Agile development is an effective methodology for building software. It prioritizes delivering working software quickly and incrementally, while responding to changing project requirements and stakeholder feedback. One of the core principles of Agile development is prioritizing individuals and interactions, over processes and tools.
Pair programming is a natural fit within this principle because it emphasizes collaboration and communication between developers. It’s part of our secret sauce at TribalScale and has always been an important pillar in our approach to building high-quality digital products.
Let’s break down what pair programming is and the benefits of incorporating it. ⤵️
What is Pair Programming?
Pair programming is a software development practice where two developers work together at one workstation, collaboratively writing, reviewing, and improving code to create high-quality software. This can be done either in-person at a workstation, or virtually using web-conferencing and remote collaboration tools that allow either person to control one of the computers.
One developer will write the code, or “drive”, and the other will “navigate” by reviewing the code, providing feedback, and considering the big picture. As a best practice, the roles switch with a regular amount of frequency.
Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash
Pair programming is a key practice within Agile development because it embodies several Agile values and principles, including:
- Collaboration: Two developers collaborate very closely, building a strong team dynamic through constant communication and sharing of knowledge.
- Continuous improvement: Developers learn from each other and continually improve their skills and the code they produce.
- Customer satisfaction: It results in higher-quality code that better meets the needs of both the customer and end-users.
- Project flexibility: Since two developers know the code, this gives the project a degree of safety and flexibility when one of them is on leave.
Benefits of Pair Programming
Improved Code Quality
When working in pairs, developers can pool their skills, experiences, and perspectives; resulting in better design decisions and more efficient problem-solving. The real-time, continuous code review and immediate feedback loop between the two developers greatly improves code quality.
Reduced defects—While one developer is writing the code, the other actively spots potential issues, suggests improvements, and asks critical questions to catch defects early in the development process. This reduces the number of bugs that make it into the final product.
Test driven development (TDD) is a complementary practice, where developers:
- Create a small test case describing intended functionality.
- Execute the test case, verifying that the test fails.
- Develop minimal code that fulfills the test case by performing some logic.
- Execute the test case, verifying that the test succeeds.
- Repeat steps 1 to 4, until the functionality is complete.
Ping-pong Programming—This is an advanced form of TDD, where one developer can focus on writing tests, while the other writes the code to fulfill those tests. The pair can discuss and validate the test cases together, ensuring that they cover the desired functionality and edge cases. This collaborative approach reduces the risk of missing critical test scenarios, strengthening the overall test suite, and leading to increased test coverage.
Improved code readability and maintainability—The two developers naturally discuss and debate different approaches and solutions. This collaboration promotes clarity, readability, and maintainability of the codebase. Pair programming encourages the use of consistent naming conventions, modular design, and well-documented code. This facilitates other team members understanding and working with the codebase in the future.
Frequent Learning Opportunities
Pair programming serves as a powerful paradigm for continuous learning and professional growth. When two developers work together, they bring their unique experiences, expertise, and perspectives to the table. They discuss and exchange ideas, approaches, and solutions, promoting a culture of learning within the team.
Mentorship—As a best practice, pair experienced developers with junior developers as often as possible. The senior developer provides guidance, support, and mentorship. The junior developer brings their fresh perspective and knowledge of new programming techniques. This enhances the junior developer’s skills and knowledge, and allows the experienced developer to reinforce their own understanding and gain fresh perspectives through teaching.
Continuous improvement—As code is being written, the other programmer can provide real-time feedback on design decisions, code structure, and potential improvements. This feedback loop is invaluable for developers' learning and improvement, while preventing bad habits from forming. The code benefits from quick course corrections.
Enhanced Collaboration and Communication
The teamwork involved in pair programming encourages collaboration and active communication. Developers leverage each other's strengths, jointly address challenges, and collaboratively tackle complex tasks.
Building trust and rapport—Team members develop a deeper understanding of each other's strengths, weaknesses, and working styles. This familiarity helps in building trust, respect, and effective working relationships. It fosters a supportive environment where individuals feel comfortable sharing ideas, asking questions, and seeking assistance.
Reducing knowledge silos—Each member of the development team gains exposure to different parts of the codebase and project. This cross-pollination of knowledge ensures that multiple team members are familiar with various components, reducing dependency on a single individual.
Reduced debugging and rework time—With two developers actively engaged in the development process, issues can be discovered and addressed immediately. The project's productivity is increased through reduced code-rework and long debugging-cycles.
Efficient onboarding of new team members—By pairing new members with experienced developers, they can quickly learn the team's coding practices, project specifics, and domain knowledge.
Reduced coordination overhead—Streamlined collaboration minimizes the time spent on clarifications, status updates, and coordination. Team members can focus more on productive coding and problem-solving.
Improved code maintainability—High-quality code is easier to maintain, reducing the time spent on future bug fixes and enhancements. This focus on code quality leads to smoother development cycles and more scalable code in the future.
Reduced Risk of Project Delays or Failures
Early error detection—Pair programming allows detecting and addressing errors, bugs, and issues at an early stage. We reduce the likelihood of major setbacks or failures later in the project, while mitigating the accumulation of technical debt.
Less dependency on specific team members—Both developers collectively take ownership of the code they produce and the workload is more evenly distributed. This shared responsibility reduces knowledge gaps and the risk of relying solely on a single person's expertise. The impact of individual mistakes or absences are mitigated.
Continuous progress and accountability—There is less likelihood of work stagnation or idle periods. The constant collaboration and mutual accountability ensure that the project keeps moving forward, reducing the risk of delays or missed deadlines that can occur when individuals work in isolation or encounter roadblocks without immediate support.
Improved Morale and Job Satisfaction
Camaraderie—When developers work together in pairs, they develop a sense of camaraderie and shared purpose, promoting a sense of belonging and unity. Team members feel more connected, valued, and motivated.
Reduced stress via mutual support—The presence of a partner provides immediate assistance, advice, and validation, alleviating the pressure of solo problem-solving. The workload is distributed, so developers can feel less burnout. This facilitates overcoming challenges, reduces individual stress, and encourages a healthier work environment.
Recognition and appreciation—Team members have more opportunities to acknowledge and appreciate each other's contributions, skills, and ideas. At TribalScale, we share these in our #kudos Slack channel or morning company-wide standup meeting.
Personal growth and development—Exposure to different perspectives and continuous feedback allows developers to learn from their mistakes, refine their coding practices, and grow professionally.
As part of the digital transformation work we’ve done with clients, we’ve taught many different teams how to shift to pair programming and unlock its benefits, fundamentally improving the way their organization builds software and digital products.
Stay tuned for our next blog in this series, we’ll be sharing tips and strategies to get started with pair programming in your own team!
Looking for a digital transformation partner? We transform teams by teaching and enabling them on core aspects of building modern cloud-native products, using Extreme Programming (XP) principles like pair programming. Click here to chat with one of our in-house experts.
Sheetal is a passionate advocate for Digital Transformation and Global Innovation. He’s led multiple digital transformation initiatives with companies spanning all different industries, including entire re-designs and creations of digital user platforms. Besides being an avid investor and supporter of digital technology companies, Sheetal is a board member of Feed Ontario, a member of Tech4SickKids Council, DMZ, and TechStars Mentor.