A Creative Look at Pair Programming

I follow John Mayer the singer and songwriter on Twitter. Besides being a fan of his music, on Twitter Mayer (@johncmayer) is creative, funny, and he provides some transparency into his musical projects which are interesting. Mayer also writes the Battle Studies Mid-Action Report blog where he uploads videos and photos that are referenced in his Twitter postings.

A few days ago Mayer made a statement on Twitter, in @reply to a question from a follower, which I found intriguing. He replied:

I still write in front of a mirror.

You can view the full post, which also includes the original question here.

I was struck by the statement since, for me, it is completely counterintuitive to what you would expect the creative writing process to be. Writing is a very intellectually internal process. You typically hear of writers having a quiet workplace in the woods, or in an attic, separated from people and activity in order to create an environment to be alone with yourself and your thoughts. The process of creating words from thoughts, emotions, or feelings (whatever they may be) is usually considered to be a very individual process requiring deep introspection and contemplation achieved by developing an ability to see yourself from within.

So, I would think that writing in front of a mirror is opposite to being introspective. To me it seems as close as you can get to introducing a second person into the process without having someone else in the room. The mirror then is a tool to externalize the creative process, to forcefully move creativity outside of yourself, or possibly an attempt to see yourself as someone else in order to develop a collaborative process when there is only one person involved. That scenario is so contradictory to the way that I think about creative writing, it is so out-of-the-box and unexpected, that I frankly find it brilliant.

There is also a creative process that occurs in software development and programming. I’ve always related to the description that Fred Brooks gives of the software development process in his book The Mythical Man-Month. Brooks, referring to the book The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers who identifies creativity with three stages, the idea, the implementation, and the interaction, says:

A book, then, or a computer, or a program comes into existence first as an ideal construct, built outside time and space, but complete in the mind of the author. It is realized in time and space, by pen and ink, and paper, or by wire, silicon, and ferrite. The creation is complete when someone reads the book, uses the computer, or runs the program, thereby interacting with the mind of the maker.

Brooks then goes on to describe computer programming using the short phrase:

The programmer builds from pure thought-stuff.

The statement describes a computer program being built (or developed, created, written) from the thoughts (or ideas, concepts) of a single individual.

Several years ago, and together with a close colleague, we implemented the eXtreme Programming (XP) software development methodology at aluminium.com. The methodology was popularized by its author, Kent Beck, in the book eXtreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change. The premise behind XP is to take all the things that people generally consider to be good for creating quality software and to do those things to the extreme. For example, everyone generally considers testing to be directly related to quality; the more you can test a program the fewer errors it is likely to have. So in XP testing is done to the extreme by writing the tests for a program before the program is actually written. The “test first” approach, or sometimes called “test driven development,” can be viewed as being radical by someone who is used to working in a more traditional software development methodology where tests are written after the program is created.

Another principle of XP usually considered to be radical is “pair programming.” When pair programming two people sit together to write a program. In XP Explained Beck describes pair programming as follows:

Pair programming is a dialog between two people trying to simultaneously program (and analyze and design and test) and understand together how to program better. It is a conversation at many levels, assisted by and focused on a computer.

When I was first learning about XP I clearly remember having a deep and surprising reaction to the concept of pair programming: How can something as personal as writing software, transcribing my thoughts, my concepts, and my ideas, my pure thought-stuff, be shared with someone else simultaneously? How is it possible that writing a program, which can be an intimately creative process for an individual, can be accomplished by working with someone else? For programmers who haven’t done it before, the concept of pair programming can be radical, out-of-the-box, and counterintuitive, which was exactly my initial reaction to Mayer’s statement about writing in front of a mirror.

Pair programming introduces a second party into the creative process. It’s an activity that forces you to communicate, to share and verbalize your thoughts and ideas, and to collaborate in a completely different way. When pair programming, someone else, a second person, is there with you while you’re going through the activity of creative expression. Both people experience intellectual and personal benefits as a result of that collaboration and there are significant benefits to the overall quality of the product, the computer program or the software application, they produce together.

If writing in front of a mirror, as Mayer does, has a similar effect to introducing a second person into the creative process, then the mirror becomes the tool that enables Mayer to “pair program” with himself. Mayer is generally considered to be a gifted artist and it would seem that he is leveraging the pairing concept to make himself, and his art (his music), better.

Knowing that Mayer uses a mirror in the writing process makes the pair programming concept appear less radical. Perhaps when we work alone we limit the expression of our creativity to our own individual experiences. Perhaps collaboration with another person, the second person effect, is required to really broaden the possibilities of our own individual creativity. And perhaps when we pair program to create computer software the second person is really the mirror.


One Response to “A Creative Look at Pair Programming”

  1. Ruxo Says:

    One important thing that should be addressed in Pair Programming too is that the pair should have same knowledge but different experience in order to work smoothly and gain something.

    It’s hard to think about pairing people with different skillsets.

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