Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Pair Programming MOOC Style - is it Agile?

This summer the “Engineering Software as a Service” (ESaaS) MOOC got re-branded as “Agile Developing using Ruby on Rails” (ADuRoR). This was a recommendation from edX and I felt it was probably a good move, since in the past there always seemed to be a few people surprised to find that the course was not about cloud computing per se, but about software engineering principles applied to web application development. The course was basically the same, although we were upgrading fully to Rails 4 and RSpec 3 and that was a fair amount of work in itself - more so in terms of updating materials than upgrading software. The big change we did make was to have pair programming become “required” for the first time, and have it assessed by peer review.

We’d introduced “optional” pairing some two years earlier. In the first instance, each assignment had a bonus 10% for submitting a video of pair programming on the assignment, but we also accepted solo videos or text summaries of the assignment talking about the pros and cons of pairing versus solo work. Part of our motivation for requiring more pair programming from the learners is our plan for a “part 3” or “project” capstone course. This will complete the ADuRoR Series, and will involve teams of MOOC learners collaborating on building software solutions for charities and non-profits around the world. We’re keen to ensure that this capstone course has teams that work effectively together. We strongly believe that pair programming is a critical part of an effective software development team. It’s not that you can’t develop great software without pair programming. It’s that you can’t work effectively in a team without good people and communication skills.

Somebody who would pair program for all the ADuRoR MOOC assignments would likely be better equipped to work effectively in a project team than someone who did not. Not that this is a guarantee; there are no guarantees, but we need some mechanism to ensure a high chance of success for our initial project teams. There’s also lots of evidence that pair programming has a big positive impact on learning to code.

As it happens the Agile process itself does not mandate using pair programming, test driven development, scrums, or anything of the sort. Let’s just refresh our memory as to the principles behind the Agile Manifesto:
Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
Working software is the primary measure of progress.
Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.
The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.
There’s so much here, but as is clear, tests and pairing are not mentioned explicitly, nor is Scrum or Kanban, or many other things that are commonly associated with Agile. Personally I see the last “stanza” as the critical one. Regular reflection on how to become more effective, tuning and adjusting behaviour accordingly.

This seems like extraordinarily good advice to me. I happen to really enjoy pair programming. Not everyone does, and it’s not right for every team; but the crucial thing is that in any period you look back and say well we tried X and it’s gone well, gone badly, made no difference. And then we try a variant of X, throw out X, continue X as appropriate.

Our hope with the project course is to have teams of learners operate in agile teams. Ultimately we want to empower those teams to evolve their own Agile process based on what works for them. However we’d very much like all those team members to have at least tried TDD, BDD, pairing etc. to inform their own Agile Process. We also believe that remote pair programming and remote scrum meetings will be a critical part of distributed project teams working effectively together. To the extent that you accept Google Hangouts (or similar video conferencing software) as a form of face to face conversation, then we can see this also fits in with the principles behind the Agile Manifesto.
The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
One of the main challenges for pairing in our MOOC has been the logistics of helping online learners find pair partners. While we had over 500 successful pairing sessions during the MOOC, some students have struggled to find pair partners available at convenient times for them, particularly on the later assignments since from start to finish the number of learners attempting the assignment goes down by an order of magnitude. It’s also clear that the logistical overhead of arranging a pairing session is not great for those on tight schedules.

Our options going forward appear to include:
  1. reducing the amount of credit given to pairing; so it doesn’t feel as “mandatory”
  2. improving the mechanism by which pair partners are found
  3. improving the support and documentation of how to manage pairing
The danger with the first step is that it would likely reduce the number of people attempting to pair, and further exacerbate the problem of finding pair partners. We certainly don’t want learners to become frustrated with attempting to pair program; we do believe that both pairing, and reviewing other learners pair videos are valuable learning experiences. The ultimate question is can we reduce the pairing logistics overhead sufficiently through options 2 and 3 …

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