A coding dojo story

It was 2008, and I was at the CITCON conference in Amsterdam. I’d only started going to conferences that year, and was feeling as intimidated as I was inspired by the depth of experience in the people I was meeting. It seemed like everyone at CITCON had written a book, their own mocking framework, or both.

I found myself in a session on refactoring legacy code. The session used a format that was new to me, and to most of the people in the room: a coding dojo.

Our objective, I think, was to take some very ugly, coupled code, add tests to it, and then refactor it into a better design. We had a room full of experts in TDD, refactoring, and code design. What could possibly go wrong?

One thing I learned in that session is the importance of the “no heckling on red” rule. I watched as Experienced Agile Consultant after Experienced Agile Consultant cracked under the pressure of criticism from the baying crowd of Other Experienced Agile Consultants. With so many egos in the room, everyone had an opinion about the right way to approach the problem, and nobody was shy of sharing his opinion. It was chaos!

We got almost nowhere. As each pair switched, the code lurched back and forth between different ideas for the direction it should take. When my turn came around, I tried to shut out the noise from the room, control my quivering fingers, and focus on what my pair was saying. We worked in small steps, inching towards a goal that was being ridiculed by the crowd as we worked.

The experience taught me how much coding dojo is about collaboration. The rules about when to critique code and when to stay quiet help to keep a coding dojo fun and satisfying, but they teach you bigger lessons about working with each other day to day.