About three months ago, my team started seriously experimenting with pair programming. It’s been more than long enough since then for us to take stock, so we had a meeting three or so weeks ago to talk about our experiences.

The results were mixed, and really hard for me to get a grip on. Some good things:

  • Pairing did help the quality of our code.
  • More people know more about more of the system.
  • The daily standup meetings that we started doing at the same time as we started pairing helped me (as a manager) keep much better track of what was going on midweek.
  • Sometimes, pairing with the right person could save a lot of time debugging an annoying problem.
  • A pair seemed more willing to ask for help quickly than a programmer working alone.

I might have forgotten a few (I’m at home, my notes are at work), but that’s the basic idea. The last one, in particular, interested me: I wasn’t expecting it, though in retrospect it makes sense. After all, the macho programmer ethos means that a single lone programmer is loath to admit that he can’t solve a problem by himself; if two programmers both can’t figure something out quickly, though, they’re much more likely to figure out that they need outside help. (When appropriate, of course, especially when there’s specific knowledge that they’re missing.)

The bad side (again, I might have forgotten a few):

  • It wasn’t at all clear that we were more productive pairing than when working alone.
  • We didn’t look forward to pairing.

The first of those isn’t necessarily a show stopper: we agreed that we were willing to make a tradeoff of less code written of higher quality with more knowledge transferred, and that we weren’t in a situation where we needed to crank out as much code as possible. So it seemed plausible that pairing was a long term productivity gain for us; still, somewhat disconcerting, since the literature suggests that it should be clearer that pairing is improving our productivity.

The second, though, is a real problem: I got the feeling that we (I, certainly) wanted to enjoy pairing, but something really wasn’t working right. And I couldn’t figure out what it was.

Our conclusion was that we saw enough good things that we wanted to keep on trying. But we needed to leave more breathing space, at the very least. We decided to start by drilling down on our feelings of where pairing was more productive and where it was less productive, and then during our standup meetings, we’d use those criteria to figure out who would pair at all that day, not assuming that everybody would always pair.

(It’s getting late, and this is as good a stopping point as any; I’ll post a followup bringing the story up to date in a day or two.)

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