Code Camp Experiences II

Last friday, we held a Code Camp instead of an Open Source Love Day (OSLD). We reserved a whole day for the company to pratice together and share our abilities on the coding level. While this usually already happens every now and then with pair programming sessions, this time we all worked on the same assignment and could compare our experiences. And this comparability worked great for us. This article tries to summarize our setup and the outcome of the Code Camp

Setup of the Code Camp

We tried to imitate a typical Code Retreat day in the manner of Corey Haines. If you haven’t heard about Code Retreats, Corey or the software craftsmanship idea, you could read about it in the links. The presentation of Corey at the QCon conference about software craftsmanship is also a valuable watch.

There are some resources on the internet about how to run a Code Retreat event from the organizational and facilitator’s point of view. This material gave us a good understanding of the whole event, even though our setup was different, as we had no explicit facilitator and fixed workplaces, already prepared for pair programming usage. We didn’t invite external programmers to the event, so every participant was part of our development team. We had to end the event by 16 o’clock due to schedule conflicts and started at 9 o’clock, so our retreat count would be lower than 6 or even 7.

Basically, we tried to program Conway’s Game of Life within 45 minutes in pairs of two developers repeatedly. After the 45 minutes have passed (supervised by an alarm clock), we deleted the code and gathered for an iteration review of 15 minutes. Then, we started over again. This agenda should repeat throughout the day. No other activity or goal was planned, but we anticipated a longer retrospective meeting at the end of the day.

Execution of the Code Camp

The team gathered at 9 o’clock and performed setup tasks on the computers (like preparing a clean workspace). At 09:15, we held an introduction meeting for the Code Camp. I explained the basics and motives of Code Retreats and presented the rules for Conway’s Game of Life. The team heard most of the information for the first time, so nobody was particularly more experienced with the task or the conduct.

The first iteration started at 10 o’clock and had everybody baffled by the end of the iteration. The first retrospective meeting was interesting, as fundamental approaches to the problem were discussed with very little words needed for effective communication. Everybody wanted to move into the second iteration, which started at 11 o’clock.

At the end of the second iteration, two of the four teams nearly reached their anticipated goals. In the retrospective, the results were incredibly more advanced compared to the first iteration. This effect was similar to my first code camp: The second iteration is the breakthrough in the problem domain. Afterwards, the solutions are refined, but without the massive boost in efficiency compared to the other iterations except the first one.

We went to lunch early this day and returned with great ideas for the next round. After a short coffee break with video games, we started at around 13:45 for the third iteration.

The third iteration resulted in the first playable versions of the game. The solutions grew more beautiful and the teams began to experiment with their approaches, as the content-related task was mentally covered. This was the most productive iteration in terms of resulting software. But as usual, the code was deleted without a trace directly after the iteration. The iteration review meeting brought up a radically different approach on the problem as previously anticipated. This inspired every team for the fourth iteration.

In the fourth iteration, every team tried to implement the new approach. And every team failed to gain substantial ground, just like in the first iteration. The iteration review meeting was interesting, but we skipped another iteration in favor of the full retrospective of the Code Retreat.

Effects of the Code Camp

The Code Retreat iterations had great impact on our team. We discussed our impressions informally and then turned back to the formal retrospective questions as suggested by Alex Bolboaca:

  • How did you feel?
  • What have you learned?
  • What will you apply starting Monday?

The first question got answered by a “mood graph”, rising steadily from iteration one to three, with a yawning abyss at iteration four. This was another strong indicator that the iterations sort of restarted with iteration four.

The second question (“What have you learned?”) was answered more variably, but it stuck out that many keyboard shortcuts and little helpful IDE tricks were learnt throughout the day. We tracked the origin and propagation of two shortcuts and came to the result that one developer knew them beforehands, transferred the knowledge to the partner in the first iteration and both spread it further in the second iteration. By the end of the third iteration, everybody had learned the new shortcut. It was impressive to see this kind of knowledge transfer in such a clear manner.

The third question revolved around the coolest new shortcuts and tricks.

But we learned a lot more than just a few shortcuts. Most of all, we had a comparable coding experience with every other developer on our team. This isn’t about competition, it’s about personality. And we’ve found that the team works great in every combination. Some subtle fears of “being behind with knowledge” got diminished, too.

Future of the Code Camp

Everybody wants to do it again. So we’ll do it again. We decided to perform one Code Camp every three months. This isn’t too often to wear off, but hopefully often enough to keep our practice level high. We also decided to run dedicated Code Camps with external developers soon. The first event will happen in December 2010.

2 thoughts on “Code Camp Experiences II

  1. Thanks for this write-up; I’m excited to see the coderetreat format get used in other settings.

    One thing to remember is that the point of the exercise isn’t to finish the game. In fact, if you finish it, then you’ve probably cut too many corners. The goal of coderetreat is to have a day when you can right perfect code, throwing off the shackles of ‘trying to get it done.’ Spend the time focusing on effectively applying the 4 rules of simple design, not allowing yourself to skimp on the perfect design or the perfect steps to get there.

    Kudos for you guys in doing this. Looking forward to hearing more.

    • Hi Corey,
      thank you for your comment. You are perfectly right in pointing out that the shift from “getting the game done” to “practice one aspect properly, abandon all further hopes” is the hardest to make for us. As the initiator and “mentor”, I didn’t expect the first code camp to work perfectly in this regard. We will repeat the format and probably the “but I’m not getting anything finished!”-effect will decrease as we are getting used to the true core concepts of the retreats. We appreciate your counsel (I hope this word doesn’t have any negative conotations).

      I tried to make it to one of your code retreats in the Netherlands in October or early November to learn the setup there, but couldn’t make it happen. Any chance you’re visiting europe again for a code retreat?

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