Facing Fears, Pairing

Pairing FTW
Pairing FTW!

This post benefits from a bit of context: my day job is as a tester on the Pivotal Tracker team. Tracker is a project tracking tool with an awesome API. Our API doc is awesome too. It’s full of examples which are generated from the automated regression tests that run in our CI, so they are always accurate and up to date.

Oh, and part of my day job is to do customer support for Tracker. We often hear from users who would like to get a report of cycle time for their project’s stories. Cycle time is a great metric. The way I like to look at it is, when did you actively start working on a story, and when did that story finally get accepted? Unfortunately, this information isn’t easily visible in our tool. It’s not hard to obtain it via our API, but, the best way to get it is not immediately obvious either.

For a couple of years, I have wished I had an example script using our API to compute cycle time for stories that we could give customers. Sadly, I’ve had to let my Ruby skills rust away, because at work I don’t get to automate regression tests (the programmers do all that), and I spent most of the past couple of years co-writing a book.

Recently, our team had three “hack days” to do whatever we chose. One of the activities I planned was to work on this example cycle time script. My soon-to-be-erstwhile teammate Glen Ivey quickly wrote up an example script for me. But my own feeble efforts to enhance it were futile. Unfortunately, all my teammates were engaged in their own special hack days projects.

I whinged about this on Twitter, and Amitai Schlair, whom I only knew from Twitter, offered to pair with me. This was good and bad. One the one hand, awesome to have someone to pair with me! OTOH, gosh I’m terrible at Ruby now, how embarrassing to pair with anyone! I started thinking of excuses NOT to do it. However, Amitai was so kind, I faced my fear. We paired.

First we had to figure out how to communicate and screenshare. We ended up with Skype and Screenhero. Amitai introduced me to a great concept: first, write what I want to do in psuedocode. Then turn each line of that into a method. Then, start fleshing out those methods with real code. Amitai’s instinct was to do this TDD. But due to time limitations, our approach was: write a line of code, then run the script to see what it does. We worked step by step. By the end of our session (which was no more than a couple of hours), we had gotten as far as showing the last state change for each of the stories that were pertinent to the report.

After competing priorities led us to stop our session, I identified an issue with our new code. A teammate paired with me to show me a way to debug it and we were able to fix it. The script still wasn’t finished. Luckily, my soon-to-be-erstwhile teammate Glen later paired with me to get the script to a point where it produces a report of cycle times for the most recently accepted 500 stories.

The script runs way too slow, and Glen has explained to me a better approach. I await another pairing opportunity to do this. So what’s the takeaway for you, the reader?

Pairing is hard. You fear exposing your weaknesses to another human being. You feel pressure to keep up your side. But that’s only before you actually start pairing. The truth is we all want each other to succeed. Your friends and teammates aren’t out to make you feel stupid. And pairing is so powerful. It gets you over that “hump” of fear. Two heads really are better than one.

Is there something you’d like to try, but you feel you don’t know enough? Find a pair, and go for it!




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