shout over what's going on around you. Equally you shouldn't be talking over your pair; pairing is about reaching a consensus on the approach to take.

  • Strong smells: it should go without saying that personal hygiene is important when you're sitting right next to someone all day. But it's also worth bearing in mind that some people are sensitive to smells that you think are nice; consider unscented toiletries and avoid strong perfume or aftershave.

  • Taking over: Don't start using the mouse and keyboard while your pair is trying to, it's very frustrating when the cursor suddenly runs away from you. Ask explicitly or make a clear move when you want to try something out. It can be helpful to push the peripherals away from you, to avoid nudging them accidentally and also give you a clear way to signal that you want to drive.

  • Mobile phones: it's just too easy to get distracted by your phone. Consider turning on a do-not-disturb mode, or at the very least ensure it's on silent. Try to take breaks mindfully - use short pauses in your pairing (e.g. running a test suite) to discuss what you've been working on, rather than immediately picking up your phone. It's useful to have a second computer for separate research, but keep it shut - open email is another distraction.

When not to pair

Like many of the practices of XP, pair programming is a good default but doesn't fit every situation. For example, you might find it more effective to split up and solo when:

  • Researching a problem you’re stuck on: people read at different rates and absorb new ideas in different ways;

  • Trying out new technology: libraries, frameworks, new paradigms; or

  • Taking breaks: constant pairing can be tiring, especially when you’re new to it; don’t be afraid to ask for some time alone if you need it.

In general, you should agree specific end goals and time limits when you split up, so you can both be working towards the same thing, and you should bring ideas, rather than specific code or implementations, back to work on with your pair.

Additional resources

  • “Pair Programming Illuminated” by Laurie Williams and Robert Kessler

  • “Strengthening the Case for Pair Programming” by Williams, Kessler, Cunningham and Jeffries [PDF]

  • “The Costs and Benefits of Pair Programming” by Cockburn and Williams [PDF]

  • “Pair Programming Configurations” by Fred Mastropasqua [Blog]

  • “Is pair programming worth the trade off in engineering resources?” by Kent Beck [Quora]

  • “Pair Programming: When and Why it Works” by Chong, Plummer, Leifer, Klemmer, Eris and Toye [PDF]

Update: this post was revised to separate the roles of pairing (driver and navigator) from the methods (e.g. blitz), as the presentation was similarly updated.

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