Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Don't be a backseat driver

As I'm pairing with someone, I find it really difficult to negotiate the "contract" for that pairing session. Asking for strong-style pairing (I have an idea, you take the keyboard and I tell you what to do) or traditional-style pairing (I have an idea, give me the keyboard and watch and comment) can both me appropriate, depending on who the person I'm pairing with is, and how they interact with me.  But at time we're setting the rules on how we pair unless they are given by a facilitator for the session, it is the time when I know the least of my pair, it's the time when my inherent "making space for the other" is at its strongest and I find myself easily in a place where I'm disengaged and uncomfortable. 

At a workshop few weeks back, a friend of mine ended up pairing with a stranger. They had only done pairing in workshops with me, where I introduce and enforce strong-style for the connection, but also make the rules and expectations clear. Now they were told to pair, with someone who does not pair, and the setting was far from optimal. There was a skills difference not in their favor and as they ended up watching the more experienced one, they quickly fell off the loop of what was even going on. The computer they paired on belonged to the other and they wouldn't share it because it was set up just right for work. And the only way to pair my friend was taught was strong-style that really increases newbie involvement in uneven pair. It was clear they did not enjoy it. They left half way through the three sessions. 

Learning to talk about the two styles of pairing has helped me a lot in this regard. Now I have words to start the negotiating from. So I was delighted to find two more words for pairing patterns from videos of Alex Harms delivering a talk on pairing. The words were more of anti-patterns than good styles: side by side pairing where the more experienced one sets themselves above and outside the engaged pair, doing their own thing and being available for questions and mild hovering; backseat driving where the person not in position to steer tries to do that anyway. 

I could not help but think if Alex had run into a particularly inconsiderate experience with strong-style pairing, because without setting up the relationship with consent, strong-style pairing can easily be indistinguishable for backseat driving. 

Let's stop to think about that for a moment. What does good pairing look like? It looks like doing work by two people, where both are engaged in the same work. To be engaged, you need to be there willingly. And opting in to pair isn't always willing, if you did not know what is coming up.

Thinking about the roles in a car is helpful in remembering what it could look like. 
  • Driver is always the person on the controls. No matter what anyone else says, driver has the ultimate power of taking things their way. 
  • Navigator is helping the driver. Navigators can be well versed in the big picture not paying attention to the road, or know the details of the road and help step through the route in an optimal way. In traditional pairing, navigator reviews. In strong-style pairing, navigator controls the high level choices with words. 
If you had a backseat driver in the car, that person would be like a navigator, but operating without consent. That person could be very engaged in the pairing, but their input wasn't welcomed or accepted by the driver. A backseat driver might be exactly like a strong-style navigator. The difference is in the contract, that is often implicit, and the assumed power difference.

In the workshop some weeks ago, I also ended up pairing with someone I had not paired with before. It was their computer, and they used Vim - effectively making me feel unwelcome on the keyboard. I did not leave half-way through hand quite enjoyed the session. Looking back, we ended up with strong-style pairing where I would actively suggest ideas. 

The more I pair, the less the difference of traditional / strong-style makes sense. But in starting, it meant the world to me. And in continuing long-term, I realize that strong-style also made me uncomfortable many times, pushing a power differential I did not consent for. 

Having both in the bag is good. The lesson here is that you should take a moment to negotiate the pairing contract. Especially people who have hard time connecting to the other on emotional level and hearing when words are not used, strong-style can become an act of forcing your opinions over the other just as hogging the keyboard in traditional-style would.

The difference between a backseat driver and strong-style navigator is consent and trust. The first delivers unwelcome guidance and the latter provides instructions asked for, on a level they are able to and that they find necessary.

And since mob programming relies on strong-style pairing as it's mechanism of connecting the group, imagine having whole car full of backseat drivers... That could be very uncomfortable.