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Top tips for effective remote pair programming

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By Derek Lee Boire, Principal Software Engineer, VMware Tanzu

Some of the greatest achievements in history were produced by pairs of great minds working side by side on the same task. Software development is no exception, which in this instance takes the form of ‘pair programming’.

Pair programming enables developers to remain deeply connected, while allowing them to work with new tools and acquire tangible skills they can put to good use in the future. However, with most software development teams now distributed and working from home, how can developers pair programme effectively?

Here are some key principles to bear in mind:

Practice continuous software design

All software developers should spend time intentionally thinking about the design of their software. They should ask themselves; which architectures make sense for the problem at hand? Do common design patterns apply? Are there existing libraries and frameworks that help solve this problem?

With pair programming, a team are constantly bouncing ideas off one another, adjusting the software design directions to take. Pair programmers go through a continuous negotiation, but instead of “falling to the lowest common denominator” they “rise to the best solution”, an accumulation of the best ideas harvested from combined experiences. If pairs rotate on a regular basis, this continuous software design continues to evolve as the sum total of the team’s experience is put to task on the problem at hand.

Vocalise intentions

Developers working in pairs need to talk about what they are doing as they’re doing it. The process of problem-solving is different when verbalised versus done in isolation. Exercising those “external” verbal as well as “introspective” mental pathways helps people see the flaws in solutions and invites the pair in the team to contribute.

Turning audio and video on, too, helps. Taking collaboration to the next level can be challenging in person, and even more so remotely. High-quality audio and video are almost always a must to ensure intentions are clear and logic is robust.

Programme by not programming 

While there are many pair programming styles, one of the most common is the driver/navigator style. At any given moment, one person is primarily coding and thinking about the next logic statement (the driver), while the other (the navigator) is looking back at what was just done, suggesting the next course of action, and strategically thinking further ahead.

Our brains have extreme difficulty performing high-level strategising and detailed execution at the same time, which is why two brains are better than one in complex problem-solving situations. Pairing addresses this conundrum by having one person for each role.

When working remotely, use software that allows both people to take control of the screen to code and use other shared tools. Enable seamless driver-navigator switching with remote pairing, just as two keyboards plugged into one computer supports seamless switching during in-person pairing.

Teach others

Be generous with knowledge and help the pair along the steep developer learning curve. Since we often look for those moments to learn more ourselves, ask a partner if in those instances they’d like you to teach them more in turn. 

While remote pairing, inquire often and intentionally about how the other person is doing and whether they have questions, especially if there is a senior/junior dynamic, such as the onboarding of a new team member. Be sure to check their engagement level and encourage them to turn on their video if they haven’t.

Central to remote pairing is the idea of communicating effectively, whilst remaining true to the programming values. This allows for seamless integration, in real time. As pairs move from the ‘I do’ part of coding, where they lead by example through to the ‘ you do’ phase, where the customer is ready to own the project and take it forward completely on their own, following these five principles can enable everyone to embody pair programming at its finest.

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