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Apprenticeship Patterns by Adewale Oshineye, Dave Hoover

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Rubbing Elbows

I enjoy being given a certain amount of freedom in order to interpret or to come up with stuff, but I do enjoy collaboration. I seek and thrive on projects where I am going to learn from the people I’m working with.

William Kempe

Context

While you may have mentors and kindred spirits that you meet with periodically, when it comes to developing software, you work alone.

Problem

Your productivity has reached a plateau, your learning is stagnating, and you have the feeling that there are superior techniques and approaches to the craft that are eluding you.

Solution

Find ways to sit with another software developer and accomplish a hands-on task together, side-by-side. There are some things that can only be learned while you are sitting with another software developer to accomplish a shared objective.

This pattern can be closely related to Kindred Spirits. This was the case for Dave, who found an ally in Roman and then literally rubbed elbows over lunch as they learned together about technologies like the Ruby programming language and Eclipse plug-in development. Yet, even if Roman had not been a kindred spirit, Dave would still have benefited by working side-by-side with a talented programmer, even on pet projects. There will always be certain micro-techniques that you will only learn when collaborating closely with a colleague. These are usually seen as too trivial to mention when teaching, but their impact adds up. Collaborating with Roman was critical for Dave’s progress as a developer, since he rarely had the opportunity to work with talented developers at that time in his career.

The development practice of Pair Programming is a concrete example of this pattern, and apprentices should look for opportunities to work on teams that use this technique. While pair programming can be an excellent technique for learning, it is a complex activity and is not always an inherently positive experience. However, when used effectively, it is one of the most powerful ways to learn, particularly from mentors. So how do you know if pair programming is being used effectively? And what can an apprentice do about it?

You will often feel lost or far behind your counterpart when you’re implementing this pattern via pair programming. This does not mean pair programming is failing—it simply means you need to either slow things down by asking questions or endure the feeling of being lost and try to pick up the bits that you do understand. But if you feel chronically behind, week after week, and you’re beginning to despair, then it’s time to make a change. You may be stuck with a poor pair programming partner, or your partner may need some suggestions to improve your experience. As an apprentice, you may not have much power to change your situation, but if you’re on a project with more than a few people, you can likely find an opportunity to alternate days or weeks between pair programming partners. This rotation may help jiggle you out of your troublesome situation and get you back on the path of progress. Additionally, if you’re practicing test-driven development, you can suggest Ping-Pong Programming[25] as a way to increase your participation.

According to Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, the ideal craft workshop is a place for “absorption into tacit knowledge, unspoken and uncodified in words” of the “thousand little everyday moves that add up in sum to a practice” (p. 77). Since such ideal environments are now so rare, we have to use the Rubbing Elbows pattern as a modern-day substitute. The applications of this pattern are not limited merely to pair programming. The goal is to find ways to expose yourself to the daily working habits of other skilled people, and observe the ways in which they gradually refine those habits into even greater skill. These habits extend beyond coding and into all aspects of software development.

For instance, you might collaborate with someone on an academic paper or a presentation or at an open source project’s sprint. Or, as happened to Ade, you might find yourself volunteering to help somebody who wants to apply graph theory to design the dependency management component of a content management system written in Unix shell script! Sharing a whiteboard with someone who wants to use a very low-level tool to solve a problem you would automatically solve with a high-level language (or vice versa) forces you to temporarily think like that other person in order to communicate effectively. Even if you ultimately reject that viewpoint, you have gained a new way of looking at problems. That perspective may be just the right solution to some future problem, even if in the short term you find it jarring.

Whether your experience rubbing elbows is positive or negative, you should Record What You Learn so that you can reflect on your experiences later on. Someday you will likely be in the same position as your pair programming partner, and your past experiences will give you precious insight into the mindset of the junior person sitting next to you.

Action

Find someone you know who has already expressed an interest in starting or contributing to an open source project. Arrange to spend one evening a week working together on the project. See how long the two of you can keep each other motivated. The strains of a busy life will inevitably weaken the motivation behind your collaboration; when that happens, you must adapt and find ways to keep the project going until that motivation returns. Of course, if motivation never returns, it is up to you to seek out a new partnership where you can learn new things.



[25] David H. Hoover, “Ping-Pong Programming.” Available at: http://www.stickyminds.com/s.asp?F=S9101_COL_2.

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