25 August 2022

Practice Speed

Several years ago I co-facilitated the Global Day of Coderetreat with Houssam Fakih. It was a nice Coderetreat. During the introduction Houssam presented the concept of practice and three levels of competence. The first level is that you are able to do a certain thing from time to time. The second level is that you are able to do it all the time. The third level is, and that was new to me, that you perform the thing consistently well and fast at the same time. In this short video there are three guys throwing balls at a boot at a fair. The guy on the right is on level one. He is able to throw the ball into the basket most of the time. The guy in the middle is competent and always hits the target. But the guy on the left is on another level. Besides hitting the basket consistently, he is using both hands alternating and is two to three times faster.

The Walk to Save Great Danes (licensed CC BY-NC-ND by Warchild)Deliberate Practice
In Coding Dojos and Coderetreats we practice all kind of coding techniques like Test Driven Development, software design and pair programming, but we rarely practice speed. The Coding Dojo mindset is explicit about going slow. There are a few exercises which have a timing aspect, e.g. Elephant Carpaccio or Baby Steps. Some people try to master the Baby Steps constraint by typing faster and using more shortcuts. While these are good things to practice by themselves, they bypass the exercise. Both exercises focus on taking smaller steps. The speed of typing is not the bottleneck.

Side Note: Speed of Typing
If the speed of typing is not the bottleneck in writing software, why do we focus on shortcuts and touch typing? The idea is, while coding, to stay in the flow and work on a higher level of abstraction. For example, when I want to move a method, and I can do it with a few keystrokes, I keep the current thoughts in my mind. But if I have to navigate, modify blocks of text, change method invocations, and so on, I think in more low level concepts like text editing or file navigation, and this breaks my focus.

One of my recent Coding Dojos became a Hackathon. A misunderstanding with the sponsor, who cared for food during the event, caused this. The sponsor wanted to run some challenge to make people think outside of the box, and make them try something new and innovative. They had prepared an assignment in Hackathon style. A Hackathon is an event that brings together experts and creates a collaborative environment for solving a certain problem. I avoid Hackathon because the format is competitive and people try to go as fast as possible to create some prototype or try to prove some idea or deliver some working code. Going fast above all else, e.g. skipping preliminary design or tests due time pressure is the startup trap. Obviously I dislike this way of working. (I see value in Hackathon as a tool for innovation and maybe team building.)

First I was unsure how to proceed. On one hand I wanted to please the sponsor, paying real money for the crafters community is a real contribution and separates the "talking" from the "doing" companies. On the other hand I wanted to stay true to the Coding Dojo experience. I thought of Houssam and remembered that going fast is a skill, one we need and rarely practice. In fact it is a skill we developers are often asked to apply, e.g. when the deadline is coming up or marketing has some new urgent idea. Like the guy on the left in Houssam's video, working fast and clean at the same time is hard. I made it a mix: I ran a Coding Dojo where the challenge was to finish some basic code in a given time frame. All Coding Dojo rules applied, the goal of the evening was to learn, to collaborate and to be nice. Even under pressure I reminded the participants to write tests because "your best code does not help you if it is broken". I encouraged them to work in small batches as "the most clever algorithm loses if it is unfinished". As facilitator I focused on helping people to create small, working increments. It worked well and after 90 minutes most teams had a working solution and three of them won a price.

Speed (licensed CC BY by Gabriel)How to Practice Speed
Considering my own, personal practice, I go in the same direction. I am practising a lot on old and new exercises, in various programming languages, some I have much experience and some I just learned. Working these exercises, adding hard or even brutal constraints is boring. I even tried contradicting constraints like Tell Don't Ask and Immutability. To try something new I started working against the clock. Maybe I can be the guy on the left.

Roman Numerals
My colleagues tell me that I am very fast in perceiving, reading and understanding code, as well as typing with shortcuts. When working against the clock my first exercise was Roman Numerals. I chose a small exercise because I expected to retry it a lot. I set a timer to five minutes and worked on the kata. When the timer rang I stopped and analysed my progress. Of course I failed to finish but I kept trying. Some rarely used editing shortcuts would have helped, and I learned some more of them. I did use TDD and three to four tests were the most I was able to get, which was enough. The test for Roman I created the method arabicToRoman, II added a recursive call, VI introduced a lookup for the literal by its value and 388 introduced all the remaining literals. When using Ruby for the same exercise I thought I would be able to beat my Java time, because Ruby is more expressive and there is less code to write. Unfortunately I am not as familiar with Ruby as I am with Java and the missing code completion slowed me down. Currently I need five minutes for a fully working Arabic to Roman Numerals conversion including subtractive forms. I am able to create good names and small methods in the given time, but I am unable to create more elaborate structures for holding the Roman literals and their values. Java is just too clunky. In short: the code is good, but the design is bad.

What Next
Then I tried the Coin Changer kata and after several tries I was able to beat four minutes. Coin Changer and Roman Numerals are much alike and Coin Changer is simpler as it has no literals, the coin value is also the returned value. I knew both katas well, and the exercise was in fact only about my typing supported by tests to avoid mistakes. Maybe I should try a larger assignment. Running through many repetitions would be tedious. Maybe I should try unknown exercises. At least they would be unknown for the first run. I need a large number of little TDD exercises of similar size and complexity. Time to do some searching.