Code Retreat @ Outbrain

Some people say writing code is kind of an art.

I don’t think so.

Well, maybe it is true if you are writing an ASCII-Art script or you are a Brainfuck programmer. I think that in most cases writing code is an engineering. Writing a program that will do something is like a car taking you from A to B that someone engineered. When a programmer writes code it should do something: data crunching, tasks automation or driving a car. Something. For me, an art is a non-productive effort of some manner. Writing a program is not such case. Or maybe it is more like a martial-art (or marshaling-art :-)) where you fight your code to do something.

So — what’s the problem?

Most of the programs I know that evolve over time, needs to have a quality which is not an art, but an ability to be maintainable. That’s usually reflect in a high level of readability.

Readability is difficult.

First, when you write some piece code, there is a mental mode you are in, and a mental model you have about the code and how it should be. When you or someone else read the code, they don’t have that model in mind, and usually, they read only a fragment of the entire code base.

In addition, there are various languages and styles of coding. When you read something that was written by someone else, with a different style or in a different language it is like reading a novel someone wrote in a different dialect or language.

That is why, when you write code you should be thoughtful to the “future you” reading the code, by making the code more readable. I am not going to talk here about how to do it, design patterns or best practices to writing your code, but I would just say that practicing and experience are important aspects in relate to code readability and maintainability.

As a programmer, when I retrospect what I did last week at work I can estimate about 50% of the time or less was coding. Among other things were writing this blog post, meetings (which I try to eliminate as much as possible) and all sort of work and personal stuff that happens during the day. When writing code, among the main goals are the quality, answering the requirements and do both in a timely manner.

From a personal perspective, one of my main goals is improving my skill-set as a programmer. Many times, I find that goal in a conflict with the goals above that were dictated by business needs.

Practice and more practice

There are few techniques that come to solve that by practicing on classroom tasks. Among them are TDD Kata’s and code-retreat days. Mainly their agenda says: “let’s take a ‘classroom’ problem, and try to solve it over and over again, in various techniques, constraints, languages and methodologies in order to improve our skill-set and increase our set of tools, rather than answering business needs”.

Code Retreat @ Outbrain — What do we do there?

So, in Outbrain we are doing code-retreat sessions. Well, we call it code-retreat because we write code and it is a classroom tasks (and a buzzy name), but it is not exactly the religious Corey-Haines-full-Saturday Code-Retreat. It’s an hour and a half sessions, every two weeks, that we practice writing code. Anyone who wants to code is invited — not only the experts — and the goals are: improve your skills, have fun, meet developers from other teams in Outbrain that usually you don’t work with (mixing with others) and learn new stuff.

We are doing it for a couple of months now. Up until now, all sessions were about fifteen minutes of presentation/introduction to the topic, and the rest was coding.

In all sessions, the task was Conway’s game of life. The topics that we covered were:

  • Cowboy programming — this was the first session we did. The game of life was presented and each coder could choose how to implement it upon her own wish. The main goal was an introduction to the game of life so in the next sessions we can concentrate on the style itself. I believe an essential part of improving the skills is the fact that we solve the same problem repeatedly.
  • The next session was about Test-Driven-Development. We watched uncle-bob short example of TDD, and had a fertile discussion while coding about some of the principles, such as: don’t write code if you don’t have a failing test.
Uncle bob in his bright hour

After that, we did a couple of pair programming sessions. In those sessions, one of the challenges was matching pairs. Sometimes we do it in a lottery and sometimes people could group together by their own selection, but it was dictated by the popular programming languages that the developers choose to use: Java, Kotlin, Python or JavaScript. We plan to do language introduction sessions in the future.

In addition, we talked about other styles we might practice in the future: mob-programming and pairs switches.

These days we are having functional programming sessions, the first one was with the constraint of “all-immutable” (no loops, no mutable variables, etc’) and it will be followed by more advanced constructs of functional programming.

All-in-all I think we are having a lot of fun, a lot of retreat and little coding. Among the main challenges are keeping the people on board as they have a lot of other tasks to do, keeping it interesting and setting the right format (pairs/single/language). The sessions are internal for Outbrain employees right now, but tweet me (@ohadshai) in case you are around and would like to join.

And we also have cool stickers:

From left to right: sticker, cool sticker, very cool sticker