Posts tagged ‘code retreat’

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.

On Saturday I was up in Stockholm facilitating my fourth code retreat for Valtech, and my second Global Day of Code Retreat. It seemed to go very well. I tried out a few new elements, which seemed to make it go even better than the previous ones, so I thought I’d talk about them here in my blog.

The first thing we changed was that we had quotas for men and women, and we were aiming for a 50/50 gender balance. About a month before the code retreat, we were fully booked, with 20 places each for men and women taken. In the end several people dropped out at the last minute, and there were slightly more men. Still, it was a much better balance than last year. I think it made for a healthier atmosphere during the day, and we encouraged more women to be active in the community generally.

The second thing we changed was I didn’t require people to do Game of Life, I suggested some other code katas as alternatives. Game of Life is an excellent kata for practicing skills like writing clean code, simple design, and TDD generally. It’s also really fun to be doing an excercise that thousands of other programmers are also working on. However, I realized that around 1/3 of the people who’d signed up for the event had already been to a previous code retreat, and might be getting bored with Game of Life. We’re there to have fun, after all!

As I’ve been working on my book, and running various coding dojos recently, I’ve been thinking hard about TDD and how to learn it. It’s a multifaceted skill, and some katas allow you to focus on particular aspects of it, which can make practice more rewarding. For a complete beginner to TDD, Game of Life is actually quite hard to get started with, I’ve seen a lot of people struggling with it.  So in my introduction I highlighted four other katas people could choose from, as well as Game of Life:

  • String Calculator – good for the TDD newbie, since it really leads you by the hand
  • Tennis – good for practicing refactoring
  • GildedRose – good for practicing writing really good tests (and refactoring)
  • TyrePressure – good for understanding SOLID principles

People seemed to generally appreciate having a choice. Some pairs chose a String Calculator for their first couple of sessions, to get used to TDD, then went on to Game of Life for the others. Some pairs tried out Tennis, Gilded Rose and Tyre Pressure in the afternoon, instead of one of the other challenges. Some pairs who were already good at TDD tried out String Calculator in Clojure, and found it let them concentrate on the learning the language not solving the problem. One person, (who has been to 3 code retreats previously), didn’t do Game of Life all day, and said he really enjoyed himself and learnt loads!

The third thing we changed was that I suggested people try cyber-dojo as a coding environment. This is a tool designed by Jon Jagger as an aid to practicing your coding skills. It provides a basic editor/testing environment, and records the state of the code every time you run the tests. You can review all your changes in the session retrospective, and get a picture of how well your TDD was going.

Before the code retreat, I had set up cyber dojos for Game of Life, and Tennis. I put up the cyber-dojo ids on the whiteboard, and through the day most of the pairs tried it out for one or more sessions.

As a facilitator, I found it really helpful when going up to a pair, to be able to see the little row of traffic light symbols at the top of their screen. I could quickly get an overview of how their session was going. For example, if I see a few red-green-yellow sequences then I can infer they are probably doing ok at TDD. If I can see nothing bug a long string of yellow, then I know they’re in trouble!

For the pairs, some liked cyber-dojo because it meant they didn’t waste any time setting up their coding environment at the start of the session. For those doing Tennis, if they made a refactoring mistake, they could very easily just click on the most recent green traffic light to revert back to a known good state, and practice doing the refactoring again. Some pairs found it helpful in the retrospective to review their session in the tool.

Other pairs didn’t get on so well with cyber-dojo. Some couldn’t live without their usual editor commands. Some got confused by the lack of syntax highlighting. A couple found a bug in cyber-dojo that it lost touch with the server and stopped updating their test results, whatever they did to the code. (The workaround is to open the same url in a new window, btw).

I know Jon is aware of this bug, and I’m sure he’ll track it down, but actually the lack of syntax highlighting and editor commands is deliberate. It’s the same idea as the other challenges, like mute pairing etc – to throw you out of your comfort zone and make you really concentrate on the way you code.

So that was the three things we changed – gender balance, other katas, cyber-dojo. What we didn’t change was the overall format or aims of the day. We still paired for 5 sessions of 45 minutes, and threw away the code afterwards. We still had coding challenges like “Mute pairing with find the loophole” and “Maximum 4 line methods”, and held retrospectives after every session. I think deliberate practice in a group is at the core of what makes Code Retreat (and coding dojos!) fun and valuable. The changes we introduced were all designed to enhance the learning experience, and were based on experience and reflection after previous events.

Overall I was very pleased with all the changes we introduced, and I’d like to do it like that again. If you’re facilitating or organizing a code retreat, perhaps you’d like to introduce some of these elements too.

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.

This weekend I was in Stockholm to facilitate a Code Retreat, organized by Peter Lind and sponsored by Valtech. We were about 40 coders gathered in the warm autumn sunshine early on a Saturday morning at Valtech’s offices. (Do take a look at Peter’s blog post about it, he has a photo too).

It’s actually the first time I’ve even attended a code retreat, let alone facilitated, but I think it went pretty well. Corey Haines has written extensively about what should happen, and what the facilitator should do. I think he’s given a great gift to the community, not just by inventing the format, but also by documenting it thorougly.  I’ve previously led various coding dojos and “clean code day” events, but code retreat is somewhat different in format, if not in aim.

The reason for going to a code retreat is to practice your coding skills. By repeating the same exercise over and over, with different pairing partners, you have a chance to work on your coding habits. Do you pay attention to what your tests are telling you about your design? Do you remember to refactor regularly? Can you take really small steps when you need to?

For the day in Stockholm, we followed the tried and tested formula for a code retreat that Corey has laid out. I spent about 20 minutes introducing the day, the aims and the coding problem (Conway’s Game of Life). Then we did 6 coding sessions, each with a short retrospective, and a longer retrospective at the end of the day. Each session comprised 45 minutes coding in pairs, 10 minutes retrospective in groups of 6-8, and 5 minutes to swap partners. I also began each coding session by reminding everyone of what we were supposed to be practicing, and highlighted a different “challenge” to add some variety. The challenges were things like:

– concentrate on writing really beautiful code so the language looks like it was made for the problem. *
– partition code at different levels of abstraction. **
– Think about TDD in terms of states and moves.
– do TDD as if you meant it
– concentrate on refactoring in very small steps

Each pairing session is just 45 minutes, and in that time you don’t actually have time to really solve the whole kata, and that’s actually quite difficult to cope with. Most coders are very motivated by writing code that does something useful, and like to show off their finished designs at the end. To try to prevent that, Corey emphasizes that you should keep in mind the end result isn’t important, and be sure to delete the code at the end of the session. I found that even with that rule, there was quite a lot of discussion of how the designs ended up, and some people even saved their code.

One of the things I encouraged people to try was working in an unfamiliar programming language, and although I specified “for 1 or 2 sessions”, I was surprised to find how popular it was to do this. After the first session when most people used Java, C#, Ruby or Python, there were more and more people coding in Clojure, Javascript, Erlang and even Vim script. I think it got a bit out of hand actually. It’s hard to practice your coding habits and TDD skills when you’re struggling with the language syntax and how to get the tests to run. Next time I facilitate I’ll try to be clearer about using a familiar environment for most of the sessions.

One of the things I offered in the last session was using the cyberdojo, and three pairs agreed to try it. I had them working in Java and Ruby, switching pairs every 5 minutes, coding in a browser window. They complained about the browser experience compared with their IDEs, but they liked the feedback cyberdojo gives you. It shows how long you spend between running the tests, and whether the tests pass, fail or give a compiler error.

I’m not sure if it was a good idea to bring in the cyberdojo at the code retreat. One of the main things we discussed in the retrospective for that session was the resistance they all felt to changing the first test that was written at one of the three pairing stations. This test was too big and focussed on a boring part of the problem. Yet each person who “inherited” the code tried their best to make it pass, no-one started over with a better test. It’s that kind of collaboration problem that the cyberdojo is good at highlighting. It’s not so much a tool for improving your coding skills as improving your collaboration skills. This is good, but not really the purpose of the code retreat.

Thinking back over the day, I’ve also become a little uncertain about the “delete your code” rule. I understand why it’s there, but it didn’t seem to prevent people from trying to solve the whole problem in 45 minutes. By deleting the code, you also lose the opportunity to use analysis tools like those in the cyberdojo to give you some more feedback on how you’re doing.

Outside of this code retreat, I’ve been trying out the codersdojo client quite a bit recently, to see if it gives a useful analysis of a coding session. Unlike cyberdojo, it lets you use your normal coding tools/IDE. So far it’s still in beta testing and seems too buggy for me to recommend, but if you’re lucky enough to successfully upload your coding session, you do get quite a good visualization of some of your coding habits. It will clearly show if you spend a long time between test runs, or if you spend a lot of time with failing tests.

So after my first code retreat, I’m feeling very encouraged that this is a good format for becoming a better coder, and I’d be happy to run one again. I’d like to try using coding visualization tools as part of the retrospective for each session. I’d also like to try setting the challenges before people have chosen a pairing partner, so they can find someone who also wants to work on my challenge rather than just try a new language. Or maybe I just need to emphasize more that trying a new language isn’t the focus of the day.

In any case, I hope this blog post shows that I learnt a lot from facilitating this code retreat, even if I didn’t write a single line of code myself 🙂

* “You can call it beautiful code when the code also makes it look like the language was made for the problem” — Ward Cunningham quoted in “Clean Code” by Bob Martin.
** G6: Code at Wrong Level of Abstraction – advice from “Clean Code” by Bob Martin.