Pair Programming is difficult

Pair programming is difficult to practice effectively. Unfortunately, the inverse is also true: pair programming is easy to practice ineffectively. It is a learnt skill which is hard to pick up. I have tried to articulate some advice below for both the Driver and Navigator roles:

Reddit comment thread on this post


  • Agree a destination (goal) before you start
    • Everyone needs to be working towards the same outcome
  • Agree an Estimated Time of Arrival (time limit) before you start
    • Pair Programming is tiring. Make sure to take a break
  • There must be exactly 2 people and 2 roles:
    • 2 people and 1 role is wrong
      • 2 drivers grabbing at the wheel will crash the car
      • 2 navigators will never drive anywhere (possibly this is a design session)
    • 3+ people is wrong
      • This will result in 1 driver and 2+ navigators. The driver will become disorientated trying to listen to 2 or more sets of directions. "Too many cooks spoil the broth"
      • Update: It has since been pointed out to me that this could be something called "mob programming". That would require an entire new post by itself, but from a thousand foot view, it sounds horrible. Unless surrounded with lots of rules of interaction.
  • Both people must be able to access a keyboard at all times during the session
    • Sometimes it is easier for the navigator to show their thoughts with actions rather than just words
    • It makes it easier to switch roles (which should be done often)
    • If the session is in person, plug 2 keyboards into the same computer. If done remotely use something like VSCode Live Share
  • Don't worry about matching novices with experts. Certainly that pairing can help with up-skilling but pairs of novices have advantages over solo programming and pairs of experts can solve complex problems.
  • Pair programming is no substitute for code reviews. Pair programming is a synchronous activity and therefore will suffer from Groupthink. Code reviews are an asynchronous activity which gives the reviewer time and space to form their own opinions and thoughts.
  • Pair programming is no substitute for knowledge sharing. Where applicable, the knowledge should be shared with the whole team, not just 2 people.

Driver role 🚗

  • Don't drive too fast for the navigator. They need to understand where the car currently is located in order to direct properly
  • Listen to directions from your navigator! If the navigator says it is time to write a unit test, do it. If they say it is time for a refactor, pause and consider that option with them.

Navigator role 🗺

  • Think about the bigger picture. This is the main role of a navigator. How are we going to get to the pre-agreed destination? Do we need to start writing some tests now? Do we need to pause and consider the implications of our change on a different part of the code base? Is it time for a break ☕️?
  • Don't be a back-seat driver. Pointing out typos is generally unnecessary as the driver likely already knows the problem and the IDE/compiler will probably tell them anyway. Stylistic comments also should be avoided as it breaks the flow of both driver & navigator and this should be solved through dev tooling.