Pair programming: Everything you need to know

Pair programming, also known as “coding in pair” or “just pairing”, is about team collaboration. It is an agile software development technique that implies that the code is written by two people in real time, instead of just one. The pairing set typically includes one screen, two sets of keyboards, and two mice. One developer is the driver who writes the code and the other one, the observer or navigator, reviews each line of code as it is typed in.

Common Pitfalls Of Pair Programming

  • Both programmers must be actively engaging with the task throughout a paired session, otherwise no benefit can be expected.
  • A simplistic but often raised objection is that pairing “doubles costs”. That is a misconception based on equating programming with typing. However, one should be aware that this is the worst-case outcome of poorly applied pairing.
  • At least the driver, and possibly both programmers, are expected to keep up a running commentary. Pair programming is also “programming out loud”. If the driver is silent, the navigator should intervene.
  • Pair programming cannot be fruitfully forced upon people, especially if relationship issues.

Potential Costs of Pair Programming

While empirical studies have yet to yield definite results on either benefits or costs, a commonly cited best-case estimate of 15% overhead is claimed for systematic pairing, relative to individual work. It is compensated by gains in code quality which usually entails significant maintenance penalties down the road.

Skill Levels

pair programming

As suggested above one of the major issues preventing effective pairing is passivity. When used simultaneously with test-driven development, one variant called “ping-pong programming” encourages more frequent switching of roles: one programmer writes a failing unit test, then passes the keyboard to the other who writes the corresponding code, then goes on to a new test. This variant can be used purely for pedagogic purposes, or by already experienced programmers as a playful variant.

  • Beginner

– Able to participate as navigator, in particular to intervene appropriately
– Able to participate as driver, in particular to explain code while writing it

  • Intermediate

– Can tell the right moment to give up the keyboard and switch roles
– Can tell the right moment to “steal” the keyboard and switch roles

  • Advanced

Able to “drop in” when another pair has been working on a task and pick up the navigator role smoothly.

Benefits of Pair Programming

Quality Code

Most importantly, the code in pair programming is of higher quality and produces fewer defects as compared to solo programming. Developers are more likely to find bugs and problems when working together. Two sets of eyes usually see more than one. While the driver writes the code, the navigator watches the style and function. It’s often difficult to find your own mistakes whereas a colleague can find them much faster.


pair programming

Common thinking can slow down project completion because you put two developers to work independently to create a single program, rather than having them collaborating. Having two developers at one workstation means that they are twice as likely to know how to deal with a problem. If two developers have to agree with each other before asking for assistance from other specialists. This means they won’t over-ask for help. If one of them has an idea of how to proceed, they will try to do so before they call back-up.

There are plenty of ways to solve the issues that might arise. Among many other decisions, the software development process involves the selection of best data structures, algorithms, and class hierarchies. When developers pair, their experience helps to make better choices.

Knowledge Pooling

Pair programming is a good way for developers with little experience to get “full immersion” in software development. It can increase their confidence in the code they are writing and decrease the time they flounder around. If the driver finds an error in the code, there will be two of them who will solve the problem.

A cross-functional team can be very powerful. If the two developers have a similar level of expertise, pair programming can help them up-skill each other and generate greater ideas. In contrast, companies that don’t embrace cross-functional teams often find themselves in situations where they are too dependent on certain specialists.

Team Communication and Employee Satisfaction

Though it is easier to concentrate on tasks when doing solo programming, pair programming helps to keep developers informed of each other’s work. Code reviews can ease the problem, but pairing prevents it straight away. Developers who work together are equally familiar with the code they write, as well as with the decisions they make.

Writing code together can bring team members closer to each other as they share their knowledge and previous experience and have more things to discuss.

What is more, teams that regularly change pairing partners maintain better communications between all team members. Streamlined communication in teams that practice pairing helps to create a distinct team identity. Positive cultural experiences are correlated with higher rates of employee satisfaction. This is a big advantage in a highly competitive industry where talent is scarce.


Communication fosters creativity. By continuously interacting, the developers can come up with ideas that may not have come to their minds when working alone. When the two colleagues share ideas they can come up with better solutions in less time.

When developers work alone they may be satisfied with the first solution that comes to them, but in pairing, they will have to explain their choice to their colleagues. The other person may not agree with the solution proposed and offer another perspective on the issue. The discussion arising from this will lead to more effective solutions.

It Is a Matter of Choice

The best approach to pair programming is to have two individual developers collaborate and share a computer. Make them cooperate to code and then test their codes in a genuine sense of a partnership. Ideally, to get a task accomplished there should be two equally skilled developers (expert – expert or novice – novice), while expert – novice pairs are best for training and educational purposes.

Pair programming is always a matter of choice and should be implemented at will, rather than enforced. The key point here is to consider the project requirements before choosing any of the options.

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