Pair Programming and Code Reviews

by Krishna on June 15, 2008

One simple definition of pair programming would be continuous code review. Instead of doing code reviews at definite intervals, one programmer continuously monitors the code written by his/her pair programmer. One could have yet other code reviewers in addition to the pair programmers, but in general, the principle stands.

A single programmer producing code without any code reviews may be the most efficient scenario, if it didn’t conflict with the reality that programmers make mistakes. Those mistakes are uncovered during testing and the programmer is forced to spend additional time fixing those mistakes. The effort and time involved in fixing a bug is greater than that involved in correcting it before the code was sent for testing.

One reason is the time taken to perform the release processes again after the bug is fixed. Second, the process of fixing the bug involves the programmer to spend time re-understanding the code and debugging. Thus, combining programming with code reviews increases the efficiency of the programmer.

Pair programming, considering that it is constant code review, should increase the correctness of work produced by a programmer. At the same time, it keeps one programmer off producing code. So does the efficiency of producing correct code balance the inefficiency of keeping one person idle? There are studies done to find how efficient pair programming is, but the jury is still out. However, I think a few ideas may be useful in deciding what works in your situation.

First of all, there are many development activities that lend themselves well to working in pairs or small teams. Design, at a higher architectural level or lower algorithmic level, is one such activity. Working together can help team members complement each other, providing ideas and correcting errors as they occur. I have often found that working on a relational database design in a team can be very productive.

On the other hand, some programming activities can be done in isolation. For example, if you have a well-defined HTML prototype, re-creating that in a web programming language (by a reasonably competent developer) does not require much oversight. Or, if your application requires a lot of boilerplate code and you are not using code generators, you could have developers work on it independently.

Another concern is that pair programming can avoid distractions and help you make the most use of the available time. This is one reason why study groups are so popular — each individual can maximize the time spent in productive activity. Assuming that pair programming makes more time available for development, it may be more efficient than a simple comparison with the work done by a single programmer alone would imply.

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