Introducing Mob programming: The best team technique you've (probably) never heard of

Mob Programming extends Pair approach for productivity, quality gains in software development

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The productivity payoff

Mobbing may sound counterproductive in terms of the use of developers’ time, but consider that “most organizations have frequent meetings with six or more people,” Zuill points out. "Think of these as working meetings rather than information-sharing ones. Software development isn't about being at a keyboard -- that's just how we get the work into the computer. But the work is thinking, and translating ideas into code."

"If you measure by features or other classic development productivity metrics, Mobbing looks like it's achieving only 75 to 85 percent of individual or Pair output for, say, a team of six or seven working for a week," acknowledges Massey. "However, there's more to productivity than that. In the course of that programming, everyone has contributed their knowledge, so there's no need for training at the end -- nor need to merge. And merging is the most difficult task -- you have to understand the code you are merging. Individual work may have unpredictable problems, or need work to fit together."

"Mob Programming can feel slower, but the payoff is avoiding bugs, and getting the results that you want," says Lean-Agile's Van Schooenderwoert. And mobbing can be contagious (in a good way, of course). "If you deliver code to a customer, you may get them into mobbing as a way to review the code with them."

Mobbing is catching on

Mobbing is still in its early growth phase, but it's catching on quickly, says Industrial Logic’s Zuill: "A year ago I did a conference talk in Sweden about Mob Programming -- and this past week, I saw listings for two sessions in Sweden from teams talking about how they had gone about it. In 2013, I gave a talk on Mob Programming in Stockholm at Ericsson, and when I gave another talk there the next year, three other groups did presentations on how they were using Mob Programming. And I know of at least two or three dozen companies doing a substantial amount of Mob Programming."

And Mobbing isn't just for software development, notes Simon Clements-Hawes, an embedded systems tester at Bluefruit. "You can use Mobbing for training, education and other tasks. I've used it for educating, and for project and task completion."

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Similarly, Zuill notes, "I've talked with people who aren't involved in programming, like project management groups, real estate managers, and finance companies who are using the Mob method. Mobbing is about working together on knowledge-based or thinking-intensive tasks." 

How to get started with Mobbing

"Getting started with mobbing is very simple," says Zuill. “I and others offer workshops on this, but Mobbing is an easy enough concept that you can experiment with it simply from watching online videos."

"There are a few simple guidelines, but the core is 'learning to work well together,'" advises Zuill. "You need a few mechanisms to share information, which is why the driver/navigator model of any idea going through somebody else's hands is important -- the people trying to solve the problem have to explain it to somebody else. This enforces clarity of thinking, versus somebody trying to unravel intent from code. And we want the code to express that intent -- that's about the quality."

Mobbing has two important real-world requirements: a room with a large enough space, and a projector or other large display to allow everybody in the room to see the code on the "driver's" screen. (A blackboard or whiteboard wouldn't hurt, either.)

While Pairing and Mobbing are usually done live, "we have experimented with Pairing remotely, as long as you have good communications," notes Bluefruit’s Massey. And, adds Lean-Agile's Van Schooenderwoert, "remote Mobbing and Pairing is easier to do if the people have already worked together."

"Agile is all about feedback loops. Mobbing is an extension of it," says Bluefruit's Dodkins. "And getting people together in a room is more collaborative. You can look at each other and gesture and express things better than online."

"Knowing we wanted to do mobbing influenced the layout for our new office," says Massey. "We made sure we had a space for teams to spontaneously mob."

"It was helpful to be shown the ropes, but Mobbing is pretty straightforward," says Massey. "Mob Programming is one of the least complicated things to pick up. I suspect that in some of the places that aren't adopting it, it may be due to the culture. This is the most self-propelled practice I've seen. Within a few weeks after training, we were using it successfully."

No silver bullet

Mobbing can't be the only tool in your arsenal, of course, and it isn't a replacement for solo activity. "We don't do this exclusively -- maybe only about a tenth of our time is spent 'mobbing,'" says Bluefruit's Dodkins.

"As with any practice, too much of one thing can be bad," adds Bluefruit's Massey. "For us, the Agile process is a set of principles, and Mob Programming is another tool in the toolkit, along with Pair programming, Test-Driven Development, Behavioral-Driven Development, and a dozen or so others."

"One drawback of mobbing is that while you get the benefit of all people's brains in the room you still need someone to review the code -- which should be somebody who's not in the room," says Dodkins. "If you aren't reviewing your code, good luck -- all code needs to be reviewed."

"Also," stresses Zuill, "I like Mob programming and feel it's good for people to learn it -- but more importantly I feel teams should work hard to figure out what works well for themselves. To figure out their own process by frequently reflecting, tuning and adjusting."

And, says Zuill, there's an unexpected social benefit to Mobbing: "We have found at our workplaces that, by working this way, everybody on the way feels more fulfilled in their lives. We work as a team all day long, and we are uplifting each other and helping each other have a better life. We didn't expect that. And I see this at many places where Mob Programming is being done."


Read more about Mob Programming at

Learn about Mob Programming workshops by Industrial Logic

Want to see Mobbing in action, watch the time-lapse video below of a day of Mob Programming.

This story, "Introducing Mob programming: The best team technique you've (probably) never heard of" was originally published by ITworld.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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