Connecting with Mob Programming

We were a team of six people from three different teams with half of us completely new to the Shipping domain and some of us new to the company. We had six weeks to complete one ambitious project. Most of us had never met in person, let alone worked together. We worked like any other team: picked items off the backlog and worked on them. Everyone said they were open to pairing but very few paired, or if they paired it was with the one person they knew very well. Pull requests (PRs) came in but feedback was scarce. Everyone was new to each other and the domain, so opinions were rare, and when present, weak. PRs had a couple of nits, but otherwise they'd just go through. We may have been shipping, but growing, connecting, and learning, but were unsure.

Until one day, our teammate, Sheldon Nunes, introduced us to mob programming. Mob programming builds on pair programming but instead of two people pairing, it's an entire mob—more than two people—pairing on the same problem.

What is Mob Programming?

It started innocently enough, as none of us had done mob programming before. Six of us joined a video call and the driver shared their screen. It was ineffective. It wasn’t inclusive or engaging and ended up as pair programming with observers. We had 30 minutes of two individuals contributing, and everyone else had zoned out. Until someone asked, "How do we make sure that everyone doesn't fall asleep?!" Surely enough, mobbing has a solution for that: fast rotations of the driver.

Sheldon, our mob programming expert, suggested we switch to a 10-minute rotation of one driver. At the end of every rotation, the driver pushes the changes, and the next person pulls the changes and takes over. It worked like magic. By taking turns and having a short duration, everyone was forced into engagement or they would be lost on their turn. We made programming a game.

A mob of five people rotating every 10 minutes is 50 minutes of work per rotation. Though the 10 minutes passed quickly, we also moved swiftly and kept tight alignment. The fast rotation also meant that we made decisions quickly—nobody wanted a turn to end without having shipped anything—and every decision was reversible, so it hardly made sense not to be decisive. We saw the same with how much context one shared with the group. There was no risk of a 30-minute context dump by one individual who had high context because the short rotation forced people to share just enough context to get something done. Code reviews also became moot—everyone wrote the code together, so there was little back and forth, allowing us to ship even faster.

The most valuable benefits we saw with mob programming was the strength of our relationships after we started doing them. It was so effective, we noticed it immediately following the first session. Feedback was easier to give and receive because it wasn't a judgement but a collaboration. While collaborating so closely, we were able to learn from watching each other's unique workflows, laugh at each other’s scribbles and animal drawings, and engage in spontaneous games of tic tac toe.

The Five Lessons of Mob Programming

For Three months, the team performed mob programming almost daily. That intensive experience taught us a few things.

1. Pointing and Communicating

Being able to point with a crudely drawn arrow is important. Drawing increases the ways you can interact, changing from verbal only to verbal and visual, but most importantly, it keeps everyone engaged. When mobbing, a 30 second build feels like eternity - and being able to doodle or even see someone else draw doodles on the screen changes the engagement level of the group.

We tried one session without drawing and while it can work, it is an exercise of frustration as you try to explain to the driver exactly where to scroll, which character on a line the bracket is missing, and where exactly the spelling error is.

2. Discoverability Matters

Our first mobbing session came out of an informal coffee chat. We used Slack's /call feature for pairing so members of the team who weren't in the informal coffee chat could join at a later time. We started this in a private group with a direct message, but faced challenges such as not being able to add any "guests" who may have had the context on what we're trying to solve who we wanted to add to our mob. A call in a small private group also puts pressure on the whole team to join, irrespective of their availability. So we moved it to a public channel.

An active Slack huddle window that shows the profile photos of the attendees and a Show Call button

A mob that’s discoverable, so people can drop in and drop out, ensures that the mob doesn't "die off" and people can take a break. For us, this means using Slack huddles with screen share and Slack /call in a public channel. Give it a fun name or an obvious name, but keep it public.

3. The Right Problem in the Right Environment

A mob that’s rotating the driver constantly, like ours, requires a problem where people can set up the environment quickly. Have one branch and a simple setup. A single rotation should involve:

git pull
git commit
-a -m 'WIP!!!"
git push

Yes, the good commit messages get ditched here. It's very possible to end your rotation with debugging statements in code. That's OK. Add a good commit message when a task is complete, not necessarily at every push. This reduces how long a hand off takes and allows rotations to happen without waiting for a "clean exit."

Writing tests (or even this article!) is a poor experience for mobbing. For tests, the runtime for tests is too long to be effective for a mob. These tasks are better in a pairing environment or solo activities, so often someone would volunteer for ownership of the task to take it to completion. For documentation, it's pretty hard to write a sentence together.

4. Invite Other Disciplines

The nature of mob programming means that non-developers can mob with developers. Sometimes it’s Directors who rarely get to code in their day to day or a Product Manager who’s curious. The point is that anyone can mob because the mob is available to help. The driver is expected to not know what to do, and by making that the default experience, mobbing becomes welcoming for developers of all skill levels.

5. Take a Break

Time passes fast in a mob. We found two hours is the maximum length. Mobbing sessions can drain the introverts in the team. Timebox it and set a limit to minimize the feeling of "missing out" for members of the team who are not able to participate.

Remote work changed for all of us permanently that day. Gone were the days of lamenting over the loss of learning through osmosis. In person, we learned from each other by overhearing conversations, but with remote work that quickly went away as conversations moved into private messages or meetings—unless you asked the question, you didn't get to hear the answer. There was no learning new shortcuts and tricks from your coworkers by happening to walk by. However, with mobbing, all of that was back. Arguably pairing should've done this too, but the key with mobbing is that you don't have to ask the questions or give the answers—you can learn from the conversations of others.

An ended Slack huddle window that shows the profile photos of the attendees and the amount of time the huddle lasted.

Before we were suffering from isolation and feeling disconnected from the team, now we were over-socialized and had to introduce no-pairing days to give people a chance to recharge. We’re now able to onboard newcomers as mob programming welcomes low-context—you have an entire mob to help you, after all.

Swati Swoboda is a Development Manager at Shopify. She has been at Shopify for 3.5 years and currently leads the Shipping Platform team.

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