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When a Pair Goes Pear Shaped

Francesco Cirillo Feb 13, 2014

The two programmers start the story.

They realize they have to set up a certain version of a Tomcat and interact with it from their development environment. "Two minutes." That’s how long it’s going to take for the bigger techy of the two to put everything in place and get started. The other programmer simply nods, unaware.

They get to work.

Two pomodoros later, while the "hero" is two inches from the computer screen, trying to figure out the 743th line of log, the "other guy", after a number of failed attempts at interaction, sees that the only productive thing to do is to hope that the situation works itself out quickly and the "hero" saves the day.

Another pomodoro goes by. The other programmer, realising by now that things aren’t working out, decides to take a stroll to check out what the other members of the Team are up to. Just to keep up… like you’d do at a party, flitting here and there, nibbling on curious appetizers.

Yet another pomodoro goes by. Despite the Coach’s urging to take a break, to make things simpler, and to avoid using plugins if at all possible, the "hero" is now only one inch from the monitor and can distinguish every single pixel of the 743th line of log without even squinting. This is her third Tomcat install and in the darker recesses of her mind, she has secretly decided to move onto compiling the Tomcat and relative plugins! The other guy is now at her side, torn with indecision: to go to the bathroom or to turn up the contrast on the monitor to help his partner.

Stop!! They could go on like this for hours without getting anything done except for building up their stress level. The pair is no longer, and pair programming becomes unproductive.

Values are out of bounds. Presumption and power have taken the upper hand over simplicity and communication.

What should you do in these cases?

There’s no use giving the pair advice on what to do, or worse still, how to do it. The two developers have to find a way to see what and how they’re doing. They have to regain awareness and start thinking clearly again.

When a dynamic like this emerges in teams I work with as Mentor or Coach, I make the pair set a concrete objective that they can achieve in one pomodoro. I make it clear that if they haven’t fulfilled that objective by the time that pomodoro is up, they find an easier way. In my experience, and in keeping with the way I like to envision the role, the Coach can make sure that the team respects the breaks between pomodoros, especially the long one, without interfering in the “how to”. The Coach has to recognise these situations when they occur, and do everything possible to make them obvious to the Team.

Make sure they observe themselves and they find their own solution.