Code Retreats are awesome!

At least the one I attended on Saturday – My first one.

What is a code retreat, you’re asking?

A bunch of people who want to improve their coding and unit testing skills meet for a day. Everyone has their IDEs and testing frameworks ready to go. You get to tackle the same problem multiple times. We had 7 blocks, each consisting of 45 minutes coding followed by 15 minutes retrospectives. In each coding phase you pair program with someone else. To spice things up, there’s a new constraint for each round, e.g. “No IF-statements allowed”. After each round you throw away the code. Wait, what? Throw code away? *gasp* Heresy!

Why would you do a code retreat?

For deliberate practice. There’s this famous analogy: Musicians spend a lot of time practicing, then give a few concerts. Software developers – who often build something they’ve never build before – spend all of their time “giving the concerts” and hardly ever just practice the basics, let alone with someone else. A code retreat is an opportunity to learn:

  • new ways of thinking / approaching a task from your pairing partner
  • to take really small steps
  • new languages
    (Code retreats are not language specific. I got to code in JavaScript, Java and Ruby. Java was the least common denominator – it works for everyone.)
  • new shortcuts, IDEs, frameworks, …
  • to throw away code

Our constraints for the 7 phases were:

  1. None
  2. Ping-Pong – A writes test, B writes code to pass test, B writes next test, A writes code to pass test, …
  3. Law of Demeter – No more than one “.” per expression allowed, so no objectFoo.getBar().doFoo() – Following this law leads to looser coupling
  4. TDD as if you meant it
  5. No naked primitives – No ints, no booleans, …
  6. No If – Yeah, that’s a hard one…
  7. Each pair could choose individually from a long list – We chose “Find the loophole”

My takeaways:

  • As I’m not a developer, I was afraid to slow my pairing partners down. No need to worry: Code retreat tasks, such as the classic “Conway’s Game of Life”, are quite simple and there were other non-developers attending.
    It helps if you’ve at least seen unit tests before, though.
  • I take way too big steps
  • In the “no primitives” round I learned to use enums instead of booleans and they make the code more “speaking”
  • A code retreat is great fun, but also exhausting. 7 sessions is one too many.

Next I’d like to attend a Legacy code retreat, where you learn to refactor old brittle code.

Many thanks to the facilitators Patrick Cornelißen and Sergey Shishkin, to innoQ for hosting the event and to all attendees for making my first code retreat an awesome experience!

So could be yours: Find a code retreat near you!
If you’re in Germany, join the Softwerkskammer!


Patrick and Stephan blogged about the same retreat:

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