I joined ecobee’s dotcom team as a web developer in February 2020. The dotcom team builds and maintains ecobee.com, ecobee’s ecommerce site and the best place for customers to receive support and learn about the brand. The dotcom team is a very collaborative group and we’ll jump in to help each other out when we need to, but I noticed early on that we don’t naturally gravitate towards pair programming as part of our workflow. Pair programming, or “pairing”, is the practice of two developers working together on a single problem on a single computer. Often one is the “driver”, the one writing the code, and the other the “navigator”, reading and reviewing the code as it’s written. Depending on the expertise of the participants, this can take on more of a teacher and student dynamic where the goal is more mentorship and knowledge transfer. While it may seem inefficient at first glance, there are many well-established benefits to this practice including more creative problem-solving, higher-quality code, and improved interpersonal skills.
I had heard rumours that other teams at ecobee were pair programming, so I reached out to two of my colleagues and I set up a time for me to shadow one of their very typical and very common pairing sessions. I learned a lot during that session about how they pair, why they pair, and how that fits into their team’s workflow.
In addition to a lack of pairing on my immediate team, the switch to working remotely as a result of the pandemic had meant meeting fewer new people in any context, not just through our technical work. Normally you’d run into people at the coffee maker or over lunch, but that just wasn’t the case anymore.
Then my coworker had the brilliant idea to extend this shadowing exercise and the “cross-team” aspect of what we’d done to more people through the Women in Technology (WIT) community. Our initial hypothesis was that there would be a lot of benefits to this kind of experience. We’d get to see what our own tech stack looks like on other teams. For example, frontend might look a lot different on SmartBuildings versus dotcom and I’d get to see what that looked like. Alternatively there would be the opportunity to see what completely different tech stacks look like if you were interested in learning about something that’s not what you do every day. And we’d also get the opportunity to just meet a lot of other women!
I spoke to the rest of the WIT committee about this idea and we all agreed that this would fit really well into our overarching goal: create and grow a sense of community for and with the members of the WIT group. We thought this was a great idea and we should definitely pursue it. We called it Cross-Team Pairing (CTP).
The setup was pretty straight forward. I sent out an announcement in our community’s Slack channel saying that I was going to kick off this initiative. I gave them all the same sort of context that I’ve described above and I directed them to a signup sheet. I asked them to provide their name as well as the topic that they were interested in pairing on. It could be something they already know or maybe something brand new that they wanted to learn about.
We ended up having 11 women sign up including myself. Considering that our WIT community had less than 50 people at the time, that represented more than a 20% participation rate and I was ecstatic to see so many people interested. We got a huge range of topics being proposed from frontend to mobile to embedded and then I worked to match people’s interests with people who had experience in that particular area. It soon became clear that this wasn’t going to be like classic pairing where two people with the same context and shared skill set would put their heads together and solve a problem. This was going to be much more like knowledge transferring or a teacher/student type of experience. I got to work matching people.
Some people ended up in pairs. Some people ended up in pairing triangles and even some squares, where person A was responsible for teaching person B, person B taught person C, and person C taught person A. Ideally each person participated in two pairing sessions, one where they were the teacher and one where they were the student. I announced who people were matched with and got them to start pairing.
I left it up to them to send out calendar invites, pick the length of their pairing sessions, the frequency, etc. Ideally they would do two but I left it up to them to schedule those meetings as they saw fit. After a couple weeks I sent out a poll to see how people were doing, to see whether they’d scheduled them, whether they’d completed them, and I used the responses to gauge when the end date of this first cohort would be.
Results and learnings
After another couple weeks, we celebrated the end of this first iteration with a wrap party and feedback session. This served a couple different purposes: to celebrate the end of this first round and to share all the things we’d learned and the people we’d met and to gather a lot of feedback about what people liked about the experience, ways that it could be adapted for the future, and just share what we had learned.
I think it’s worth saying: I felt so good by the end of this session. This was an overwhelmingly positive experience (I’m happy to say there was no negative feedback). And it just was a huge energy boost to me, to see so many people get so much value out of this experience. I’d like to share some of the learnings that we took away from the experience:
- Where to start when you’re just getting into a new area of tech: any area of tech can be really daunting and everyone on the internet has an opinion about where to start so being in a safe environment with a person that you can talk to and get advice from is hugely valuable.
- Gaining visibility into how some disciplines were the same, and in other ways, how they were different.
- Shedding light on something very mysterious while bringing down the intimidation factor that’s involved when you’re being introduced to new things. There can be a lot of anxiety about learning something new and being in unfamiliar territory, so being able to do that in a safe and comfortable place with people that you maybe don’t know but at least you’re getting to know, can be hugely valuable.
- And on the flip side of that, learning how to demo or how to teach, especially to someone that doesn’t have the same skill set as you, is also a hugely valuable skill and I was really pleased to see that people took away this idea of how to teach better as a skill that they learned during this experience.
- Getting to see what was going on on other teams that they don’t necessarily interact with anymore or getting to learn about teams that they've never interacted with. Especially if you joined the company during the pandemic you might have a little bit less context about all the other teams at ecobee and what they all do and so getting to meet people from across the org helped shed light on that as well.
- And finally, meeting new people. That was a huge takeaway from the exercise, that a lot of us got to meet people that we’d never met before. We got to hear each other’s stories about how we got into tech and how we came to be at ecobee.
Participants were overwhelmingly in favour of how random the pairings were, as opposed to being matched with someone with the same skill set as themselves. Some of the pros of this approach are that there’s just so much to learn and there are so many people to meet that the more random it is, the more you get to experience. Others mentioned that hearing the feedback about other people’s experiences also sparked more ideas for the next round for themselves. So even if they got matched with the same person again, they’d still have more to talk about. There’s always more to learn. One of the drawbacks of a very tailored approach is that there just aren’t enough women in every discipline to be perfectly matched with someone who has the same skill set as you. There are some teams where this would just be impossible but as we continue to grow as an organization and hire more women, this will hopefully become a possibility in the future.
This is the story of my personal quest for more pairing and more connection to my peers and how it resulted in an overwhelmingly successful initiative that connected women from across the organization. We learned about each other and our work and the initiative is slated to begin its fourth iteration in early 2022.