5 min read

It Takes Two

It Takes Two

Joining a new team as a leader is never easy. At least, it isn't for me.

When you join a new team, you're operating with the smallest amount of context possible, both about the people you're now responsible for and the space that they operate in.

My first goal is always to understand. I want to get to know the people themselves, figure out the processes that they work with and understand the context and reasoning behind why things are the way they are. The last thing I want to do is go off half-cocked, trying to "fix" things in a misguided view that I know better.

For a team with regular rituals (stand-ups, retrospectives, planning, etc) the obvious thing to do is join those rituals and observe. As you become more comfortable with the subject matter and the social dynamics in play, start asking insightful questions. Well, start asking questions anyway. You'll have to work your way up to the insightful part. Said questions are a great way to both further your understanding and to engage with people.

That sort of thing is good, but its not enough for me.

As someone who is responsible for the well-being of the team and the people within it, I want to understand the details. I want to know how people are operating on a day to day basis, so that I can help shape that sort of thing moving forward.

And one of the best ways to get that level of detail is pairing.

Please Wave To Your Partner

As far as I know, pairing (aka pair programming) originated from Extreme Programming courtesy of Kent Beck. Its simple enough, involving two people working collaboratively on a single problem, sharing a single computer.

The theory is that two brains are better than one, and that the combined effort and focus will lead to a better overall outcome (less defects, greater knowledge sharing, higher quality design), even taking into account the doubling of person-effort.

Being that I barely program anymore (and certainly not professionally), the pairing process that I've been running is a little different.

In said process, rather than switching between driver and observer at regular internals, I'm acting as the observer the entire time. Like any normal observer, I think about the problem at hand, ask questions and contribute ideas. I'm just not driving, for a variety of very valid reasons. Honestly, to the team member, the most value I provide is probably just as a rubber duck.

But to me, the value is immeasurable.

Upcoming Tests Require Teamwork

The first thing that pairing gets you is classic relationship building. Working on a problem together, assuming you aren't at each others throats for some reason, is a great way to build rapport with someone.  Obviously its not the focus of the activity, but its happens all the same, and is beneficial to both parties involved.

The second valuable thing that comes out of pairing is empathy. This one is mostly beneficial to the manager, but you get an excellent picture of the sorts of things that the person has to go through in order to do their job. You're figuratively walking a few metres in their shoes, which is fantastic, because once you understand that sort of thing it subtly shifts your behaviour away from doing things that make people's workdays worse.

The third thing is detailed knowledge about workflows, practices and processes. This is another one that is more beneficial to the manager, but being able to understand the things that people go through in order to deliver, helps to identify areas for improvement. As a manager, you're in a great position to view those processes from an entirely different angle (i.e. the facilitator rather than the doer) and work towards changing them for the better.

The last one is specific to me I think. When I'm pairing with someone and working together on something, the value realisation is much more rapid than when I'm doing manager stuff. The feedback loop is shorter, usually with a well defined outcome that indicates the problem is solved. That's nice, especially when most of my day is filled with activities that I'm fairly sure are helping, but with no direct way of confirming that.

Technically speaking, pairing is not the only way to get the benefits that I listed above, except for maybe the empathy one. You can get a lot of similar value simply from asking people good questions and then actually listening to their responses. But I find that pairing gives a much higher quality picture than just talking to someone.

That's not to say its without its flaws though.

Pairing May Lead To Disassembly

The first flaw is obvious: pairing can be disruptive. Just having someone else around while trying to do a task can make doing that task harder, let alone the additional mental strain required to explain things or answer questions. Its important to make sure that you, as a manager, work to minimise the disruptive aspects and focus mostly on observation.

Speaking of focusing on observation, you need to make sure that you're not just a weird, silent ghost, stalking the person while they are doing their job. That sort of thing rightly makes people nervous and can be quite off-putting. You have to position what you're doing as a learning exercise and be genuine about it. You're not there to micro manage and you're certainly not there to gain ammunition to use against them later.

The last thing to be aware of is that you're probably not going to get a perfectly accurate picture. Because you're a manager, whether you (or they) realise it or not, they will probably be trying harder and want to make a good impression. As you build trust with the person, the representation they present will get more and more truthful, but its still something you have to keep in mind.

I should watch Futurama again. It was pretty great.


Personally, I really enjoy pairing with the people that I'm responsible for, but I know that it needs to be tempered so as not to overwhelm or overload them. I've done my best to check-in at the end of every session to make sure the person feels good about the whole thing and to spread the sessions out, and I think this has significantly helped to mitigate the potential downsides.

Meanwhile, I've learned an incredible amount in the few weeks that I've been in my new job, all thanks to the wonderful people of my team who were gracious enough to let me work closely with them and watch them do cool things.

I plan to continue to pair with people regularly and hopefully the outcomes will only improve as everyone becomes more comfortable with the activity.