Lightning talk: Sam Blackburn – Coderetreat

In the spirit of trying to encourage more deliberate practice amongst coders in Red Gate, Lauri Pesonen had the idea of running a coderetreat in Red Gate. Lauri and I ran the first one a few weeks ago: given that neither of us hadn’t even been to a coderetreat before, let alone run one, I think it turned out quite well. The participants gave positive feedback, saying that they enjoyed the day, wrote some thought-provoking code and would do it again. Sam Blackburn was one of the attendees, and gave a lightning talk to the other developers in one of our regular lightning talk sessions:

In case you can’t watch the video, I’ve transcribed the talk below, although I’d recommend watching the video if you can — I didn’t have much time to do the transcribing!

So, what is a coderetreat? So it’s not just something in Red Gate, there’s a website and everything, although it’s not a very big website. It calls itself a community network. The basic ideas behind coderetreat are: you’ve got one day, and you split it into one hour sections. You spend three quarters of that coding, and do a little retrospective at the end. You’re supposed to start fresh each, we were told to delete our code after every session. We were in pairs, swapping after each session, and we did the same task every time. In fact, Conway’s Game of Life is the only task mentioned anywhere that I find for coderetreat. So I don’t know what we’ll do next time, or if we’re meant to do the same thing again.

There are some guiding principles which felt to us like restrictions, that you have to code in crazy ways to encourage better code. Final thing is that it’s supposed to be free for outsiders to join. It’s meant to be a kind of networking thing, where you link up with people from other companies.

We had a pilot day with Michael and Lauri. Since it was basically the first time any of us had done anything like this, everybody was from Red Gate. We didn’t chat to anybody else for the initial one. The task was Conway’s Game of Life, which most of you have probably heard of it, all but one of us knew about it when did the coderetreat. I won’t got into the details of what it is, but it felt like the right size of task, basically one or two groups actually produced something working by the end of the day, and of course that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a day’s work to produce that because we were starting again every hour.

The task really drives you more than trying to create good code, I found. It was really tempting to try and get it working rather than stick to the rules. But it’s really good to stop and try again because there are so many what-ifs when you’ve finished writing something, “what if I’d done it this way?”. You can answer all those questions at a coderetreat because it’s not about getting a product out the door, it’s about learning and playing with ideas.

So we had all these different practices we were trying. I’ll try and go through most of these. Single responsibility is this idea that everything should do just one thing. It was the very first session, we were still trying to figure out how do you go about the Game of Life? So by the end of forty-five minutes hadn’t produced very much for that first session. We were still thinking, “Do we start with a board, how do we represent all these squares? It can be infinitely big, help, this is getting really difficult!”. So, most of us didn’t really get anywhere on the first one. Although it was interesting that some people started with the board, one group started with the FateDecider class that decides whether things live or die. A sort of god class, but in a good way. They managed to implement all of the rules without even defining how the squares were arranged or anything like that.

Another thing we tried was TDD (test-driven development). I’m sure most of you know what TDD is:

  • Watch a test, watch it fail for the right reason
  • Write code to pass the test, watch it pass
  • Refactor, check the test still passes
  • Repeat!

It basically worked, we were able to produce code, but we often found the tests defined the direction that code went, which is obviously the idea of TDD. But you tend to find that by the time you’ve even written your first assertion, which is supposed to be the very first thing you write, because you write your tests backwards from the assertions back to the initial conditions, you’ve already constrained the logic of the code in some way by the time you’ve done that. You then get to this situation of, “Well, we actually want to go in a slightly different direction. Can we do this?”. Can we write tests that don’t constrain the architecture?

Wrapping up all primitives: it’s kind of turtles all the way down. We had a Size, which has a Width and Height, which both derive from Dimension. You’ve got pages of code before you’ve even done anything.

No getters and setters (use tell don’t ask instead): mocks and stubs for tests are required if you want to assert that your results are what you think they should be. You can’t just check the internal state of the code. And people found that really challenging and it made them think in a different way which I think is really good.

Not having mutable state: that was kind of confusing because we weren’t quite sure what fitted within that rule and what didn’t, and I think we were trying too hard to follow the rule rather than the guideline.

No if-statements: supposed to use polymorphism instead, but polymorphism still requires a factory with conditional behaviour. We did something really crazy to get around this:

That is not really polymorphism, is it?

For-loops: you can always replace a for-loop with recursion, but it doesn’t tend to make it any more readable unless it’s the kind of task that really lends itself to that. So it was interesting, it was good practice, but it wouldn’t make it easier it’s the kind of tree-structure algorithm where that would help.

Having a limit on the number of levels of indentation: again, I think it does produce very nice, clean code, but it wasn’t actually a challenge because you just extract methods. That’s quite a useful thing because you can apply that to real code and say, “Okay, should this method really be going crazy like this?”

No talking: we hated that. It’s like there’s two of you at a computer, and one of you is doing the typing, what does the other guy do if they’re not allowed to talk. The answer is TDD ping-pong – one person writes the tests, and then the other person writes the code to pass the test. And that creates communication without actually having to have discussion about things which is kind of cool.

No code comments: just makes no difference to anything. It’s a forty-five minute exercise, so what are you going to put comments in code for?

Finally, this is my fault. I discovered an entertaining way of doing the calculation that was kind of cool (using convolutions over the state of the board). Unfortunately, it turns out to be really hard to implement in C#, so didn’t even manage to work out how to do that convolution in C#. It’s trivial in some high-level languages, but you need something matrix-orientated for it to really work.

That’s most of it, really. The thoughts that people went away with: we put down our answers to questions like “What have you learnt?” and “What surprised you?”, “How are you going to do things differently?”, and most people said redoing the problem is really, really good for understanding it properly. People hate having a massive legacy codebase that they can’t change, so being able to attack something three different ways in an environment where the end-product isn’t important: that’s something people really enjoyed.

Pair-programming: also people said that they wanted to do more of that, especially with TDD ping-pong, where you write the test and somebody else writes the code. Various people thought different things about immutables, but most people thought they were good, they promote functional programming. And TDD people found really hard. “Tell, don’t ask” people found really, really hard and really, really, really hard to do well. And the recursion just made things trickier to debug.

But most people agreed that coderetreats are really cool, and we should do more of them.