Pair Programming: The benefits, the challenges, and how to do it

Among the many techniques that have emerged to streamline the development process, pair programming stands as a beacon of efficient teamwork and high-quality code creation. Imagine two programmers, physically aligned over a single keyboard, co-creating lines of code to bring a digital vision to life. This is the essence of pair programming, an Agile software development practice that goes beyond the conventional solitary coding approach.

At its core, pair programming is a teamwork approach involving two developers: one takes the role of the "driver," actively coding, while the other becomes the "navigator," providing feedback and guidance. This real-time collaboration is built on continuous communication and regular role-switching, resulting in code that's not just functional, but robust and well-thought-out.

But pair programming isn't just about writing code; it's a merging of skills, a practice in communication, and a commitment mutual understanding. In this blog, we'll explore best practices for successful collaboration, learn how to recognize and overcome challenges that are inherent to the process, and examine real-life examples that showcase its transformative impact.

How does pair programming work?

Pair programming is a collaborative approach where two developers work together on a single computer (although, with the rise in popularity of remote programming tools, many efforts in pair programming have shifted to a virtual environment.) While a pair of developers work on a task together, they do not only write code, they also plan and discuss their work. They clarify ideas on the way, discuss approaches and come to better solutions.

Traditionally, pair programming happens in a shared physical space. This proximity demands a respectful and attentive approach to one another's requirements, underscoring the significance of crafting a comfortable and harmonious setup.

Ensuring ample space is essential – decluttering the desk creates room for an unobstructed work environment. Positioning chairs optimally and relocating personal items contributes to an unimpeded workflow. Deciding on keyboard and mouse arrangements is also important; while no strict rule prevails, experimentation to determine the most suitable configuration is recommended. Factors such as hygiene, shared keyboard and/or monitor usage, and spatial constraints influence this choice.

Harmonization within the team regarding a default setup streamlines the process, minimizing repetitive discussions. This collective consensus expedites preparation, allowing pair programmers to focus fully on their shared tasks and elevate their collaboration to new heights. By thoughtfully configuring the working environment, pair programming becomes an orchestrated symphony of productivity and synergy.

Once the physical space is prepared, participants can assign their respective roles and processes in launching the programming session. Often, this requires the identification of a “Driver” and a “Navigator.”

  • The Driver is actively engaged with the keyboard, concentrating on accomplishing immediate tasks. They focus on smaller goals, temporarily setting aside larger concerns. It's important for the driver to vocalize their actions as they execute them.
  • The Navigator, positioned as an observer, reviews the code as it's being written by the driver. They guide, offer insights, and communicate directions. Simultaneously, the navigator maintains awareness of broader issues, identifies bugs, and notes potential future steps or challenges.

Remote Pair Programming

Remote pair programming is possible, and like many post-pandemic work styles, it has become increasingly common with the right tools. In many cases, the process involves the Driver initially sharing their screen, allowing the Navigator to observe their coding activities. While there are plugins available for various code editors like Atom, Sublime, and VS Code that enable shared editing, it’s important to ensure video sharing as well in order to maintain clear and effective communication.

Version control is another consideration unique to remote pair programming, given the use of separate computers. When roles switch, the Driver will commit their changes, push them to a remote repository, and make the latest code version accessible to the Navigator.

Here's an example of how role switching and version control integration might work remotely:

  1. The Driver commits their recent changes with a descriptive comment.
  2. The committed changes are pushed to the remote repository, making the latest code version available for the Navigator.
  3. The Navigator, now taking on the Driver role, pulls the latest changes to their own computer, opens the corresponding file, and begins sharing their screen for coding.

Note that this entire process is done synchronously, ensuring that each role transition is seamless, code changes are well-tracked, and collaboration remains efficient and organized.

While these are amongst the most common approaches to pair programming, there are many techniques that can help you optimize the exercise. Find more details about various approaches here.

Five Principles for Successful Pair Programming

In pair programming, a common flow might unfold like this:

  1. Start with the End Outcome: Begin with a defined task, providing a solid starting point for collaboration.
  2. Break it into Smaller Increments: Define and agree upon small, achievable objectives. These goals can be outlined via unit tests, commit messages, or written on notes.
  3. Regular Role Rotation: Consistently switch roles and keyboards. Active shared involvement sustains momentum, enhances comprehension, and reduces boredom.
  4. Navigator's Perspective: As the navigator, avoid getting stuck in the details. Instead, adopt a higher-level view, complementing your partner's tactical approach with medium-term strategic thinking.
  5. Strategic Thinking and Sticky Notes: While the driver is responsible for tactical execution, the Navigator pushes strategic progress towards each milestone (and eventually, the end outcome.) Capture these on sticky notes, postponing discussions until the immediate goal is achieved, preserving the driver's workflow.

Given the repeated back and forth of The Driver and The Navigator, both roles need to be proactive about fostering positivity and productivity as they build together. These are important skills to practice whether you’re a seasoned pair programmer, or trying this technique for the first time:

  • Talk Out Loud: The Driver articulates their thought process, while the navigator engages by posing questions and suggesting ideas. Both parties collaboratively discuss approaches and potential solutions prior to code implementation.
  • Respect, Empathy, and Active Listening: Cultivate an atmosphere of mutual respect, empathy, and attentive listening. Uphold the value of each idea and thought, promoting a supportive and open environment.
  • Patient Feedback: Note and track each piece of feedback. Your comments should emphasize code quality, possible improvements, and potential issues. Given the challenges of working together, exercising patience is vital to a harmonious collaboration.

Remembering and employing these principles fosters constructive interactions, skill sharing, and ultimately supports the primary goal of writing high-quality code.

Pair Programming Techniques

Ping Pong

The "Ping Pong" technique, closely aligned with Test-Driven Development (TDD), provides a structured approach to collaborative coding, especially suitable for tasks that align with a test-driven workflow. In this method, two developers, referred to as Developer A and Developer B, take turns driving the development process.

The sequence begins with "Ping," where Developer A initiates by creating a test that intentionally fails, signaling a specific functionality requirement. Following this, "Pong" comes into play as Developer B takes the reins. Developer B then crafts the implementation necessary to pass the test created by Developer A.

This cycle continues with Developer B initiating the next "Ping," outlining a new failing test. Each "Pong" phase results in incremental code development, advancing the project in manageable steps. Importantly, after each "Pong," there's an opportunity for collaborative refactoring—a joint effort to enhance the codebase before moving on to the next failing test.

The "Ping Pong" technique not only promotes effective collaboration but also aligns seamlessly with the principles of incremental development and continuous improvement, yielding a well-tested, robust codebase.

The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is mostly a time management strategy that divides work into manageable intervals, usually around 25 minutes each, known as "pomodoros." These periods are followed by brief breaks, creating a rhythm to enhance focus and productivity. This technique can be seamlessly integrated into various pairing methods, providing structure and maintaining efficiency. Given the potentially draining nature of pairing, the Pomodoro Technique proves beneficial by prompting breaks and facilitating role-switching.

The general sequence of the Pomodoro Technique might look something like this:

  1. Begin by deciding on the task to tackle next.
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes — you can use anything from a browser extension or a kitchen timer!
  3. Work until the timer sounds, uninterrupted.
  4. When the timer rings, pause your work and take a brief break, usually lasting 5 to 10 minutes.
  5. After completing 3 or 4 "pomodoros," take a more extended break, ranging from 15 to 30 minutes. Make sure to fully disengage from work during these breaks, which allows time for re-energizing while also giving your brain a moment to digest everything that’s been accomplished over the pomodoro period. Swap The Driver and the Navigator, and start again!

When to use and when to avoid pair programming

Pair programming is a powerful collaborative technique that offers numerous benefits, but its application should be thoughtful and context-specific. It thrives in scenarios where its advantages align with the goals and requirements of the project. When facing complex tasks, intricate problem-solving, or a need for enhanced code quality, pair programming shines. It is particularly effective during knowledge transfer, enabling less experienced developers to learn from their seasoned counterparts, while fostering creative solutions through joint brainstorming. Pair programming is also valuable for preventing errors, as the real-time code review and constant communication help identify bugs before they escalate.

However, there are scenarios where pair programming might not be the optimal choice. Short and straightforward tasks that don't demand extensive collaboration might not benefit from the overhead of pairing. Additionally, if team dynamics are strained or individuals prefer autonomy, pair programming may hinder rather than enhance productivity. Situations where one participant vastly outpaces the other in skills and experience could lead to frustration and imbalanced contributions.

While remote pair programming is possible, these or other asynchronous work environments may also present challenges due to technical limitations or time zone differences. Ultimately, the decision to use pair programming should hinge on an evaluation of the task complexity, team dynamics, and the alignment of the technique with project goals. By carefully considering these factors, teams can harness the strengths of pair programming while recognizing its limitations.

Check out this list of case studies in companies using pair programming, and in what scenarios it’s helped them gain relevance in the tech industry. And if you're a developer looking to expand your portfolio, sign up for Toptal to be matched with top companies and projects with programming needs.

Incorporating Pair Programming Into Your Workflow

Pair programming serves as a catalyst for innovation, facilitating the exchange of ideas, refining approaches, and fostering creative solutions. Through the partnership of a Driver and a Navigator this practice elevates the development process to new heights, resulting in higher-quality code, reduced defects, and enhanced team cohesion.

While pair programming is not a one-size-fits-all solution, its adaptability and applicability to diverse contexts underscore its relevance in modern software development methodologies. Think of pair programming as a tool in the toolbox, rather than a prescriptive method that should be used all of the time.

Whether embraced in Agile environments, remote settings, or during particularly intricate tasks, pair programming serves as a testament to the potential of collaboration in shaping the future of software engineering. By embracing the principles of effective communication, shared responsibility, and the pursuit of excellence, teams can work together to achieve great code, skill-building, and lasting camaraderie.

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