Why I am not doctrinaire about pair programming

Pair programming is a wonderful practice. But it isn’t a cure-all for code-quality issues, and it isn’t the only game in town.

My reasons for not being a fan of a 100% pair programming approach fall generally under two headings:

  • pair programming has some (sometimes serious) drawbacks
  • other practices often produce good results

Let’s look at these in turn.

Pair programming has some (sometimes serious) drawbacks

I’ve heard it said many times that the chief strength of pair programming lies in its incorporation of instantaneous code review. But this is a dangerous half-truth. I am an unshakable believer in peer review of all code. Pair programming, I’m here to tell you, isn’t what I mean by peer review.

Yes, the members of the pair do catch each other doing things they shouldn’t. The locus classicus in my case is the time Brian Olore talked me off the ledge when I, fed up with undefined method 'blah' for nil errors, threatened to write something along the lines of expect(nil).to_receive(:blah).... Would I really have done it had Brian not been there? Was it just a cry for help? We’ll never know. But yes: pair programming can save developers from themselves, and from each other.

But it can also become a folie à deux. The pair becomes a team-within-a-team, and when both members of the pair find a code problem equally exasperating, it’s not uncommon for them to agree, perhaps against their better judgement, on a suboptimal solution. (I’m talking mostly about design and style, not sweeping non-working code under the carpet.) Getting a third person on the team to look at the paired code is peer review. Pair programming isn’t.

Pairing can be an unpleasant experience. I’ve been on teams with a 100% pairing approach, and I’ve had some very bad days. Not everyone is born to pair with everyone else. You can, if you like, say that developers who don’t like working with their pair should just suck it up and do it anyway. I don’t buy that. I want my software development practice to be enjoyable and rewarding, not only in the long run but as it happens. I believe in programmer fun. I do not want to feel uncomfortable or bored or in conflict very much of the time at all. I dislike the Procrustean approach to pair programming, which says (or implies) that pair programming is Always Right and everything else, like whether or not you like your job, has to fall into place around that.

Another serious problem with a doctrinaire approach to pair programming is that it relegates other, potentially very fruitful approaches to the scrap heap. That’s no good either.

Other practices often produce good results

I write some of my best code when I work alone for a while, and then come up for air and get a code review. The working alone takes me to depths of concentration that I cannot achieve when I pair. My colleagues are there to catch me if I fall (and I them).

I’ve been soloing on code, in one form or another, since 19[REDACTED]. It’s one of the great pleasures of my life, and it works to the benefit of teams I’m on because it results in good code. A doctrinaire approach to pair programming, however, rules this kind of work out of bounds.

This makes no sense to me. If you have a path that leads to good code, why would you abandon it? By what standard of measure is that better than not abandoning it?

Res ipsa loquitor, I would have thought. Nor do I just toss in mention of code review to make my pronouncements more credible. It’s not uncommon for me to come up with either new ideas or solutions to old problems that are right on target but, in the doing, a bit over-engineered: too many new classes, too much indirection, and so on. My colleagues can spot both the goodness in what I’ve done and, in many cases, a simpler way to do it. And I reciprocate. It’s a symbiosis that differs from that embodied in pair programming, but which produces excellent results.

And here’s another thing: Github. If there was an equivalent of Github pull requests fifteen or twenty years ago when (as I remember it) pair programming started to become popular, I don’t know what it was. Today it’s possible, and easy, for teammates to go line-by-line through each other’s code, compare it to what came before, comment on it, and suggest changes to it. The landscape is not the same with these tools as without them. That’s a major reason why I find the notion of 100% pair programming constrictive. It strikes me as outdated.

I have whimsically referred to soloing-plus-pull-request-review as “asynchronous pairing.” There’s something to that–though mind you, I strongly advocate pull request review for all code, whether soloed or paired. And, to come full circle, pair programming has a lot going for it. I’ve been on teams where no one does it, and I prefer teams where they do. At its best, it’s highly satisfying. But it isn’t the only way to produce code of high quality, and we cannot afford to jettison other practices that allow us to do just that.

4 thoughts on “Why I am not doctrinaire about pair programming”

  1. My team does exactly what you advocate: Solo + PR review. We require thumbs up from two other developers before we merge to master. If someone needs more input during development, or they are implementing a particularly large or important feature, we usually do a design review before the developer goes too far.
    We are a fully distributed team, and this process works great for us.

    1. I wouldn’t say that I advocate solo+PR above pair+PR — I just advocate not discarding any methodology that can lead to good code, and solo+PR is definitely one such methodology. Pairing on a distributed team of course presents its own challenges. When I’ve been in that situation I’ve had more success with ScreenHero than any other technology, but there are certainly a number of options.

    2. P.S. Sorry for letting your comment languish for so long in the queue. I used to disable all comments on my (old) blog and I’m experimenting with not doing so, but forgetting I have to approve them manually 🙂

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