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Pair Programming: Side-by-Side or Face-to-Face

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Pair programming is an agile software development technique in which two programmers work together at one workstation. The benefits of pair programming are well known and the technique is widely practiced. However, what is the best way to sit while pairing?

A usual way to sit is side-by-side but it has its own set of drawbacks. As Josh Susser put it,

While it is a good setup in a lot of ways, it falls short ergonomically. First off, both people have to sit off to the side of the display, which can cause leaning, slouching, and twisting to get into a position to both see and type. And it's also hard to actually look at your partner without craning your neck around. Even though the desk is wide, keyboards and mice take up room, so there can be a lot of jostling and adjustment on the desktop, and chairs and such can collide as well.

An alternate way to pair program is by sitting face-to-face. The alternate setup looks like the sketch below where the shaded portions represent the pairs.


According to Josh,

It's a lot more comfortable, we both get a better view of the screen, and it's great being able to see each other so easily while we are working together. We are seated close enough that it's easy to hear each other without raising our voices at all. And after a day of working in this arrangement I feel a lot better and my neck doesn't feel out of whack.

Brian and Corey tried this model and found it to be quite effective. According to Brian, he ended up preferring this way of pairing than the conventional way.

I found myself preferring this style to pairing side-by-side in front of a screen. I even prefer it to sitting in front of two side-by-side screens with two keyboards. The work is more free-flowing and conversational. It’s easier to note the other person’s body language. It’s easier to stop coding, look up, and talk to each other. I found the switching between people more fluid, with fewer episodes where we were both going for the cursor at the same time.

Dave smith suggested that this arrangement is not new and he had seen something similar in 1980 where two computer scientists sat opposite to each other with two large box CRT's between them.

Tim Ottinger tried this arrangement and did not seem to be completely blown away. According to Tim,

We just tried it. It didn't stink, but it turns out that we feel less connected to each other that way, and have to point with mouse instead of hands. It works, but it is more like the remote pairing experience.

Does this arrangement have any downsides?

Josh suggested that it is a bit difficult to pick up the subtle cues like when the partner is ready to take control of the keyboard and small hand movements which are otherwise visible when sitting side-by-side. It also increases the cost since it requires more equipment and floor space.

Whether or not this arrangement would work in the long run, it is sure worth a try. As Davis W. Frank put it,

I can confirm that this setup is less awkward for high-fives when your tests go green.

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