Global Day of Code Retreat 2013

Have you heard of Coderetreats? I hadn’t until a couple of weeks ago, when a friend of mine prompted me to try one. From the About page:

Coderetreat is a day-long, intensive practice event, focusing on the fundamentals of software development and design. By providing developers the opportunity to take part in focused practice, away from the pressures of ‘getting things done’, the coderetreat format has proven itself to be a highly effective means of skill improvement. Practising the basic principles of modular and object-oriented design, developers can improve their ability to write code that minimizes the cost of change over time.

I signed up for the Global Day of Coderetreat session and then promptly forgot about it until yesterday, when I realised that I was going to regret my 0600-1200 sleeping pattern today. (Other than making it difficult to interact with normal people, however, it’s awesome.)

Despite my lack of sleep I dragged myself to the depths of Shoreditch where Unruly Media, our hosts for the day, make their home.

To summarise the format, the day is broken up into multiple 45 minute sessions. All sessions revolve around pair programming a solution to Conway’s Game of Life. There is a preference for using test driven development, and a hard rule that all code must be deleted at the end of each 45 minute session.

We rotated pairing partners throughout the day, and there were no language restrictions other than the basic sanity check of “at least one of the pair should be comfortable with the language you’re using”. I only wrote in Python and Go, since my recent programming experience is limited to those languages, but people worked in Java, Javascript, Haskell and (I think) a couple of other languages as well.

In addition to the basic rules, some of the iterations had constraints placed on them, in order to stimulate thought about the problem domain or just for the entertainment of the facilitators. (Mute immutability springs to mind. :P)

Was it worth it? I certainly think so. A day of practice with no pressure to deliver useful code to a customer was very refreshing; I felt it enabled me to think about the actual problem being solved as well as the various approaches that could be taken. The enforced deletion of code as well as changing pairing partners during the day lead me down several different tracks of how to solve this problem.

The day was concluded with a wrap up, where everyone was asked three questions:

  1. What, if anything, surprised you today?
  2. What, if anything, did you learn today?
  3. What, if anything, will you do differently in the future?

Speaking for myself:

I was surprised at how effective pair programming is. This was my first experience with it, and I was expecting it to be stifling (having to wait for other people, not using my own development environment). It transpired that these worries were largely unfounded (Alex’s shocking vim skills not withstanding; he has been directed to the appropriate learning resources). Having someone to bounce ideas off meant that at no point did I ever get stuck; if I got to a point where I wasn’t sure what to code next, my partner generally had a concrete suggestion. If neither of us were quite sure how to progress, 30 to 60 seconds of chat usually resolved this and we were back to making forward progress.

In terms of learning: I think for me, the biggest lessons were simply in collaborative coding. As a network engineer, most of my coding since leaving university has been knocking together code that just about works to solve specific problems, with a couple of exceptions where I’ve worked with full time developers on specific projects.

Things I’ll do differently: I will try and pair program more, when given the opportunity; today has definitely given me an appreciation for its benefits. It also brought home the real benefits of test driven development; one of the exercises had the stipulation that one partner wrote the test code, and the other partner the implementation. This turned out to be a good way of forcing clarity of requirements, and having the tests in place gave me much greater confidence when making changes, which was particularly important given the time pressure.

Overall a very enjoyable and productive day; for those looking to practice the art of programming, you could certainly do worse than attending a code retreat. Many thanks to Rachel Davies for organising the event and keeping us fed and watered, and to Steve Tooke for facilitating. I look forward to next year.