My problem with pairing

This week’s episode of Turing Incomplete is about pairing, and while my poor audio connection is mostly to blame for my quietness on this episode (when it’s out), I also brought up the issue I run into with pairing, but I find difficult to talk about with people who pair 100% of the time and wanted to expand on it here in the blog.

In the show, I bring up the story from when I was in elementary school – I was a fast reader, and I got extremely frustrated, to the point of rudeness, when other students couldn’t read. We had group reading, you see, where four of us would sit at a table and take turns reading a chapter (monotone readers were another peeve, but that doesn’t analogize well).

My memory isn’t fantastic, but for whatever reason I recall this turn of events well. The solution (which I remember thinking “clever one, teacher”) was to put me into a group with my childhood best friend, who, because I liked her, I would not (in so many words) call dumb for failing to understand a word.

I brought this story up because it’s how I sometimes (often?) feel while pairing. Just like you want to kick someone in the shins when you watch them type a URL starting with “http://” rather than you know, writing the URL, or flail painfully when you watch someone index-finger type (is this just me??), there have been very few people that I’ve paired with that I don’t a) get frustrated with, b) cause me go into teacher mode.

Mode b is what I naturally do now when pairing, because hopefully I’ve become a better person to work with over time, and because it’s better for my own work health than option a. When I pair and I’m seeing someone just not at my speed, I go into the way I teach at GirlDevelopIt or other classes, and I’ve gotten better at teaching over time (because the more you do something … spoilers). I’m told it goes well, but I worry that it could come off as patronizing, especially when it’s someone supposedly at or above my own level.

There are a literal handful of people I can name who don’t send me this way, and it’s usually because I end up handicapping myself (in the horse racing sense) for the pairing, ex. “let’s use vim!” (I want to eventually master it, and everyone has vim tricks), “so what are the new RSpec 3 things?” (I write way more JavaScript than Ruby). Assigning myself the secondary challenge or goal is how that’s gone well, but there are people who I’d pair with who just don’t have that to offer me.

Which leads to the point “don’t worry about what’s in it for you, it all leads to goodness” which right, sure, whatever, except that I effing love shipping. I also effing love reading, hence our winding road down memory lane earlier. If someone’s hurting more than helping the process, I … have issues.

I suppose the point of this post is that I’d love to pair more, and well, the only way to get better at something is to do more of it. However, I worry (from what I know about my 3rd grade self) that I’d be a total meanface to someone when they don’t get something, and I definitely don’t want to do that, which makes me go into mode b, which means I’m in teaching not learning mode … and the cycle goes on. I don’t have a solution other than maybe wanting to institute “Pairing Tuesday” or something of the like, to get myself and others to pair more regularly.

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2 Responses to “My problem with pairing”

  1. Mike Fox August 18, 2014 at 8:10 pm #

    Wonderful post Pam, and great podcast episode as well. I think that you hit the nail on the head when you mention that you sometimes assign yourself the secondary challenge. That sounds like a good approach – then not only will the person you are pairing with derive some benefit, so will you. It is never satisfying if you feel the exchange is one-sided, unless you are happy with just teaching, which of course can be satisfying by itself.

    It is probably also the case that if you are one of the more accomplished developers, fewer people will be on your level. That is likely why you end of in teacher mode a lot of the time.

    I haven’t done any pairing yet in my career. It wasn’t practiced at the companies I have worked at, but I think for me it would not be a good thing, as I like to work at my own pace, and wouldn’t want to hold someone else back. Although I think I could learn a lot by doing it.

    Thanks for the insight.


  1. Writing Again | Running with Code - August 26, 2014

    […] events Pam is attending which is good to see, but I also really like the gems like her post “My Problem with Pairing“. This is a very short read and it tells a story with emotion and it makes me think about my […]

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