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Why the Mob Programming Conference Matters

Mob Programming is a software development approach where the whole team works together on the same thing, at the same time, in the same space, and at the same computer.  This is a relatively new approach and one which is generating a lot of discussion.  

The first Mob Programming Conference will be hold the 1st and 2nd of May in Cambridge, MA, hosted by Agile New England.

InfoQ spoke to the conference organization team, regarding Mob Programming, the goal of the conference and where to find more information.

InfoQ: You are the main organizers of the first Mob Programming Conference. Could you present yourselves?

Nancy: I’m Nancy Van Schooenderwoert, an independent Agile Coach working mainly with engineers who build safety-critical products like medical devices. I proposed that Agile New England create this new conference because even though Mob Programming is simple, there is a lot of depth to it. We need a focusing activity to deepen our understanding.

Eric: I’m Eric Houston - I’m new to Mob Programming, and I’m here to learn. I am an advocate of collaboration and collective effort, and I see Mob Programming as the epitome of that.

Woody: Woody Zuill, my focus for 15+ years has been to explore ways to improve how we go about doing the business of software development. I’ve found the Agile Manifesto values and principles are a great set of guidelines I can use to evaluate any practice I want to try. For me, Mob Programming is a natural outgrowth of this process of discovery.

Llewellyn (Falco): My connection to Mob Programming started 13 years ago with the discovery of ‘strong style pairing’ which is follows the rule ‘for an idea to go from your head to the keyboard to must go through someone else’s hands.’ This rule helped me to better understand everyone I worked with and pushed my learning farther than I could have hoped.

Back in the day, Woody used to tell me about being a banjo player. How at festivals people would get together and play music where programmers would only get together and talk about code. We wanted to change that and started doing sessions (dojo’s) at local meetups to actually code together. This became a fun way of learning, but mobbing turned it into whole new level. Our dojo’s were like the jam sessions at parties. Random people making music together. Mobbing was like an actual band. People who know and trust each other, making wonderful software that isn’t just fun in the moment but can stand the test of time. Since then I’ve been using Mob Programming as my goto method for working with teams and teaching classes.

InfoQ: Mob Programming is still a young "method". Could you remind us what it is about?

Woody: Mob Programming is a software development approach where the whole team works together on the same thing, at the same time, in the same space, and at the same computer. This is similar to pair programming, where two people sit at the same computer and collaborate on the same code at the same time. However, with Mob Programming we extend the collaboration to everyone on the team, while still using a single computer for writing the code and doing other work.

In addition to software coding, the team works together to do almost all the work a typical software development team tackles, such as defining stories, designing, testing, deploying software, and working with the customer, business expert, or Product Owner. Almost all work is handled as “working meetings” or workshops, and all the people involved in creating the software are considered to be team members, including the customer/product owner. We work this way more or less all day long, every day.

In other words, this is an evolutionary step beyond the Extreme Programming concept of pair programming. We strive to accentuate and amplify concepts such as face-to-face and side-by-side communication, team alignment, collaboration, whole team involvement, continuous code review, and the “self-organizing team”, to name a few.

Llewellyn: Many people think of writing code as the number of lines you type. Mobbing isn’t about that. Mobbing is looking to maximize the number of insights that make it into the code. These insights come in many ways. Sometimes just having someone watching you helps you to be a better version of yourself. Sometimes you have a spark but need the kindling of other minds to help it turn into a flame. Sometimes you have a great idea but lack the ability, knowledge or even the courage to turn it into reality. In a mob we can nurture and capture every insight and turn it into the best implementation with the best the whole team can offer at any given time.

I often think of the puzzle “A bat cost $1.00 more than a ball. Together they cost $1.10. How much does the ball cost?” It’s easy to get confused by this problem, but if even 1 person in the mob gets this then the whole mob will quickly see the answer ($0.05).

InfoQ: You are organizing the first Mob Programming conference ever. What is your goal here?

Woody: I’ve held many workshops, both public and internal, and several other gatherings (such as several public events at Ericsson in Stockholm), as well as have given many presentations, talks, and demonstrations. But here we wanted to offer a different experience. But here, we wanted to propose a different experience.

Nancy: Woody, Llewellyn, and I have been helping teams learn Mob Programming and we notice that different practices and styles of mobbing emerge afterward - we’d like to have practitioners from different mobbing teams come together and compare/ explore their unique practices. We also see that there are many ways to introduce Mob Programming. For those who want to improve the way they teach it, we’ll learn by doing: they can teach in the presence of others who’ve taught it too, and learn from them. Our goal is that no matter what your level of Mob Programming skill is, you will learn new insights. That includes us too!

Llewellyn: Great things have happened in companies when we get everyone in the same room working together. We believe the same will be true if we get everyone who’s been experimenting with this style of working in the same room and start having some shared experiences.

I’m looking to discover what are the things I don’t know I don’t know. I’m looking to get ideas that are new to me that others have already stumbled upon.

InfoQ: The program is quite different from other agile events. Could you explain the main aspects?

Woody: We are hoping to provide an environment where everyone can get as much hands-on experience as possible. We’ve limited the number of presentations to just a few so we can spend as much time as possible in workshops guided by mentors who are innovators and early adopters of the Mob Programming approach. We’ll also be holding retrospectives and Open Space sessions throughout the conference so we can “tune and adjust” to better meet the needs of the folks attending.

Llewellyn: We want shared experiences and then we want to discuss and explore. Unlike a normal conference, we know there is tons more knowledge in the room than with the speaker at the front of the room. We didn’t want to just have lecture and listen sessions, but we also know that if you just start talking you get a lot of miscommunication. Sometimes false argument: “It needs to be 6!” “No way, it’s ½ a dozen or it won’t work”. Sometimes false agreement: “That’s what you meant by red?” Having workshops first helps to makes sure we are using a common language because we can draw on a common experience.

InfoQ: Who is the target audience for this event?

Nancy: Everyone who would be on an Agile team is our target audience. Software developers and testers at all skill levels will find this to be a great introduction to Mob Programming, and if they’ve already tried mobbing then they will see ways to take it further, and ways to address difficulties they have encountered. Tech Leads will find that mobbing helps them get their team in synch with each other and learning new things very effectively.

Llewellyn: Mobs thrive on diversity and we hope this conference embodies that.

  • The different viewpoints from all parts of a team [programmer, tester, product owner, UX, BA, etc…].
  • The different viewpoint from Teachers, students, consultants, full time employees.
  • The different viewpoint from people who are just hearing about this, to doing it full time to even the inventors of the practices.

Each different person has their own piece of the puzzle to contribute.

InfoQ: Before I come, if I want to improve my understanding of Mob Programming, what do you suggest I read or watch?

Nancy: There is a 3-minute video of Woody’s team doing Mob Programming. That shows what a typical day is like for a team that uses mobbing 100% of the time.
See Woody’s blog, much current info there

Woody: Llewellyn has a guide book available on LeanPub - and I’ve just released my “work in progress” book (also on Leanpub): Mob Programming: A Whole Team Approach.

Llewellyn: I'd add Woody’s NDC talk, Jason’s Agile 2015 experience report, Aaron’s Mobbing for Introverts.


This news item was edited by Shane Hastie

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