How Pairing & Swarming Work & Why They Will Improve Your Products

If you’ve been paying attention to agile at all, you’ve heard these terms: pairing and swarming. But what do they mean? What’s the difference?

When you pair, two people work together to finish a piece of work. Traditionally, two developers paired. The “driver” wrote the piece of work. The other person, the “navigator,” observed the work, providing review, as the work was completed.

I first paired as a developer in 1982 (kicking and screaming). I later paired in the late 1980’s as the tester in several developer-tester pairs. I co-wrote Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management with Esther Derby as a pair.

There is some data that says that when we pair, the actual coding takes about 15-20% longer. However, because we have built-in code review, there is much less debugging at the end.

When Esther and I wrote the book, we threw out the original two (boring) drafts, and rewrote the entire book in six weeks. We were physically together. I had to learn to stop talking. (She is very funny when she talks about this.) We both had to learn each others’ idiosyncrasies about indentations and deletions when writing. That’s what you do when you pair.

However, this book we wrote and published is nothing like what the original drafts were. Nothing. We did what pairs do: We discussed what we wanted this section to look like. One of us wrote for a few minutes. That person stopped. We changed. The other person wrote. Maybe we discussed as we went, but we paired.

After about five hours, we were done for the day. Done. We had expended all of our mental energy.

That’s pairing. Two developers. One work product. Not limited to code, okay?

Now, let’s talk about swarming.

Swarming is when the entire team says, “Let’s take this story and get it to done, all together.” You can think of swarming as pairing on steroids. Everyone works on the same problem. But how?

Someone will have to write code. Someone will have to write tests. The question is this: in what order and who navigates? What does everyone else do?

When I teach my agile and lean workshop, I ask the participants to select one feature that the team can complete in one hour. Everyone groans. Then they do it.

Some teams do it by having the product owner explain what the feature is in detail. Then the developers pair and the tester(s) write tests, both automated and manual. They all come together at about the 45-minute mark. They see if what they have done works. (It often doesn’t.) Then the team starts to work together, to really swarm. “What if we do this here? How about if this goes there?”

Some teams work together from the beginning. “What is the first thing we can do to add value?” (That is an excellent question.) They might move into smaller pairs, if necessary. Maybe. Maybe they need touchpoints every 15-20 minutes to re-orient themselves to say, “Where are we?” They find that if they ask for feedback from the product owner, that works well.

If you first ask, “What is the first thing we can do to add value and complete this story?” you are probably on the right track.

Why Do Pairing and Swarming Work So Well?

Both pairing and swarming:

  • Build feedback into development of the task at hand. No one works alone. Can the people doing the work still make a mistake? Sure. But it’s less likely. Someone will catch the mistake.
  • Create teamwork. You get to know someone well when you work with them that intensely.
  • Expose the work. You know where you are.
  • Reduce the work in progress. You are less likely to multitask, because you are working with someone else.
  • Encourage you to take no shortcuts, at least in my case. Because someone was watching me, I was on my best professional behavior. (Does this happen to you, too?)

How do Pairing and Swarming Improve Your Products?

The effect of pairing and swarming is what improves your products. The built-in feedback is what creates less debugging downstream. The improved teamwork helps people work together. When you expose the work in progress, you can measure it, see it, have no surprises. With reduced work in progress, you can increase your throughput. You have better chances for craftsmanship.

You don’t have to be agile to try pairing or swarming. You can pair or swarm on any project. I bet you already have, if you’ve been on a “tiger team,” where you need to fix something for a “Very Important Customer” or you have a “Critical Fix” that must ship ASAP. If you had all eyes on one problem, you might have paired or swarmed.

If you are agile, and you are not pairing or swarming, consider adding either or both to your repertoire, now.

2 Comments

  1. When pairing, what do you do if you have to learn / look up something? Do you split off to your own computers? I find that reading speed, comprehension speed, approach to learning differ between individuals.

    Reply
    • When I pair—and I can’t speak for other pairs—we learn together. We search together. “Let’s search on this.” I happen to read very fast. Faster than most humans. If I’m the one at the keyboard, I say, “Tell me when you are ready for me to page down.” That’s all.

      You are correct. People differ in reading and comprehension speed. However, we are working on the work product together. We are not optimizing our work. We are working for the good of the work product.

      Optimizing the flow of work through us, not each of us individually is what matters. That’s why pairing works. That’s why swarming works.

      My reading speed is irrelevant. Our thinking speed together is what counts.

      I have discovered that when I collaborate, I have a different product. It is often better than what I could produce alone. This is why I collaborate :-)

      Reply

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  1. From my reading list #14 – July 28th, 2014 | Pascal Laurin - […] How Pairing & Swarming Work & Why They Will Improve Your Products by Johanna Rothman […]
  2. An Agile Approach From Offer to Start to Success | Hiring Technical People - […] trading off who the new hire pairs with, but pairing with everyone every day. Or, transition to swarming or …

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