Pair Programming: The Non Driving Pair
One of the intriguing aspects of pair programming for me is that of the non driving person in the pair — what are they supposed to do?!
Obviously there are fairly well known strategies for more interactive pairing, such as Ping Pong and Ball and Board (which is where one person controls the mouse and the other the keyboard), but neither of these strategies suggest what to do when you are not driving
Obviously it is very easy to be a bad non driving part of the pair, by getting distracted by what’s going on around you and a quick fix that I’ve heard to solve this is that when you’re bored, ask for the keyboard back. This solves the immediate problem but still doesn’t make you any better at contributing when you’re not at the keyboard.
One idea that I’ve been playing with recently is keeping a list of the next task that needs to be done after the current one is done — effectively just tracking where we are on the story. We use tiny tasks for most stories as laid out by Patrick Kua. This does work although you still don’t feel that involved, and it can end up seeming like you’re dictating to the other person what to do. This is definitely an approach to be applied with some tact.
Some of the more skilled non drivers I’ve worked with have the ability to see the bit of code being worked on as part of the whole and are able to see when we have gone too far down the wrong path and should actually be making changes elsewhere. I find this a lot harder to consciously improve, and I’ve been told it’s a skill that comes with experience.
I’m sure there are other roles of non driving that can be applied, mentoring being one, although that’s for another post! Thoughts?
About the author
I'm currently working on real-time user-facing analytics with Apache Pinot at StarTree. I publish short 5 minute videos showing how to solve data problems on YouTube @LearnDataWithMark. I previously worked on graph analytics at Neo4j, where I also I co-authored the O'Reilly Graph Algorithms Book with Amy Hodler.