Uncertainty isn’t an insurmountable obstacle to pair programming

For rational beings, we listen to our feelings a surprising amount. When a suggestion or an idea feels terrible, we instantly interpret that to mean that it’s a bad idea. Our minds are rather good at inventing logical and rational explanations for why an idea that feels bad is a bad idea.

When a team member suggests pair programming and the idea feels uncomfortable, unpleasant, or even a bit anxiety-inducing, our brains waste no time in coming up with many sensible explanations for why it isn’t even worth pursuing:

  • Working together is slow, I work a lot faster alone.
  • The client isn’t willing to pay for spending time on pair programming even if we learned something in the process.
  • I don’t want anyone to see my unfinished work; I have the right to finish my work in peace before others see it.

When every affirmation you hear encourages you to listen to your intuition and to trust your instincts, the solution feels crystal clear.

I don’t want to, so I shouldn’t.

Anxiety can point to the possibility for growth

Pair programming expert Maaret Pyhäjärvi has this to say:

“When you feel like saying no, you should try.”

Her own first reaction to pair programming had been that it didn’t feel or sound good. However, she had learned that when something awakens resistance, it’s worth examining and trying.

New, exciting, challenging things with potential for personal growth are very likely to feel horrifying at the outset. Our lizard brains yell at us like hyenas: “NO, FOR PITY’S SAKE don’t even consider that! You might make a mistake (shame) or reveal your incompetence (imposter syndrome).”

Some time ago, I made a New Year’s resolution to try out improvisational theatre, because the mere thought felt horrible and I wanted to test the limits of my courage. For four months, I hemmed and hawed, until finally I found the courage and gave improv a chance for half a year.

It was horrible! It was also fun, educational and strengthened skills that have been very useful to me in my life. I didn’t die. I learned a huge amount about myself. Especially that the fear of something can be worse than the thing itself.

Uncertainty is part of the process

Pair programming can initially be scary or perhaps a bit uncomfortable. That might apply also to experienced pair programmers. In a conversation I had with Maaret and coding and communication expert Aki Salmi, both of them said that pair programming with a new team or a new partner is generally uncomfortable and tentative in the beginning.

Both of these experienced programming professionals still deal with the gnawing worry that they’ll reveal their incompetence in front of others. Despite having a lot of experience with pair programming or ensemble programming. Despite logically knowing that there’s nothing to fear. Despite of the fact that admitting lack of knowledge is a prerequisite to learning.

Perhaps uncertainty is par for the course and a sign that you’ve hit on something important. When you both reveal your vulnerability, you give learning a chance and create something together that you couldn’t do alone. Uncertainty is present in that moment, and that’s okay.

As Maaret puts it:

“It’s the fear of incompetence. When you know that you can’t. But you still believe that others will fill things in and you’ll learn something. That’s powerful.”

Or what do you think?

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