Here at Canonical Towers we have several staff who worship at the altar of Extreme Programming, and as such many of the methodologies and rituals prescribed by that religion find their way into our day-to-day working practices. A few of these came together in an interesting way a few weeks ago, and it was suggested by a cow-orker that I blog about it so he could give the URL to people.
The first ritual is that of the sprint, I don’t think this is orthodox XP but rather something inspired from it that we picked up from the Python community. With all of the Canonical developers scattered across the globe mostly working from their own homes, it’s become a useful tool; particularly for the Launchpad team.
The basic idea for those that haven’t heard of it is simple, and perhaps obvious; you get a selection of the team together in one place, sit them around the same table with particular goals to complete. In effect it’s highly compressed facetime and high bandwidth interaction to nail those tasks that need it, before you head off again and work at a more sedate pace.
The second is directly from XP doctrine and is that peculiar observance known as pair programming, something that is often coupled with sprints. For anybody who hasn’t encountered this before, it’s something I’ve always found rather odd. You get two programmers together, both itching to code, and you take one of them’s laptop away; and you don’t just force them to fight over the keyboard either, the laptop-less soul isn’t allowed to touch it.
The theory here is that it frees the deprived individual of the hassle of coding and allows them to direct the programmer in ways that may not be immediately obbious, or alternately think about the next bit of work that needs doing. Another interesting side-effect is it can be an interesting way to learn code you’ve not worked with before, if you’re the one doing the coding and you’re being guided what to do by a sage who already knows it.
I have a funny story here, so I’m going to digress from the main stream for a moment to tell it. A few months ago I was working in the London office, Mark had been up all night coding and had then given me responsibility to get his changes landed onto the Launchpad mainline. I’m not that hot on quite a bit of Launchpad, and fade to utterly clueless the nearer the code gets to the web application itself; and when trying to merge the two there were conflicts which I needed Mark’s help to resolve.
Now as anybody who’s met Mark knows, he’s a pretty good example of a Type-A personality, yet he suggested that we do a spot of pair programming to get the code in and I’d be the one with the laptop as it’d help me get to grips with the affected parts. This hilighted something I’ve always seen as a problem with pair programming, dealing with it when the a person with the keyboard has a totally different way of working to you. In particular, I’m an emacs user, whereas Mark is a die-hard vim user; but also right down to the working directory I would work from, how I test results, etc.
When you’re the one without the laptop, this can be quite infuriating, as you know exactly how to solve a problem and the idiot with the keyboard is dithering about doing things you don’t understand just to get there. If you’re a Type-A personality, you generally snatch the laptop away at this point and do it yourself; or at least you would, if you could drive the strange editor the other person uses.
I swear Mark was sulking as he gave the laptop back and let me do it.
Anyway, there is some relevance to that and we’ll come to it in a moment.
The third and final methodology is the concept of unit tests and more specifically test driven development. For anyone who hasn’t come across this before, I highly recommend it; I was suspicious too when Robert Collins took it upon himself to teach me the true way, but now I’m sold.
Simply the idea is that if you have any code that doesn’t have another piece of code in a test suite that checks that it’s working correctly, that code is broken. More particularly unit testing involves checking just one feature or requirement at a time, and stacking them together to test all of the code paths. I’ve actually found that this improves the APIs I design, as I write the code in small blocks and functions to make them easier to test.
Test driven development takes it even further, you write the unit tests first, before you write the code they’re supposed to test; usually one or two at a time. Obviously these tests will fail at first, it’s then your job to write as little code as possible to make them pass. If your code isn’t right, you add a unit test that will fail, and modify the code to make it pass.
This really comes into its own when you’re fixing bugs later, once you’ve identified the bug you write a test case or two that cause the problem; these will of course fail. You can then modify the code to make them pass, and at the same time be sure you’ve not broken other functionality because of the existing test suite. I’ve also found it really useful for particularly complicated or tricky pieces of code, especially those intricate algorithms that do particularly heavy lifting.
So onto the event itself, this was a sprint in our London office to indoctrinate Gustavo Niemeyer with the various projects he’d be working on. The goal for this sprint was decided to start the conversion of HCT to Bazaar-NG, and to do this Gustavo and I would pair program.
Now my last experience of pair programming had been that story with Mark (see, it had some relevance) and I knew I’d be just as bad if I wasn’t allowed to have the keyboard. I was also acutely aware that if Gustavo was just sitting by and watching, he wouldn’t get much benefit from it either, so he needed to be actively involved in the coding so he could learn the things he’d be working on.
I came to what I thought was a pretty neat, and obvious, solution to these problems. We set up my laptop with the code we’d be working on, and on my display were two side-by-side terminals both running screen sessions. Gustavo then set up two same-sized terminals on his, ssh’d into my laptop from both of them and joined the screen sessions. In the left-hand one he ran vi, and in the right-hand one I ran emacs.
Thus we both had keyboards, and both had editors, yet could see each other working and even steal the keyboard without danger of violence. We didn’t just sit side-by-side and code on different things though, that’s not pair programming and is just ordinary programming with a bit of a voyeuristic twist.
What we did was: in my terminal I started writing the test cases for the code we needed, it was Gustavo’s job to write the code that would make them pass. We actually added a third terminal in which we could run the test cases themselves; so I could run them when I’d added something that would fail, and Gustavo could run them when he thought he’d made them pass again.
This turned out to be a rather fun way to work, and at one point I was almost able to try and convince myself that the code was writing itself to pass the test cases I was writing. It also got me thinking that it’d be really neat to use genetic algorithms to breed code to pass test cases.