Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Power dynamics in pairs and mobs

Four years ago, I wasn't pairing or mobbing. Frankly, I found both of those intimidating. Instead of expressing that I was scared, I talked about needing alone time, being introverted and not being able to think when others are too close.

I came back to think about all this today for a great thread of power dynamics in pair programming and TDD from Sarah Mei.
If you ever get a chance of watching a mixed gender group of teenagers, you see some of the gender-based power dynamics at their worst. Teaching programming to teenagers in a mixed group results in the girls giggling, downplaying their abilities and focusing on letting the boys shine. It's easy to think of this as characteristic of the girls up to the point you teach the same girls in a separated gender group. The girls are still bubbly, but now concentrating and doing their best. And their best is often much better than the best in mixed gender groups in general.

The problem isn't men's fault, it's structural. Years of belief systems on how men and women interact. And for women in IT, it often takes years (or a lifetime) to overcome the structures that keep them listening rather than contributing. That keeps them apologizing. That causes them to feel they are not good enough.

We see the same dynamic in conferences. We have loads of speakers who are identified as men. We have all male lineups. And when we talk about including women, we hear that we cannot lower the bar. Yet for conferences doing good work on inclusion and blind review, the shortlists end up being very equal or women dominated. There may be less of women, but quality they produce seem to not lower the bar, quite the opposite. But to get considered, you have to listen to some people's hostility in assuming that you're not up to the bar.

Four years ago, I started first mob programming and then pair programming (and testing). I still think of mobbing as the gateway to pairing in situations where the power dynamics are hard or next to impossible like in my team. Imagine having to pair with a man who tells you "women only write comments in code". The pain of having to sit with that person, alone, is enough for many women to walk out. Their attitude shows in the mob too, but a group of people can help moderate, correct or even punish in ways that an individual on the lower end of the dynamic cannot.

I also remember well the first time I paired with a friend. This is a story we've told many times in our shared talks, yet it was a story that I would have never shared unless we ended up working on a share talk. I came back to think of this time for one of the Sarah Mei's subtweets:
We had agreed to pair on exploratory testing a new functionality added to the software I was working on.  So we sat down together, I guided him first to get to the functionality just to see it was there. The functionality included a new dialog, and as it popped open, my first words were "I wonder what size it is...". It wasn't intended a question, but very much taken as one. What I meant is that we have an agreement on the resolution where things still must be usable on the screen without scrolling. We were clearly on a higher resolution, and still the dialog was big and clunky. But before I got in another word, the friend picked up on the cue and started showing me tools that enable me to measure the dialog size in centimeters, pixels you name it.

I didn't even understand right there and then that I was uncomfortable. That I felt overridden. That none of the stuff I was trying to show - my work in exploratory testing - got done. Moreover, I'm sure I acted like one of those teenagers, just telling myself that my contributions weren't expected for real. I tried enjoying the results we ended up with, not miss the results that were hijacked from me by a power dynamic.

After this experience unfolded in prepping the talk, we have had great pairing sessions and learned to explore in a pair and mob a lot better. He actively worked against the power dynamic, paying attention to listening instead of talking over me, thinking their way is always correct.

Thanks to Sarah Mei's tweets, I remembered again how far I've come. And how far there is still to go now that my whole team is expressing openness to pairing - finally after 1.5 years.