The Psychology of Pair Programming

Published: April 17, 2019Updated: May 06, 2022
3 min to read
The Psychology of Pair Programming

According to research conducted by Dr. Sallyann Freudenberg, a psychologist who also happens to be a software engineer, there are certain behaviors and skills that are great to develop if you want to be among the very best pair programmers.

Take a Break

If you take regular breaks you are likely to perform better, it’s not rocket science, but it is psychology. A regular break will break up the context, enable longer sessions of work because your brain gets a break and also make you feel a lot happier. Powering on isn’t necessarily the best or fastest way to get something done. Sometimes taking a step back and relaxing with a coffee is all you need to come back to the programming refreshed and inspired and ready to create great things.

Relinquish the Wheel

According to Dr. Freudenberg the keyboard means control. Where pair programming works best is when the driver ie, the person with the keyboard, is willing to pull over and let the navigator take over. If you are the navigator don’t try to micro-manage the driver. You can drop a few hints but don’t grab the wheel. And whoever ends up driving needs to know when it is time to take a step back and let someone else have the keys for a while.

Always Have a Handy Whiteboard

A nice clear space where you can draw is a real must-have. Writing down some key words, drawing diagrams or a picture can really help cut through confusion, spark some ideas or jog a memory. It also makes you feel good. This is something that featured highly in Dr. Freudenberg’s research on high performing pairs.

Don’t Put off Outside Help

Sometimes all it needs is someone with a fresh set of eyes, or brain, to ask a question and Eureka! All of a sudden you have the solution. Make sure that whoever does this feels that their input is welcome because if you factor in these kinds of interruptions and accept them gladly you often find you grab a gem of knowledge you would otherwise have missed. This makes the pairing much more effective and efficient.

Preserve Context

Sometimes you get interrupted and it’s not always easy to maintain the ongoing context in your brain so use lists. If you want to keep focused write things down. This could be bullet points, questions, lists of new discoveries or whatever. The mere fact that you’ve made a note will mean that when something comes up to interrupt your train of thought you can go back to where you were more easily. Lists don’t have to be neat and tidy, they just have to be there. It is essentially some extra storage space for your brain so you can free it up to work on your current project.

Consider Tag Team Pairing

It’s all going wrong, nothing works, you partner is bored silly and you’re sat at the keyboard with nothing to show. The problem here is that you have become so invested you won’t review your progress or goals. Sometimes this is just a case of pride, other times sheer bloody-mindedness. Either way it may be time to tag in your partner. If you’ve run out of steam it is time to pass the steering wheel over and take the back seat for a while.

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