Despite limitations, mob programming can be effective, even during COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has many of us considering the long-term impact on our personal and working lives. Shaking hands with new colleagues or clients? Buffet lunches? I’ve recently wondered how social distancing will affect mob programming, which is a development practice we implemented at Bonitasoft late last year.
What is mob programming? It’s a software development approach where an entire team gathers around one keyboard and one projector screen at once, according to Agile community organization Agile Alliance. It’s an extension of the idea of pair programming, which involves two team members collaborating to complete a development task in the same space.
In an August 2013 CodeBetter.com post, Marcus Hammarberg, head of Quality & Curriculum at the School of Applied Technology in Sweden, equated mob programming to driving. The driver uses the keyboard, writing the code and following coding standards. Other team members are navigators, advisers and researchers who assist the driver and focus on higher-level tasks such as determining if the team is solving the right problem. They also tag in to take over as the driver.
“I’m not saying that mob programming is for everyone, neither is pair programming,” Hammarberg write. “It might not be for all types of tasks either … But I am saying that getting your team into a room, with one computer and one screen, the whole team is working together on one feature—that there is no more effective way to get that feature out.”
Of course, much has changed over the past several months, including people’s comfort level with being in close proximity. Before I get into my recommendations for how mob programming can work in the current situation, let me share why Bonitasoft embraced it to begin with and the benefits to my company.
Embracing Mob Programming
About a year ago, I saw Agile coach Woody Zuill deliver a presentation titled “Mob Programming: A Whole Team Approach,” at MixIT 2019. I was intrigued by what I saw as a promising development approach. However, I had my doubts about the effectiveness and logistics of gathering five people in front of one screen. I also suspected it wouldn’t be compatible with remote work—a premonition of today’s situation?
Running development projects in sprints made it a low-risk investment, so I introduced mob programming to the other members of my five-person team, which is responsible for the development of the Bonita platform portal for delivery of applications and is comprised of a mix of introverts and extroverts. The team took a mob programming approach to design and test an application page. It was a medium complexity project built with Gradle, using the UI Designer web page development tool and tested with Cypress.
After discussing the project’s objective and methodology, the team worked on a laptop and a standard-size screen in the open office space. Pros: Fast development completion, better implementation and good test coverage. Cons: Decreased focus because of lengthy discussion and the distraction of phone notifications, communication style differences and paused cross-cutting topics.
My team members and I loved the result of mob programming but needed to iron out the format. We also skipped the first stage of agility in our excitement to try mob programming: starting with a strong framework and basic rules. These include spelling out the roles of the pilot, navigator and researchers on a team.
Among other adjustments, we moved to a quieter spot in the office to work. We swapped out the small screen for a giant screen and replaced the laptop with a desktop, keyboard and mouse. We scheduled more breaks. We adhered to the basic rules. We rotated roles every 15 minutes, which meant all team members were more attentive and involved. Recognizing that timid team members might not speak up, we distributed speaking time more fairly. And we were more selective when choosing projects for the mob programming method (bug fixes, for instance, are best solved through pair programming).
How We Benefited from Mob Programming
The process required a little tweaking at the beginning but it was well worth it. We’ve realized a lot of benefits from the mob programming methodology. One of the biggest benefits is all the time we save on development projects. Mob programming eliminates merge conflicts, decreases the time spent in standup meetings and pull request reviews and reduces external interruptions (people are less willing to interrupt an entire group than just one dev working independently).
Here are a few more mob programming benefits:
- Global knowledge sharing: All members of a mob programming development team receive the same level of knowledge on new developments. New team members are able to quickly ramp up on the legacy code.
- High-quality solutions: The solutions from mob programming efforts tend to be better tested with fewer bugs in the final product. Since the code is made modularly, it’s easy to modify if needed.
- Team growth: Mob programming has taught us to communicate in a way that works best for each team member. We appreciate the diversity of thought and personality among team members rather than viewing it as a disadvantage.
Can Mob Programming Work in a Pandemic?
Now that you know why I recommend mob programming let’s look at whether it’s possible to continue using this methodology safely during the pandemic. Bonitasoft devs are all working remotely so I base this on experience. We apply the basic rules using videoconferencing tools and duplicate the development environment for everyone. Communicating via videoconferencing was an adjustment but it works. Each team can adapt mob programming to what works best for them over multiple iterations, whether they’re working in the same space or remotely.
Here are a few mob programming tips:
- Define when it involves remote work versus when it will involve everyone working in the same space (with social distancing procedures in place, of course).
- Apply the basic rules strictly, so you have a solid foundation on which to build a mob programming practice.
- Limit potential distractions by opting for a large screen, mouse and keyboard in a quiet location.
- Factor free time into your non-sprint work schedule so that team members can check their email and work on other projects.
- Define break times (the Pomodoro technique could be one option).
Mob Programming is Worth Exploring … Even Now!
During the past few months, I’ve learned a lot about mob programming and believe there’s a certain magic to it. At Bonitasoft, smart implementations have resulted from the development team embracing the value of collective intelligence and mob programming. We’re delivering projects faster and enjoying greater satisfaction in our work lives. With some adaptation, it’s possible to realize its value by adding it to your development methodology options.