Pairing for Non-Programmers

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While we’ve all heard about “pair programming”, pairing is not just for programmers. In this activity, participants will use fiction/creative writing to understand the importance and value (and fun) of pairing.


Prep: Printing out the handouts

Activity: 45 – 60 minutes, depending on the size of the group


Handouts, pads of paper (# attendees / 2), pens (same as pads of paper)



This activity will occur in two rounds. The first round involves each person in the audience working alone. You will ask them to write a story about something interesting that happened to them at work recently. Give them five minutes to write. At the end of the five minutes, ask for volunteers to share their stories. Two or three should be sufficient. Expect that generally they will be somewhat mundane/pedestrian, and also be prepared that someone might be very funny or fascinating.

The second round involves pairing. Each pair will write a short story (fiction), based on “requirements” (see The Requirements below). The pair will take turns working on the story, alternating as indicated below.

Activity will be broken into two minute turns.

During each turn, one member of the pair will write, while the other will watch and ensure that the constraints are met (see The Rules below).

At the end of each turn, you will have them switch roles.

There will be seven turns.

At the end of the time (all seven turns), you will give them two more minutes to “refactor” their stories.  Then you will give as many pairs as possible an opportunity to read their stories aloud to the rest of the class. Expect a mix of boring/mundane (john said and then mary said) and incredibly creative/funny.

The Requirements

  1. Introduce the setting: work, geography, industry, weather, time of day,…
  2. Introduce character one: gender, name, age, education, single/married/paired/whatever
  3. Introduce character two: gender, name, age, education, pet(s), hobbies
  4. Introduce character one’s job
  5. Conversation between One and Two about a problem at work
  6. Manager appears and participates in conversation
  7. All three go out for lunch: where, what kind of food, how do they get there

The Rules

  • No sentences longer than twenty words – shoot for ten or less.
  • Character names no more than two syllables.
  • No paragraphs longer than five sentences.
  • No “he said” and “she said” – must use names.
  • No sentence may begin with “So” or “And” or “But”.
  • Use adjectives judiciously.
  • Locale must be a real place.


Gomez Goobers was a happy place to work. GG, as it is known in the industry, is in the heart of Chicago’s South Loop. In September, the weather was cooling off and people were walking the streets for pleasure.

GG’s lead programmer, Tim Thomas, loved living in Chicago. After college, he met Mary, whom he married two years later. Tim and Mary have been married for three years now. Tim and Mary live in a small, two-bedroom house in a nearby suburb of Chicago.

Tim’s counterpart was Billie Bliss, the lead QA. Billie, who is an avid dog lover, lives in town in an apartment overlooking the lake with her Beagle named Bugle. Everyone wonders where Billie got the money to afford a place like that. At twenty-five, she’s too young to have accumulated much. Her co-workers speculate, and her family and friends aren’t telling.

After completing both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in computer science, Tim came to work at GG. He loves technology, loves programming, and has progressed rapidly in the year and a half he’s been at GG. He has already worked in several programming languages and on several operating systems. These days, he’s focused on Ruby on Rails on a Linux platform.

Tim and Billie have been struggling with getting their teams to work together more effectively. Unfortunately, they are plagued by…

Now you…

Decide who is going to write, and who is going to observe for the first turn.

Learning Points:

  • Working in pairs produces results that we would never produce on our own
  • Creativity is increased by pairing
  • Pairing can be fun
  • Pairing produces more effective results than working alone
Handout and presentation deck are here:
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5 Responses to "Pairing for Non-Programmers"
  • Joseph Flahiff March 26, 2012 at 11:45 am

    Have you tried it where the first group has the same “requirements”, rules and the same amount of time? Essentially session 1 and 2 are mirrors of each other just the pairing changes.

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  • Doc List March 26, 2012 at 11:49 am

    I have not, and deliberately. Part of the learning I intended in this activity is the difference between working alone and working as a pair.

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  • Bernhard April 2, 2012 at 9:37 am

    How can you compare a story written in 5 minutes to a story that took 32 minutes to write?

    Not to mention that you further assist the pairs by providing rules and requirements that explicitly guide style and

    This game is rigged, and I think this could severely affect the outcome. How do you react if one of the participants points that out without losing credibility? And how about those who don’t mention their doubts?

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  • Doc List April 2, 2012 at 9:50 am

    What I’m comparing is someone working alone with instructions “create this” to a pair with working agreements. Yes, you’re right – the pair has rules and requirements. How would you do it differently? Give the individuals the same kind of framework as the pairs? I’m up for that, and may very well do it that way the next time.

    The difference is in the creativity that comes from the synergy between two people. So I expect that we’d achieve largely the same results by providing greater structure to the individuals.

    One of the reasons I posted this is to get feedback and improve it. Your feedback will help me do just that.

    Thanks for challenging me.

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  • Thomas Schissler March 1, 2016 at 12:31 am

    I created a variation of this game by starting with 3 pairs and 3 single persons writing the story. The we played 3 rounds each 3 minutes long and then switching the roles within the pairs. The single persons just continued writing. After the 3 rounds we changed pairs so that each single person was now working in a pair and 3 other persons worked for themselves continuing the stories. So everybody had the experience working as a pair, 2/3 of the attendees had the chance to directly compare this to working alone.

    The learnings where:
    - People where more creative while working in a pair.
    - It was better to start the work as a pair compared to one joining later.
    - Within a pair the rules where better fulfilled than when people worked alone
    - Working in a pair was more fun
    - When one joined a solo worker later, the existing work was not changed but they tried to make the best out of it by adding new stuff.

    I liked the exercise and people where recognizing a lot of similarities to writing software.

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