A little while back I was back in Stockholm facilitating another Code Retreat, (see previous post), this time as part of Global Day of Code Retreat, (GDCR). (Take a look at Corey Haines’ site for loads of information about this global event that comprised meetings in over 90 cities worldwide, with over 2000 developers attending.)

I think the coding community could really do with more people who know how to do TDD and think about good design, so I’m generally pretty encouraged by the success of this event. I do feel a bit disappointed about some aspects of the day though, and this post is my attempt to outline what I think could be improved.

I spent most of the Global Day of Code Retreat walking around looking over people’s shoulders and giving them feedback on the state of their code and tests. I noticed that very few pairs got anywhere close to solving the problem before they deleted the code at the end of each 45 minute session. Corey says that this is very much by design. You know you don’t have time to solve the problem, so you can de-stress: no-one will demand delivery of anything. You can concentrate on just writing good tests and code.

In between coding sessions, I spent quite a lot of effort reminding people about simple design, SOLID principles, and how to do TDD (in terms of states and moves). Unfortunately I found people rarely wrote enough code for any of these ideas to really be applicable, and TDD wan’t always helping people.

I saw a lot of solutions that started with the “Cell” class, that had an x and y coordinate, and a boolean to say whether it was alive or not. Then people tended to add a “void tick(int liveNeighbourCount)” method, and start to implement code that would follow the four rules of Conway’s Game of Life to work out if the cell should flip the state of its boolean or not. At some point they would create a “World” class that would hold all the cells, and “tick()” them. Or some variant of that. Then, (generally when the 45 minutes were running out), people started trying to find a data structure to hold the cells in, and some way to find out which were neighbours with each other. Not many questioned whether they actually needed a Cell class in the first place.

Everyone at the code retreat deleted their code afterwards, of course, but you can see an example of a variant on this kind of design by Ryan Bigg here (a work in progress, he has a screencast too).

Of course, as facilitator I spent a fair amount of time trying to ask the kind of questions that would push people to reevaluate their approach. I had partial success, I guess. Overall though, I came away feeling a bit disillusioned, and wanting to improve my facilitation so that people would learn more about using TDD to actually solve problems.

At the final retrospective of the day, everyone seemed to be very positive about the event, and most people said they learnt more about pair programming, TDD, and the language and tools they were working with. We all had fun. (If you read Swedish, Peter Lind wrote up the retrospective in Valtech’s blog) This is great, but could we tweak the format to encourage even more learning?

I think to solve Conway’s Game of Life adequately, you need to find a good datastructure to represent the cells, and an efficient algorithm to “tick” to the next generation. Just having well named classes and methods, although a good idea, probably won’t be enough.

For me, TDD is a good method for designing code when you already mostly know what you’re doing. I don’t think it’s a good method for discovering algorithms. I’m reminded of the debate a few years back when Peter Norvig posted an excellent Sudoku solver (here) and people thought it was much better than Ron Jeffries’ TDD solution to the same problem (here). Peter was later interviewed about whether this proved that TDD was not useful. Dr Norvig said he didn’t think that it proved much about TDD at all, since

“you can test all you want and if you don’t know how to approach the problem, you’re not going to get a solution”
(from Peter Siebel’s book “Coders At Work”, an extract of which is available in his blog)

I felt that most of the coders at the code retreat were messing around without actually knowing how to solve the problem. They played with syntax and names and styles of tests without ever writing enough code to tell whether their tests were driving a design that would ultimately solve the problem.

Following the GDCR, I held a coding dojo where I experimented with the format a little. I only had time to get the participants do two 45 minute coding sessions on the Game of Life problem. At the start, as a group we discussed the Game of Life problem, much as Corey recommends for a Code Retreat introduction. However, in addition, I explained my favoured approach to a solution – the data structure and algorithm I like to use. I immediately saw that they started their TDD sessions with tests and classes that could lead somewhere. I feel that if they had continued coding for longer, they should have ended up with a decent solution. Hopefully it would also have been possible to refactor it from one datastructure to another, and to switch elements of the algorithm without breaking most of the tests.

I think this is one way to improve the code retreat. Just give people more clues at the outset as to how to tackle the problem. In real life when you sit down to do TDD you’ll often already know how to solve similar problems. This would be a way for the facilitator to give everyone a leg-up if they havn’t worked on any rule-based games involving a 2D infinite grid before.

Rather than just explaining a good solution up front, we could spend the first session doing a “Spike Solution”. This is one of the practices of XP:

“the idea is just to drive through the entire problem in one blow, not to craft the perfect solution first time out.”
From “Extreme Programming Installed” by Jeffries, Anderson, Hendrickson, p41

Basically, you hack around without writing any tests or polishing your design, until you understand the problem well enough to know how you plan to solve it. Then you throw your spike code away, and start over with TDD.

Spending the first 45 minute session spiking would enable people to learn more about the problem space in a shorter amount of time than you generally do with TDD. By dropping the requirement to write tests or good names or avoid code smells, you could hopefully hack together more alternatives, and maybe find out for yourself what would make a good data structure for easily enumerating neighbouring cells.

So the next time I run a code retreat, I think I’ll start with a “spiking” session and encourage people to just optimize for learning about the problem, not beautiful code. Then after that maybe I’ll sketch out my favourite algorithm, in case they didn’t come up with anything by themselves that they want to pursue. Then in the second session we could start with TDD in earnest.

I always say that the code you end up with from doing a Kata is not half as interesting as the route you took to get there. To this end I’ve published a screencast of myself doing the Game of Life Kata in Python. (The code I end up with is also published, here). I’m hoping that people might want to prepare for a Code Retreat by watching it. It could be an approach they try to emulate, improve on or criticise. On the other hand, showing my best solution like this is probably breaking the neutrality of how a code retreat facilitator is supposed to behave. I don’t think Corey has ever published a solution to this kata, and there’s probably a reason for that.

I have to confess, I already broke all the rules of being a facilitator, when I spent the last session of the Global Day of Code Retreat actually coding. There was someone there who really wanted to do Python, and no-one else seemed to want to pair with him. So I succombed. In 45 minutes we very nearly had a working solution, mostly because I had hacked around and practiced how to do it several times before. It felt good. I think more people should experience the satisfaction of actually completing a useful piece of code using TDD at a Code Retreat.

2 Comments

  1. Torbjørn Marø says:

    Interesting article. I’ve seen Corey talk about the retreats, but haven’t had the opportunity myself.

    I did however record a solution I did to the same problem yesterday – in CoffeeScript. No tests mind you, but it was working in under 25 minutes (the video is at double speed).

    Now I’ll have a look at your screencast :)

  2. Emily Bache says:

    Thanks for your comments and your video! I left a comment on it with some random thoughts. You’ve chosen the same guiding test case, but a different datastructure and algorithm from me :-)