Some weeks ago, I conducted a code camp with a team of twelve developers that build a software product together for years now. The team had already introduced sporadic code reviews (in the team vs. author review style), so the main emphasize of the meeting was to improve team coherence by writing code together while generally having some time off project. In this article, I describe what I had planned, what happened and what the effects are so far.
A plan for the code camp
The code camp was scheduled for two consecutive days when the whole team gathers in one room with one computer for each pair. We would switch pairs (and seats) after each iteration, with one iteration being 45 minutes coding time followed by 2-3 minutes presentation of the achievement to the team. With a recreation break of 20-30 minutes, this means one iteration every two hours.
Every iteration starts from scratch, without access to previous code fragments (see also the code retreat concept). This had several reasons: I wanted the iterations to be comparable. Some of the insights I wanted to share are dependent on directly assimilable experiences. The iterations should also be independent, without ballast from previous sessions.
On the first day, we started with a given code resembling a little puzzle game in Java Swing. The code worked, but had some bugs and was written in an awful manner. It was unknown code for the team with no emotional attachments. The assignment for each iteration was to refactor the code to something equivalently working, but much “better”. How this “better” is defined was up to the teams.
On the second day, we started with a blank editor and had the task to code the same little puzzle game (in Java Swing) we refactored the day before. Even with some practice, it was nearly impossible to finish within time, so concentration on the most important key aspects of the code was crucial. The main lesson here was to “create from scratch” rather than “fix the existing”.
What really happened
The camp started with the usual delay for setting up all the computers in a uniform manner. This couldn’t be prepared beforehands, as the computers were in use by another group. When we installed our software, we found the hotkey configuration of the whole system severely flawed (for example, Ctrl+1 was defined as “set keyboard layout to traditional chinese”).
To warm up for the first iteration, I presented the existing code and explained its structure in detail. The code was slightly too much to remember it all in one pass, so only a rough understanding remained. Every team had to examine the code again during their work.
After the warm up, the first iteration started, with everybody buzzing over the code. The 45 minutes went by really fast and the first presentations focussed on local improvements. No team had restructured the code in any meaningful way, but every solution was perceived as “better” than the original. One team failed to get their refactored code to work again.
The second iteration held the biggest surprise of the whole camp. The 45 minutes flew by and the presentations showed the difference. One team failed to work on the assignment, but every other team presented a solution that was far superior of the original code. Some teams restructured the code to an extend where the original structure wasn’t recognizable anymore. The distinction between the first and the second iteration was so great that everybody was baffled by what could be achieved in 45 minutes when you do it for the second time.
The third iteration added some interesting twists on the best solutions of the second iteration, but didn’t produce the massive boost in productivity and code quality. Everybody felt worn out afterwards, so we decided to close the coding part of this day.
While working with the Java Swing code, nobody on the team noticed the threading flaws in the code. When I pointed this out, I was asked to explain the mechanics of the Swing threading model. The team develops a web application and hasn’t much exposure to desktop application development, let alone with Java Swing. So we ended the day with a lecture about the EDT, the EventQueue and the SwingWorker.
The whole team strolled to a bar to share some beers afterwards.
After a short night, we gathered early in the morning to continue the coding part of the camp. I explained the task (develop the game from scratch) and off we went.
The first iteration yielded only very rudimentary results. One team started with an UML diagram of the application structure and had to stop after setting up the outline of every method in code. Most other teams started with the domain model and failed to attach the GUI part of the application. All solutions had similar concepts in mind, no team used test driven development or other “advanced” techniques.
As a result of the poor performance, we decided to change the rules. Instead of scrapping the whole code, every new team could take over the code base of any other team, as long as it wasn’t the own. In the second iteration, we completed the drafted solutions of the previous team. This didn’t work out, too. The teams were frustrated by their lack of results.
We changed the plan again and held a prolonged review discussion of the code camp instead of a third iteration. This was by far the better choice with hindsight.
The code camp was perceived very positively by the attendees. The main goal of the camp was not about coding, but about team coherence and team focus. We learnt a lot about the personal style and abilities of each team member because the code samples shown in the code review were directly comparable. And we revealed team problems we weren’t aware of yet, but some problems we thought would arise did not. This was a very healthy process, because some of these issues can be addressed directly now.
The side benefit of the camp, as stated by one programmer was the increased awareness that “throwing away your code and starting over isn’t as hurtful as I thought”.
Every attendee stated that they want another code camp soon.
The code camp greatly improved my sense for the team and for the individual team members. By sharing a common code base and performing the same tasks, I could directly see (and feel) their thoughts and abilities. The camp is a powerful way to get to really know a team. If you have to mentor a whole new team, consider performing a code camp to get in touch with them.