21: The Benefits of Mob Programming: Team Learning and Communication

Episode 21 Discussion on Mob Programming with Dawna Jones and the Moberators

Last year Dawna Jones, host of the Evolutionary Provocateur and Insight to Action podcasts, attended Agile Games New England and the Mob Programming Conference that followed.  She sat down with a group of ‘Moberators’ to learn why the team approach to coding creates faster and better quality, with the added benefit of skill development, learning, and communication.

Listen to episode 21 of Agile and Beyond! Listen and Subscribe in iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, RSS.

The Benefits of Mobbing and Mob Programming

© Ints Vikmanis | Dreamstime.com – Large crowd of people

Show Notes

This years Agile Games conference is on April 3-5th, 2017 in Boston with the the Mob Programming conference immediately after. As someone who didn’t know much about Agile beyond the manifesto, Dawna Jones was curious to know what was involved. As a professional facilitator, she was relieved to see that the team skills Mob requires are ones all companies and all teams need for more effective interaction.

In this interview you’ll hear Dawna and the Moberators talk about:

  • How mob programming increases team cohesion,
  • The odd perception management has about when meetings are valuable,
  • Visible real-time communications as a gateway to open interpersonal channels,
  • The executive benefits of mobbing and learning,
  • How mob programming overcomes a culture of blaming or holding the ‘other guy’ responsible.

This interview meshed so closely with several ideas which I have been examining that I was inspired to published a follow-up podcast exploring how the practice of mobbing is contributing to the evolution of our enterprises and society.

Please see the transcript below.

Our Guest Moberators

Nancy van Schooenderwoert (US)
linkedin: Nancy van Schooenderwoert
twitter: @vanschoo
Website profile
Nancy van Schooenderwoert introduces technical teams to Agile and Lean practices to allow them to become a real partner with the “business side”.

Woody Zuill (US)
linkedin: Woody Zuill
twitter: @WoodyZuill
Website profile
Woody Zuill works with teams to re-invent workplaces to make it possible for everyone to excel in their work and in their life.

Llewellyn Falco (US/Finland)
linkedin: Llewellyn Falco
twitter: @LlewellynFalco
Website profile
Llewellyn Falco is a long-time Agile practitioner and trainer specializing in the technical practices.

Jeremy Cash (UK)
linkedin: Jeremy Cash
Website profile
Jeremy Cash tests embedded software for a wide range of products.

Aaron Griffith (US)
linkedin: Aaron Griffith
Website profile
Aaron Griffith is a Software Quality Assurance and Software/Tool Development professional.

Alex Wilson (UK)
linkedin: Alex Wilson
twitter: @pr0bablyfine
Website profile
Alex Wislon is an expert in XP, TDD, Continuous Delivery, and Mob Programming.

Maaret Pyhäjärvi (Finland)
linkedin: Maaret Pyhäjärvi
twitter: @maaretp
Website profile
Maaret Pyhäjärvi is a veteran software tester – who acquires relevant on-time
information about the product.

Links from the show:

Related links:

Podcast Transcript

I would like to thank Dawna Jones for allowing me to publish her interview on my podcast and to thank the Moberators for sharing their experiences and insights with the community.

Dawna Jones: My name is Dawna Jones. Dan and I cooperate and collaborate on a number of podcasts. In this one, I  was at the Agile Games New England last year and had an interesting conversation in the conference which followed which was called Mob Programming. Now the word mob usually strikes fear into the heart of every executive and the first thing that they want to do is get rid of the chaos. However, in this case you may not want to get rid of it because mob programming refers to people working together to create the code that  makes things work behind the scenes and the results are incredibly powerful rules and I think the skills foundation for a wider more Agile mindset. So in this conversation we’ve got six seven people sitting around. I call them Moberators. And they call themselves Moberators from all over the world. From Finland, the UK, of course the US… from all over the world and we’re having a conversation on mob programming and what it does, particularly how it makes a difference with communication and opening up the communication channel and building teams. Tell us what you do as a Moberator?

Jeremy Cash: My name is Jeremy Cash. I work for Bluefruit. We are an embedded software company so we are mobbing an embedded environment, mostly C/C++. We’ve been mostly experimenting with mobbing for a couple of years now. The role of Moberator is something that’s appeared naturally after we had problems with strong personalities taking over the mob. So the more experienced coders were saying we must do it this way, you must do it that way, no, your ideas are wrong, which is a terrible way to work and so it’s sort of a way ensuring that strong personalities, strong ideas, and coding fundamentalists don’t interrupt the creative process. Right. Mobbing is mostly about people and communication, about individuals and interactions, over coding knowledge.

Dawna Jones: So this is really team stuff…

Jeremy Cash: This is really about keeping the team together.

Dawna Jones: Does anyone else want to toss in what have you learned? What have you seen happen? What’s the evolution? Jeremy… someone else when you’re ready… But what have you seen happen in the evolution? First of all typically when Agile is implemented it’s an individual coding thing, right? But mob is different because you are putting everybody together to do it.

Alex Wilson: So I’m Alex Wilson. I am a Research Developer at Unruly, and we are an advertising technology company based out of London. We were first introduced to mob programming a couple of years ago. And we decided to adopt a couple of things that were being talked about to solve a specific problem which we were replacing a very old part of the system and a lot of expertise had been lost. So we wanted to make sure that everyone had equal knowledge and understood how the system worked and that was initially adopted through one team. But through no effort on our part other teams saw how enjoyable it was and productive and focused it made us and they started adopting it and started putting their own little spins on it so gradually it spread not just through the product development team but also we have seen our marketing team collaborating in a very similar way across time zones as well. So the benefits have been observed by the team and it sort of spread like wildfire…

Dawna Jones: Cool. So it’s been catching on. The idea has been catching on. Any particular observations as Moberators on what shifts in organization occur when you start mobbing?

Llewellyn Falco: I’m Llewellyn Falco and I’m a technical coach and we were doing mobbing as a way of learning, which is one of the big strengths in mobbing a good way to learn. And we have one person who had been a solo programmer for a long time and he sit to the side. He did not want to join. But we did it near him. I think that’s a really key point, and after a day or two of doing this for about two hours to learn he said I want to join but I don’t want to take the keyboard. I said okay. So he joined, and he didn’t take the keyboard. But the next day he was like I will take my keyboard, but I don’t want you telling me any of those shortcuts I have my way of typing… then we were like okay.. And then he started asking for the shortcuts… How do you guys do that again? And we found that like that would happen over and over for the people in the room. First there was the programmer in the room, and then it was our BA, would it be okay if I tried joining you guys and then it was our artist who said can I join, and then it was our tester who was like.. I think it was just you know when there’s a lot of people having fun in the corner you want to be a part of that. People like to do fun social things. Nothing is as attractive as a lot of other people doing it…

Dawna Jones: And having a good time.

Llewellyn Falco: Absolutely.

Nancy van Schoendervoort: Can I comment on this? I’m Nancy van Schoendervoort. I would like to pick up on Llewellyn’s comment there about making it optional for people because I turned several teams on to it. And one of the things that I noticed is that some people did hesitate. Some people felt that they were not familiar enough with the code base. I don’t know they just were reluctant. And so I said well you know we can ask the team for advice if you would like. Or you could just wait for a little while, if and when you are ready. After I would give this session, and it was only a 15 to 20 min session of describing it in then we would start using it on some of their code, and I had already talked with their tech lead, and these were teams that already had an agile coding environment. But one of the things is afterwards I would ask them what they thought of it, and most of them said yeah it’s great for learning and then the put out some examples. They could see using it some of the time. But the thing is I said to them, you do not have to do this. You know I am not here because your manager says that you must be a mob programming team. I just floated this idea and they said yeah let us introduce it to the team and see if they like it. I said to each team, if you use it great I would be interested in hearing your reactions and if you don’t use it that’s okay. So I think leaving it up to them was an important piece. And one or two people commented that they thought it was kind of chaotic and did not like it so much but then I heard back later that they somehow jumped in and became big supporters of it. So it’s an interesting dynamic. It seems to happen a lot.

Dawna Jones: Let’s talk a little about that because there’s a shift from working solo to working in a team… I saw a little of that in Leonard’s session from yesterday. What is that shift made up of? Typically the developers are thought of as these people being in their caves doing code and come out periodically to get food, but other than that they are in there. What is the evolution? What do you see happening in your teams?

Aaron Griffith: My name’s Aaron Griffith. I work at Hunter Industries. People in general are social even if you are an introvert or extrovert. I’m an Introvert. There are parts of mob programming that are challenging for me, but I really find it interesting and I would not want to work any other way. And I think that it is just the nature of people even people that want to be by themselves at some point they want that social interaction and I think mob programming provides that in a fun way. But it’s also productive and you can get a lot of work done which is important too.

Dawna Jones: Alright let’s shift to talking about tension between Agile and management. When you look at managerial decisions toward mob what are they seeing in mob? How are they perceiving mob? And how are you dealing with either the accurate or the inaccurate perception of mob?

Woody Zuill: So I’m Woody Zuill and I worked at Hunter back in the days when we originated the idea of mob programming. And worked there for 4 years and seen it evolve and become interesting around the world. Essentially most people in business are trying to do a good job of providing value to customers and finding a way to do that economically enough to where they can make money for their company and make a sustainable company. So I haven’t seen personally a lot of resistance from what you might consider the business people but I think of everyone in the business as being a part of the business. But sometimes individuals will notice like 5 people working together and not feel that that’s an effective use of people’s time… So the question that I would ask in reverse would be this: So how is it that we go about proving that it is effective to divide people up and have them separately to have them work on something? Let us see if we can get that sorted that mindset that there may be other ways to think about the way we work. We have one project that we are working on and then we divide up the work either in time or space or whatever into different parts of the company. So many people might be resistant to an idea that everybody would be working together but essentially that’s why we bring together people in a company is we gather people to work together. That is sort of the idea of what a company is. So I don’t find a lot of resistance to that. When you walk past a meeting that is filled with executives, should you pop your head in and say why aren’t you guys working on something get out of here? You know. You wouldn’t do that. You would expect that they are doing something together, that they are working, collaborating, to make decisions, that they need to do. Working together is natural.

Llewellyn Falco: I have experienced some resistance. And actually when you talk about meetings one of the things I find is I can very often go to a manager and say I would like to schedule a 2 hour meeting to talk about cleanliness of our code and they are like oh that’s awesome we should do that and I can go to that same manager and say I would like to schedule 2 hours to WORK on the cleanliness of our code and they are like I don’t have time for that. Somehow like the idea of us getting together to talk about work that’s fine and companies seem to love meetings and love getting together to talk about but getting together to do work somehow they see that as not a thing and there sort of seems to be two sides that people come down on. One is people who seem to be very concerned on the cost. Right.. How do I write this on my budget and how do I get my books balanced. And they seem to get very skittish about this. And then there are people who are very concerned about the effectiveness. They tend to be very embracing. If you look at a pit crew, right? You have a lot of people doing things so that you can move very quickly and win a race. When you put people together in a mob, your velocity goes up, your quality goes up, you can be responsive. Most mobs release many times a day. That is a huge advantage in business. If you are caring about being effective, this turns out to a very good conversation. If you are concerned about the cost of it, you start asking.. Couldn’t I do this with 4 people instead of 5? Or couldn’t I do this with 3 instead of 5? And there are people and that is what they are concerned about and the other people are just thinking I’m just glad that we are doing it and we are doing well. Those are the people who are open to mobbing software.

Alex Wilson:  Let’s take it on the other side of this… we at Unruly we have quite a lot of trust in the way that our development team works, so we haven’t really encountered that resistance so rather than a command and control top down we are very much a high level and the implementation is left up to us which it hasn’t happened overnight this trust relationship has been built up through since the company started years and years and years but when you have that kind of environment where the upper levels of the system do have that trust then you can go off and try new things like mob programming and all of the benefits that everyone is talking about.

Dawna Jones: Results… let’s talk a little bit about the results… and the difference between mob and the traditional ways of getting things done in the coding world.

Jeremy Cash: Yes, one huge result that I can comment on from mobbing is that I used to be a software tester and my ability to code was fairly minimal. And our company started mobbing and through that and joining mobs just by being in the same room and seeing the code being written and seeing oh that’s why you do it like that. I am now a full time developer at Bluefruit and the learning is just there and plain to see. There is such a huge sharing of knowledge that goes on in mobbing. It is the first thing that I always recommend it for is just how quickly that information is transferred between people who are in the same room.

Maaret Pyhäjärvi: So I am a bit farther away than this group. I am also a tester like Jeremy said before. My main thing that I have noticed about mobs in Agile compared to the pairing, is that it is a very safe environment. My team has ppl that have told me that women only write comments in code, so it didn’t feel very safe to pair up with these people. But in a group where we are really sharing the creation of the code together that’s really valuable and from the perspective of being a tester I have 20 years of experience being a tester. It’s not about me learning the code but the programmers have learned to produce working software when I have joined the teams. So the whole aspect of cross-pollination of ideas caring about what’s valuable, how can we deliver faster, and how do we figure out things that we thought that we don’t have answers for. So kind of the group learning aspect. That’s been a very big thing for me.

Nancy van Schooenderwoert: If I can say something about results seen. This is Nancy van Schooenderwoert. At Bluefruit I was interested that one of the things that they told me that they were doing was when they were delivering to their customers they were doing embedded software for their customers. Things that they use software and hardware. They would deliver something like a large company say, and they needed to show the engineers how to run the test suite and they did it mobbing style. So they were showing them how to work as a mob too. And they said it was starting to spread there. I think it needs a bit of management support to spread it though I am not sure that those customers always have that but still it was interesting to see that they were starting to spread it to the customers.  

Maaret Pyhäjärvi: We have these Thursdays when we’re working on stuff in mob format. They’re basically learning Thursdays. So we kind of wanted to do things that way. And we have this new feature that we needed to be developed, and the new feature the developers were saying that it was going to take us like two weeks three weeks, and the business people were saying that it was really important: “We need like the latest in two weeks.” So we were barely struggling to meet the frame of schedule that people were thinking. And we mobbed on it for one half of an afternoon with six of us in a team and on Friday it was ready. So instead of the 2 weeks then we were surging as a team just before we started to do this it turned into 2 days of schedule. And here again the meaningful thing wasn’t how much effort we were going to put into it. But the point was that there was a date in the schedule when that needed to be available. And working together we really managed to accelerate that so that we could fit it into a surprisingly short amount of time.

Dawna Jones:  Great example. Thank you for that. Any other stories like that?

Llewellyn Falco: So one of the companies that I am working for. They have multiple teams. And I do mobbing with all of them, but only one of the teams has adopted mobbing as their full time mode of working. So I will go away for the summer and come back and the first thing that I would do is check in with all my teams. I would go around and say “It’s obvious what has happened since June, and most of the time not much has happened since June you can probably pick your own team and 3 months ago how much has changed in those 3 months. Everytime I do this with the mob team it is dramatic. They have implemented seven new technology stacks to do daily deployments to do real-time data analysis on the cloud for the first project that was handling real-time data and machine learning and the cloud or visualizations. They did that completely from scratch in 3 months. I was there adding technologies and removing them when they hit barriers that were in memory and data that just didn’t work as well as like Redshift (?) work. So they put it in and figure out the bottleneck and pulled it out. I go away again and come back a couple months later and they have hardware that you can talk to and orders for you. They move at such unprecedented skill and I would think that that would be enough and that teams moving so fast. Although ironically when I talk to the other teams it would be like, “Wow! That team’s moving really fast. Yeah! They are really smart. They were really smart before they started mobbing.” “They weren’t moving that fast. But there is that thing like if only we had that we could do that… I found that the teams that do it have it.

Dawna Jones: So if you were. Thank you. If you were going to throw a bunch of executives and managers in the room how would you mob them?

Llewellyn Falco: Are you saying how would I mob the executives doing executive work or how would I add executives to the mob?

Dawna Jones: You can answer it either way to be honest because both are relevant because the question is building those bridges between what you are doing in mob programming and how it would scale to an organizational way of thinking seeing and doing.

Llewellyn Falco: Woody, you do a lot of bringing the managers in when you are working with them.

Woody Zuill: Well, I could try a little bit. One of the fundamental things that mob programming… I don’t want to use the word solves… so give me a second to think of the right word… well yeah improves… we’ll try that, is our ability to communicate well and quickly. So when we separate people then we are automatically introducing barriers to communication. Now a lot of what executives do is gather together to communicate, but once we’ve separated from a communicating period then our communication goes back to these much more difficult to use communication methods like documents and emails and those sorts of things. So what mob programming does is not only make all of our communication visible it breaks them down to real time. We are talking with the people that we need to be talking with at the moment that we need the information from them so being available for that there’s a trick to this: we lose our context of the discussion when we are not sitting with each other so when we gather together to go over something we have to regather our mind into the same context. So that can be very difficult. So I just did this the day before I came to the conference. I went to do a consultation with a company and their [method] of how they would get something important done was to gather together for a meeting, decide who is going to do what, and then split apart to do your work, and then the communication problems start. So my minor suggestion to them was, let’s just stay together a little longer a do some of the work. We saw this in organizing for this conference. Whenever we got together we got a great deal done. When we divvied up the work to do the work separately, and it’s hard to get things done because they were waiting for an email from someone to respond to a question, how are we going to do this, who am I supposed to talk to about that. It happens in real time when we are sitting together.

Llewellyn Falco: And we make a lot of mistakes. One of the things I see very quickly. In our organizations when we start mobbing is a lot of times there is this culture of blame. The Jira said this. The requirement was that. And very quickly when we start working together, we have conversations that are like… so the artist would would say “that looks horrible” Yeah let me fix that. Don’t try to resize that, let me give you a different graphic. So it stopped being about this is what you told me, and it became what is the right thing to do.

Nancy van Schooenderwoert: I would like to respond to that. Just yesterday we had an example of an exec perhaps who was doing some mobbing if you count a Harvard Professor of Leadership as being a good stand in for an exec. We were really flattered that Amy C. Edmondson came to our conference yesterday. She couldn’t make it today. But she was very curious and interested in this. She wrote a book called Teaming. She went to one of the mobbing sessions. It was one of yours Llewellyn, and she was getting into it, right? She was doing some mobbing. Do you want to tell us about that?

Llewellyn Falco: Early on we talked about making this optional. But there are sort of two sides of optional. One is I have a very open invite. If you are interested in joining us you are welcome. I don’t care what department you are in or what your role is… if you are interested join us. And then the other side of that is called ‘persistent invite’. And for that to happen, I do not want to force people into the mob, but what I don’t want is for them to be in a different room. If they are in a different room than a mob might as well not happen, right? They need to be near enough by so that they can see it. And if they are then I will constantly go by and see. She was sitting in the back not wanting to join in so I asked her if she wanted to join us, and she said no. So I went back and asked if she wanted to join us, and she said that she did not want to join. And I had seen this before this kind of fear so I sort of said well my Dad is a professor so I can think in the academic mind. You should try it so that you can get the experience of knowing how scary it is.. So she came and she joined. And you could see as it was approaching her time to speak she was getting a little nervous, but when she got up, I just said hey this is her first time programming make sure that you help her out and they did and she was able to say what she wanted and to get it translated into […] then she took the keyboard and they spoke a little bit closer to keystrokes at the beginning so that it was easier for her to program. Then I found that she was correcting the other programmers with the stuff that she had learned just moments ago she remembered very accurately and That’s not the keystroke. You need to command alt-R that the way that you do a rename, I’m like…

Nancy van Schooenderwoert: The professor…

Llewellyn Falco: You know so a lot of times the thing that is stopping us is that we haven’t had any experience and you have that in that safety where the things you are good at you get to play to your strengths and your weaknesses aren’t hurting you. very quickly it becomes something that’s available something that you can do..

Dawna Jones: I love that example.. Because I was exactly Amy yesterday as well in Leonard’s session. He said come on. Oh no! I will just wreck your code I know it because there’s a bunch of buttons across the top. I’m going to hit the wrong one for sure. Yeah which brings me to another thing that I noticed yesterday in sitting was and this will be the last thing that I would like to get your input or your comments on… What I watched was a development of skills. Because it’s different when you are in your closet and when you are working with other people. What I saw emerge were two things. First of all personal skills around listening and giving people space and that sort of stuff and what that scaled to and what I thought and this is what I would like to hear from you on but what struck me and what we’ve really got in this team environment of mobbing is cooperation developing and with that comes the capacity to collaborate across which if you scale that you have a much more agile company in my head. Any observations, comments, or stories that you can share that speak to that? Good or bad.

Llewellyn Falco: I’ve noticed that there are people in our office that I never talk to that I walk past in the office and never talk to. I walk by their cubes every day. Every day I walk past and never talk to them. And the things that would need to happen to talk to them seem astronomically large, but the moment that I have done a single mobbing session with someone I feel very comfortable going back and reaching out to them and saying hey I know the name I know sort of their skill set and say I know that you are good at this. So we had one guy. I paired with him one time. I knew that he knew how to get Tomcat working or get our thing working on Tomcat.. Those two are much bigger, much easier, much faster. So I literally like sent hoards of people to him. I would be like, “Stop using webster! Go talk to Mick he knows how to solve this problem.” And as long as I sat with the people and had one session mobbing with them, that communication channel is now open. And if they had it and they could be two teams away, and years and never open that channel at all…

Maaret Pyhäjärvi: I was working before in this insurance company and we had this one project manager and he was especially good like hell. People knew him as the person who got things done. And I had invited to him before. And one time he was sitting in a meeting room alone and he invited everyone to join him in the meeting room. He had the right approach in fact. It kind of reminded me of this mobbing. It was before I had ever heard of anything related to mobbing. So this guy is sitting alone with the document and he has people coming in stopping by and sometimes he had like 4 people in the room. And he was pretty much doing this kind of mobbing type of thing on the project plan. So he had all the different people and all the different information and he was writing the document that he had to create on the cloud. And he agreed on the bits and pieces and wrote the document at the same time. It reminded me of the stuff that you talked about earlier on that idea that how do we actually include executives in these mobs and what do these executives do in the mobbing format. They are actually creating a lot of deliverables. They actually have to combine input. And again if we could actually transfer the way of working from talking about the stuff that needs to be done later into actually doing the stuff we might save a lot of time. And I had actually seen that in one of the companies that I worked with.

Dawna Jones: Very cool. Thank you. That’s a wonderful story. Does that trigger a story of anybody else’s… of one of those cool things that happen? No?

Alex Wilson: So something I noticed in one of the mob sessions yesterday. My first time facilitating and a lot of people’s first time experience with mobbing and we were all in the room together but with relatively little coercion. First we did a round of introductions with everyone saying who they are and where they come from. And.. but once we started the rotations, and everyone like saying who they were and sitting down and doing a bit of code and completely unprompted and like everyone was just like even people who had never written any code and a round of applause after their session and really making each other feel welcome. These are who have never met before. So if like in the space of an hour and a half and 15 or 20 people all coming to a room and create a safe environment for themselves and immediately enables them to start learning so self-professed non-techies like actually enjoying writing the code and getting into it but it also made me think that people don’t want to create an unsafe environment generally and if they are that’s normally because of like they are worried being shown up or something like that and these are all things that will get exacerbated by working in close proximity so it allows us to address them. And I really enjoyed running sessions yesterday. It was eye opening for me.

Dawna Jones: Alright this interview has the honor of being the first mob interview I think for the podcast. So I want to thank we’ve got like six seven people. So I want to thank each of you for participating in this experiment and I encourage all of you who are listening to the program to think about what are the skills that you have heard us talk about in this conversation that if scaled to the entire company what kind of difference would that make. Because I think when we start shifting how work gets done then we also have to shift our thinking about what makes it work, and I really think that’s the opportunity that companies have today. So thanks to each of you for joining in and just showing up because we really didn’t know how this was going to go done so..

Everyone: Yeah …. [Everyone applauds…]        

Thank you Dawna Jones for introducing us to the Moberators and the idea of mobbing and mob programming.

Here is brief summary of the skills and benefits associated with mobbing.

In the interview the Moberators illuminated the following skills.

  • Listening and Communication Skills
  • Self-Organization/Bottom Up Organization
  • Openness/Inclusiveness/Naturalness
  • Working Together/On the Fly Teaming
  • Collaborating Across Boundaries
  • Developing Learning Organizations

And these were the benefits

  • Improved Communications
  • Knowledge and Meme Spreading
  • Enhanced Learning, Creativity, and Innovation
  • Time Saving
  • Increased Effectiveness/Quality Control/ and Value Creation
  • Trust Development
  • Psychological Safety and Boundary Dissolution

Final thoughts

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Dawna Jones and the Moberators!!

We exist for the purpose of helping you, so please comment below with any questions or remarks. Thanks for listening!

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