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Remote pair programming

I know I wrote “remote” on the title of this post, but I have this theory that what I’m going to discuss here is not really a problem with remote pair programming, but with pair programming itself.

In my team we do pair programming, and we like it. We are completely on board with the benefits, and we are happy to assume the few small costs that come with it. Of course, with the COVID situation we have been working from home for over a year now, and we have been doing pair programming remotely; including with team members that have joined the company (and the team) remotely, so we haven’t met in person.

And we have made it work, essentially, using Google Hangouts sharing the screen –which is not very good to be honest, in my experience Skype provides better video quality with less bandwidth–, and that’s basically it. It is exhausting, but in my experience I wouldn’t say more than non-remote pair programming sessions.

Unfortunately this is somewhat limited, because it means that one person is driving, and the other person is in the back-seat. Not having the keyboard doesn’t mean you are not actively contributing, but taking turns driving is too awkward because the code has to be made available to the other person, for example via a WIP branch on a git repo.

There are better options, that allow easily taking turns, or even work on the same code at the same time collaboratively. Some examples of these tools are:

  • tmate: for any terminal based editor and tmux aficionados.
  • Live Share: for VS Code only, that allows collaboratively edit and debug in real time.

There are a few more options, but these are probably the most popular in my circles.

Looking at my team, we have a very diverse set of skills, and we use very different editors: one vim, one emacs, and two VS Code.

I think it is pretty clear what is the issue if we try to take turns driving a pair programming session, isn’t it? And I have the theory that this is not really a problem with the remote part of it.

I’m sure we would have the same problem if we were in the same office, sharing keyboard an mouse –which I don’t find comfortable at all–. Am I proficient with emacs or VS Code? No, I’m not.

I remember attending a conference back in Guildford –if I recall correctly–, and there was a talk by someone from Pivotal Labs. It was more like they were selling some product, but I remember clearly how they explained their experience with pair programming, and how one of the requirements was that there was one editor, with one configuration, and all the software engineer seats were exactly the same, without any customization.

The idea was that any developer could use any seat to write code like they were on their own computer, basically because all computers were the same (and I may add, they would love if all their engineers were the same and replaceable).

I found that fascinating, and of course I would never want to work on a company like that. By stripping all engineers of any personality and any chance to express themselves through their tools and whatever makes them productive and happy, they optimised their teams for pair programming. I’m not even sure that’s good for the company.

So we keep looking around and checking tools periodically, but I suspect we are not going to find a solution. Because it may come with a price –like the case of Pivotal– that we may not want to pay.

Would you like to discuss the post? You can send me an email!