Posts tagged ‘Code Kata’

Last week I met Woody Zuill when he came to Göteborg to give a workshop about Mob Programming.  At first glance mobbing seems really innefficient. You have a whole team of maybe 6-7 people sitting together all day, every day, programming at one computer. How could that possibly be a productive way to work?

I’m pretty intrigued by the idea. It reminds me of the reaction people had to eXtreme Programming when they first heard about it back in like 2000. Is it just an off-putting name for something that could actually be quite brilliant? There are certainly some interesting people who I respect, talking warmly about it. The thing is, when it comes to working together with others, programming at one computer, I’ve had some mixed results. Sometimes good, sometimes less good.

I’ve done some pair programming, and found it worked well with some people and not others. It’s generally worked much better when I’ve paired with someone who has a lot of useful knowledge that I’ve lacked. Either about the language and frameworks we’re using, or about how the software will be used – ie the problem domain. I’ve found it’s worked a lot less well in other situations, with other people. I find it all too easy to hog the keyboard, basically. So I do pair, but not that often.

With ‘Randori’ style coding dojos, the idea is that you have a pair at the front who code, and switch one person every 5-7 minutes, or every test case. I’ve facilitated a lot of these sessions, and I find them especially useful for quickly getting a group of people new to TDD all up and running and pointed in the same direction. Recently I’ve been doing it only for the first session or two, instead having everyone working in pairs most of the time. As a facilitator, this is far easier to handle – much less stressful. Managing the interactions in a bigger group is difficult, both to keep the discussions on track, answer questions about the exercise, and to maintain the pair switching. I also find the person at the keyboard easily gets stressed and intimidated by having everyone watching them, and often writes worse code than they are capable of. So I do facilitate whole-group Randori sessions, but not that often.

So I wanted to find out if mob programming had similar strengths and weaknesses. In what situations does it excel, and when are you better off pairing or working alone? Would I find it stressful, like a Randori? Would I want to drive most of the time, as in pair programming?

Woody turns out to be a really gentle person, about as far away from a ‘hard sell’ as you can get. He facilitaed the session masterfully, mixing theory and practice, telling us stories about what he’s found to work and why. I am confident he knows a lot about software development in general, mob programming in particular, and he is very humble about it.

The most important insight I gained from the session, was that I need to get good at ‘strong-style pairing’. That seems to me to be at the heart of what makes Mob programming work, and not be stressful like the Randori sessions I’ve been doing. I think it will also help me to get pair programming to work well in a wider variety of situations.

I have heard about ‘strong-style pairing’ before, from Llewellyn Falco, who invented it, but I havn’t really experienced it very much before, or understood how important it is. Do go read his blog post about it, for a fuller explanation of what I’m talking about.

The basic idea is “For an idea to go from your head into the computer it MUST go through someone else’s hands”. That forces you to express your ideas really clearly, in words, first. That is actually pretty difficult when you havn’t done it much before. The thing is, that if you do that, then you open up your programming ideas for discussion, critique, and improvement, in a way that doesn’t happen if they go straight from your head through your own hands into the computer. I think if I get better at ‘strong-style pairing’ it will help me not only with Mob programming, but also with pairing and facilitating Randori dojo sessions. Probably also with programming generally.

Pairing has worked best for me when I’ve been driving, and my navigator is good at expressing ideas for me to understand and then type. I think I need to get good at that navigator role for the times when I’m the one with more ideas. I need to learn that when I think ‘I have an idea about to solve this problem!’ I should hand over the keyboard, not grab it. I need to learn to express my coding ideas verbally. Then I will be able to pair productively with a wider range of people.

Randori sessions are much less stressful if the driver has less to do. If the responsibility is shared more evenly with the Navigator, then I think everyone will write better code. As a facilitator, I have less group dynamics to worry about if the designated navigator is in control, and everyone else talks less. (Woody advised that, at least at first, you should ban anyone else in the mob from giving the Driver ideas about what to type, so the Navigator learns the role.)

So thanks, Woody, for taking the time to come to Göteborg, sharing your experiences and facilitating a great workshop. I learnt a lot, and I think Mob Programming and Strong-style pairing could quite possibly be some of those brilliant ideas that change the way I write code, for the better.

Recently I became intrigued with something Seb Rose said on his blog about ‘recycling’ tests. He talks about first producing a test for a ‘low fidelity’ version of the solution, and refining it as you learn better what the solution should look like. In a follow-up post he deals with some criticisms that other posters had of the technique, but actually seems to agree with Alistair Cockburn, that it’s probably not important enough a technique to need a name. I disagree, it’s a technique I use a lot, although most often when using an approval testing approach. I prefer to call it simply iterative development. A low fidelity version of the output that is gradually improved until the customer/product owner says “that’s what I want” is iterative development. It’s a very natural fit with approval testing – once the output is good enough to be approved, you check it in as a regression test that checks it never changes. It’s also a very natural fit for a problem where the solution is fundamentally visual, like printing a diamond. I also find it very helpful when the customer hasn’t exactly decided what they want. In this kata, it’s not such an issue, but in general, quickly putting out a low-fidelity version of what you think they want and then having a discussion about how to proceed can save you a lot of trouble.

The other posters seemed to be advocating a TDD approach where you find ‘universal truths’ about the problem and encode them in tests, so you never have to go back and revisit tests that you made pass earlier. In order to take small steps, you have to break down the problem into small pieces. Once you have identified a piece of the problem and solved it, it should stay solved as you carry on to the next piece. That seems to be what I would call ‘incremental’ development.

There’s a classic explaination of the difference between iterative and incremental that Jeff Patton came up with a few years ago using the Mona Lisa painting. It’s a good explaination, but I find experiencing abstract concepts like this in an actual coding problem can make a world of difference to how well you can reason about and apply them. So I thought it would be interesting to look at these two approaches to TDD using the Diamond Kata.

I have a regular coding dojo with my team these days, so a few weeks ago, I explained my thinking about incremental and iterative, showed them Jeff Patton’s picture, and asked them to do the kata one way or the other so we could compare. I probably didn’t explain it very well, because the discussion afterwards was quite inconclusive, and looking at their code, I didn’t think anyone had really managed to exclusively work one way or the other. So I decided to try to force them into it, by preparing the test cases in advance.

I came up with some starting code for the exercise, available here. I have two sets of unit tests, the first with a standard incremental approach, where you never delete any test cases. The second gets you to ‘recycle’ tests, and work more iteratively towards the final solution. In both cases, you are led through the problem in small steps. The first and last tests are the same, the difference is the route you take in between.

When I tried this exercise with my team, it went a lot better. I randomly assigned half the pairs to use the ‘iterative’ tests, and the rest to use ‘incremental’ tests. Then after about 45-55 minutes, I had them start over using the other tests. After another 45 minutes or so I stopped them and we had a group discussion comparing the approaches. I asked the ‘suggested questions for the retrospective‘ I’d prepared, and it seemed to work. Having test-driven the solution both ways, people could intelligently discuss the pros and cons of each approach, and reason about which situations might suit one or the other.

As Seb said, ‘recycling tests’ is a tool in your developer toolbox, and doing this kata might help you understand how to best use that tool. I’d love to hear from you if you try this excercise in your coding dojo, do leave a comment.

I was recently at the Software Craftsmanship Conference at Bletchley Park in the UK. This is a one-day conference for software developers, attended by around 150 programmers. All proceeds from the event go to support Bletchley Park, which is of historical interest to programmers in particular – the site where Alan Turing and others cracked the enigma code in the 2nd world war. It was the fifth time this conference has been run, and the first time I attended. This is a short experience report.

In the morning I ran a workshop titled “Outside-In, with or without Mocks?“. We were about 50 people in the Ballroom in the Mansion, a very grand room, and it was really great to see so many people working in pairs at laptops, puzzling over some code and tests and how to do Test Driven Development. We were looking at a code kata I’ve designed called “Train Reservation“. It’s in no way a beginner exercise, and the crowd at Bletchley seemed to get on with it rather well on the whole. I’m just sorry I didn’t get round to talk to each pair very often, with 24 pairs I only had a couple of conversations with each during the 2 hour session!

I set up the exercise more or less to force people to use some kind of mock, fake or stub to replace the Booking Reference Service and the Train Data Service, because I am interested in how different people use these. I’ve observed that some programmers avoid using test doubles whenever possible, while others use them frequently. I’ve also observed that some people prefer to work outside-in, starting with a guiding test, while others prefer to start with the business rules at the heart of the problem and work outwards from there. At this particular workshop, there were all sorts of approaches being used. Some started with the guiding test and stubbed the services. Others started with the business logic around the seat selection rules. Different approaches, as I had hoped! Overall I feel encouraged that this exercise is a useful one, and people seemed to get on better with it than the last time I ran it, at XP2013. It’s till rather too big of a problem to tackle in a half day workshop though. I’ll be updating it some more before I run it again, although I don’t have any fixed plans for when that will be yet.

In the afternoon, I went to a session by Ivan Moore and Mike Hill, “Inheritance to Composition“. They gave us a demo of this particular refactoring using a very simple codebase, before launching us into a much more complex one – Fitnesse (starting from the branch “revised-ResponderFactory”). The idea was to take some classes that were using Inheritance – specifically the Template Method pattern – and convert them to instead use Composition – specifically the Strategy pattern. They also helpfully provided us with a sheet of instructions – 6 steps to complete the refactoring with minimal risk and code breakage.

My pair and I got on fairly well with the refactoring, and by the end of the session we were on step 5 with the goal in sight. The experience was of using Eclipse’s refactoring tools extensively, and relying a great deal on the compiler. The tests we had to lean on took a minute and a half to run, and actually, the tests for the classes we were working on were more mini-integration tests than unit tests as such. It meant there were relatively few updates to the tests as we did the refactoring, but the feedback loop was slow. I thought that was really interesting, and was wondering how the experience of the refactoring would change in a language like Python. There you don’t have a compiler, or very much help from refactoring tools.

So after the workshop, I set about trying to construct a similar problem in Python. Perhaps understandably, I didn’t want to translate the whole of Fitnesse to Python, (!), so I tried to re-write only the elements of it essential to this exercise. You can have a look at what I’ve come up with in my new repo “WikiSearchKata“. I’m still working on preparing this properly as an exercise, (the instructions are still rather thin), but I plan to try it out at a GothPy meeting sometime soon.

After the conference sessions had ended, we were treated to a guided tour of the National Museum of Computing which was for me, the highlight of the day! Our enthusiastic guide showed us all sorts of ancient computers and storage devices and punch cards… a few I recognized from my childhood. My dad used to bring home old punch cards and my mum used to write her shopping lists on them when she went to the supermarket. They had a 48K ZX spectrum with rubber keys – just the same as the one I wrote my first program on! They had a CRAY supercomputer similar to the one I remember seeing once when I visited my dad’s work as a child. It’s a similar size to (the outside view of) a Tardis, with a big red button on the front. I don’t think we found out what the red button does, but the guide did say we probably have more computing power in the smartphone in our pocket! I found the changes in storage capacity actually even more impressive. They had these washing-machine sized boxes and dinner-plate sized metal disks that together made a hard drive. I think it held something like 4K.

The highlight of the tour was the WITCH computer – the oldest working computer in the world. It was brilliant! You could actually see what it was doing while it read in a paper tape punched with holes – the program – and loaded values into registries and did calculations. It made this fantastic whirring noise as it ran, and has all these little whizzy flashing lights. It works in decimal rather than binary, so each number is represented by a little “dekatron” – a glass tube with a red light inside, that moves between positions 0-9 in a circle. So you can read which number is in the registry by looking at the position of each light in the array. They also had this little button you could press to make it step through the program one instruction at a time. I got to press it, and single-step a computer from 1951!

Compared with other conferences I’ve been too, this one was rather short, just one day, and with rather long sessions – half or whole day. It was hard work coding and facilitating all day, but in general very interesting people and coding exercises. A second day would have made it more worthwhile my making the trip. In any case, my thanks to Jon Dickinson for organizing it.

I’ve been working on this Kata “Gilded Rose” at a few different coding dojos lately. There is even a video of a session I did at the “Tampere Goes Agile” conference recently. In the video, you can see me talking about my Principles of Agile Test Automation, which I have just written about, and updated in my last blog post.

I think these test automation principles are useful to think about when you’re doing the Gilded Rose kata. The basic plot of the Kata is that you’ve just been hired to look after an existing system, and the customer wants a new feature. Having a look at the code, you can see you’re going to want to refactor it a little before adding the new feature, and before you do that, you’re going to want some automated tests.

So the first part of the Kata is to add automated tests to the existing code. You’ve got a requirements document the customer has given you, and you can use it to identify test cases. You’ve also got the code which you can read and execute and work out what it does. The customer is happily using the code in production right now, so you can assume that the behaviour it has is the behaviour they want to keep, whatever it says in the requirements document. (hint!)

Warning – spoilers lie ahead! You should probably try the Gilded Rose kata for yourself before reading on!

When I’ve done this exercise with various groups, I’ve spent a lot of time discussing with people how to make their test cases really readable, and express the requirements clearly, and at the same time useful as regression protection when refactoring the code later.

When you design a test suite you have two main aims – to help you understand what the code should do, (and what it does now), and protection from regression failures when you update it. It can be a bit tricky to do both with the same test suite. If you focus solely on describing the requirements in an executable way, you tend to miss edge cases and there are gaps in the regression protection. If you focus only on regression protection, you’ll spend time analysing the edge cases, and measuring code coverage to see how well you’re doing, but the test cases can become quite hard to read and understand.

You can see for yourself by comparing this test case by Bobby Johnson with this text-based approval test. (It was written by several people at a GothPy meeting). Bobby’s test case is extremely readable and expresses the requirements clearly. He’s done pretty well on the edge cases, but I think he’s missing one or two*. With the text-based approval tests, it’s not so easy to understand what the underlying business rules are, although the regression protection is very good.

When I do this kata with a group, we spend some time discussing the various test cases we’ve come up with, and showing them on the projector. When we did this last week at the Booster Conference, people commented that showing these different test cases had given them a better understanding of “readability” and “regression protection”, and many went on to improve their test suites.

Once you’re reasonably happy with your test suite, the next task is to do the refactoring and add the new feature. How useful are your test cases for regression protection? It’s very easy to make refactoring mistakes in this kata, and you will be testing your tests! You may discover while refactoring that there are more test cases that you want to add. Version control can be pretty useful, so you can run the new test cases against the original code.

There’s also an interesting restriction on your refactoring options – the “Item” class is owned by a nasty-sounding goblin and he doesn’t want you to change his code, so if you do, you have to be prepared for some serious consequences! When comparing refactored solutions at the end of the dojo, this is often an interesting discussion point – did you change the Item class? Is your new design so great that you’re prepared to argue with the goblin for it?!

I havn’t tried this, but I would actually like to try running the text-based approval test against all the refactored solutions at the end of the coding dojo, as input to the retrospective. I think this test covers all the edge cases very well, and would reveal any refactoring mistakes that were not caught by the tests people had developed themselves. That would be interesting feedback to have!

If you havn’t tried the Gilded Rose kata yourself, I do recommend it for practicing writing good test cases. I’d be happy to get a pull request from you if you want to translate the exercise into your favourite programming language, or you can do it in the original C#, as Bobby suggests.

If you’re interested in taking part in a coding dojo with me, I’ll be at several conferences later this year: ACCU in Bristol, XP2013 in Vienna and Test Automation Day in the Netherlands.

* I believe he’s missing a check that the quality of backstage passes doesn’t increase past 50

The Cyber-Dojo tool was designed by Jon Jagger as en environment where you can practice your coding skills. I’ve used it a few times now with groups at coding dojos and code retreats, and I think it’s a pretty useful tool for those contexts. (See also my last post which talks about using Cyber-Dojo during Global Day of Code Retreat).

One of the advantages of Cyber-Dojo for a Coding Dojo, (or Code Retreat), is that you don’t waste much time at the start of a coding session setting up a coding environment. The session facilitator creates a Cyber-Dojo instance in advance, and puts the practice-id up on a whiteboard or projector where everyone can see it. Participants just point their browsers at, enter the practice-id, and very quickly get coding.

Cyber-Dojo supports about a dozen programming languages, and has starting positions set up for about 30 code katas. What is less known, is that it also allows you to set up any kata or starting position you like. I thought I’d take this opportunity to create some documentation for this feature:

  1. create a new cyber-dojo instance by going to and pressing “setup”
  2. Select the programming language you want to use
  3. Select “Verbal” from the list of katas
  4. Click “OK”, then make a note of the “practice-id” – it’s also in the url. Press “Start” to enter this cyber-dojo instance.
  5. Edit the code files with your starting position, and update the instructions with the details of the kata exercise. Basically get the cyber-dojo instance set up to the position you want people in your Coding Dojo to start from. Run the tests as often as you like until you have everyting as you want it.
  6. Click on the “fork” icon on the left hand side to create a new cyber-dojo instance starting from this position, and note the new practice-id. You can give this id to your Coding Dojo participants.
  7. You can also publish a url that will automatically create a new cyber-dojo instance from this position, so people can create their own cyber-dojo instances. The form of the url is: animal)&tag=(number of the traffic light to fork)

I’ve used this feature to set up a number of Refactoring katas in cyber-dojo, for example the Tennis kata:

Perhaps sometime Jon will add a page on that lists these kinds of additional available starting posistions, (hint!), but for now, you’ll have to keep track of them yourself.

By the way, do let me know if you try out this Tennis Refactoring Kata in Cyber-Dojo and how you get on with it. I welcome comments on this blog or on my github repo.