The Moment

The thread of communication between you and your pair is a long, tensile line attached to a sharp, silver fish slicing through cold water and swift currents.

“We are in the fetch method. This is where we are extracting the data object. Array. Sibling. Child. Child. Map…wait.”

Snap.

Your line is now slack, adrift in black water. It billows in empty ripples and all of your thoughts are gone. Where are you? Are you rightside up or upside down? In deep waters, the human brain loses all sense of orientation.

In pairing, this is the moment when you have drifted into silence as your brain plunges further and further inward. This is the moment when shadows creep into place along with voices telling you at varying levels of loudness to figure it out, just think harder. The unluckier of us will see a red face shouting about how we are not enough, we never were and who do we think we are anyway?

This is a moment of vulnerability. Our culture of tech hubris has given us plenty of go-to excuses for denying reality. You may say that the silence is because you are processing or that your brain cells are talking to each other, but that’s not really it. Really, what is happening is that you are too scared to open up to the person sitting next to you and you are hoping, hoping, hoping that the connection happens before anyone notices.

This is the moment pair programming is designed to turn around, replacing hubris, denial and fear with vulnerability, trust and communication.

This is EXACTLY when it is time to recognize where you are, to open up and to start talking even if you don’t know or even if you guess that what you are thinking is wrong.

I’m lost.

I don’t know.

It left me.

I don’t know what I’m doing.

Help.

Ok, what just happened?

These are words we don’t say enough. Often there is no reward for them. In fact, saying these words is often turned into an act of shame because they reveal an uncomfortable truth: we’re not perfect and we don’t know everything. We are not computers. We are human.

This is a moment of being human.

For pairing to function as it should, you must be able to tell the person next to you that you are lost without any fear that they will shame you or fear that you will be punished for not knowing something later.

The essence of pairing is that you are underwater together, you are thinking together and, most of all, you are vulnerable together. When the line of feedback between a pair snaps, it’s not one person adrift, it’s two, but one person doesn’t know it yet. The power of pairing is that two people will be able to rescue each other more often than not.

That person in the seat next to you might be as far as it is humanly possible to be from your idea of embodying crystalline elven magic, but they are your light in dark places when all other lights go out. You have to trust them to light the way and they have to trust you to send them a signal the moment you are aware that you are over your head.

A good pair will tell you that it’s ok and you will get back on track together.

Trust, vulnerability and communication in this moment is the bedrock of pairing. It is also the bedrock of building great software.

Thanks @rdy for teaching me about pairing.