Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Thoughts on CodeRetreat

Last weekend I‌ attended a Code retreat as part of global day of code retreat. I‌ love code retreat. I’ve been attending since 2010. I’ve organized and even facilitated some. But I‌ was rather disappointed in this one. I‌ wanted to write down the issues I‌ saw, not as a criticism of code retreat, but in the hopes of bringing back the original feel of the event and to hopefully grow more of them. As such, I‌’m using each issue to better understand what I dislike and propose a change that will improve the experience.

What it is

CodeRetreat is a full day of practice. It focuses on TDD‌ and design and you do the same problem over and over again in 40 minute bursts. Often there are small variations to help explore new areas of learning. There is often a small retrospective in between each session.



To be clear, I am a HUGE fan of pair programming. However, there is a skill to pair programming and many at a code retreat have never practiced it before. Having the 1st session default to the style where the driver (person at the keyboard) is typing and thinking tends to lead to a session where the navigator (the person not at the keyboard) is watching. It makes it hard to rotate, and discourages tring new languages.
Solution: I would have the 1st session be strong style pairing. The difference is that the person at the keyboard “is not thinking”. This makes it easy to work in a new language (you just type for the other person). It maximizes communication and helps people to connect. After the 1st session. I‌ would introduce the traditional style of pairing and open it up as to which they prefer.


Retros are a good way to learn from experience, but there are two issues with the current style. The first is we don’t really have a shared experience, so listening to each other talk full of misunderstandings. This is amplified by the deletion of code (more about that later). So that it was hard to get value out of the retros and they felt more like stand up status meetings.
Solution: I‌ would advise a two phased retro. 1st the teams spend 5-10 minutes retroing their experience by themselves, then they choose the best insight and do a group share of a single insight. I would also include in this group share the language and number of tests written.
Example group share: “We worked in java & wrote 9 tests. We were surprised by how hard it was to work around passing back booleans until we changed to passing in the if/else blocks to the method.”

Deleting Code

Code retreat has a rule that you delete your code at the end of a session. This is a rule that gets violated all the time, but has a good intention. It’s designed to make it safe to experiment. I believe in that safety. But I‌ also believe in the ability to review and learn from the code you wrote. Deleting it prevents reviewing and sharing.
Solution: First, wait until after the retro to delete the code. Second, make the deleting optional to the group, but allow anyone in the group to have the option to delete the code. In other words, unless it is unanimous to not delete the code, the code gets deleted.


I’m surprised there isn’t at least one session of mobbing and a option for mobbing on most sessions. Although, I‌ wouldn’t recommend it for the first session as it cheats people of a chance to struggle.
Solution, I would offer mobbing as a option.


Test driven development is still very new for many people. I’m surprised by the number of pairs that don’t write any test even though it is stated as a constraint. I think you need sessions just to build this skill. Probably many sessions. In the retros it was common to hear they hadn’t written test.
Solution: Slow down on the addition of constraints. Talk about the testing cycle. Ask about the tests. Give people paper so they can write the test down before code. I would even make a place to post the paper to share.


Constraints can be a great way to explore new areas of design. But too many remove all usefulness. This is used a lot in Code Retreat so I’m going to address them individually. But by the 4 session we were doing game of life with: no talking, no primitives across a border, and no if statements. We had not mastered any of these and most people didn’t actually follow the restrictions. It also massively discorages using a new language as it’s an advanced design session.
Suggestion: make constraints optional, give a variety of choices. Encourage not using them if you are doing this session in a new language. The new language is the constraint.
Constraint - Primitives: This is open to a lot of misinterpretation. It’s designed to address coding smell of primitive obsession. Which means you shouldn’t pass around numbers and strings, but objects that have a meaning. Like Money instead of a double, or Name instead of a string. However, there is an interesting issue of constructors: is the code “new Money(100)”‌ allowed? and there is a easy misinterpretation that the specific language definition of primitive is in play. This could just be an autoboxing exercises in java. Use Boolean instead of boolean, Integer instead of int.
Suggestion: have examples and a slide of the constraint.
Constraint - Muted Ping pong Pair Programming. This constraint removes communication in pair programming. It’s rather masochistic. I don’t understand why you would do this other than to show some of the pain, which can help learning, but contributes to the general issue of making the day less fun. Since these are usually saturdays, this should be the opposite of what you are striving for.
“The most important part of practice is making sure you want to show up for practice tomorrow”
Solution: remove this constraint entirely. At a minimum add it a possible minimum constraint

New languages

One of the things I‌ loved most about code retreat was trying new languages. This time that was hard to do because of the amount of other constraints that where in play.


I also noticed that we ended with less people than we started with. This is amplified by the fact that my partner and I‌ were the only 2 people that didn’t work for the company that hosted the code retreat and I live in a very programmer heavy area. Given the number of programmers in the bay area, there should be multiple code retreats and all of them should be overflowing.
I have had sooooo much fun at code retreats. Practice should be fun. I‌ feel that some of that has gotten lost in translation.
Solution: Bring back the focus on fun. Make it a stated objective.