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What Is Collaborative Coding?

What is collaborative coding?

As you're starting on your new journey toward becoming a developer, chances are that you're spending a lot of time on your own in front of the screen. Though it's nice to have some alone time at the beginning of your new job, is that how developers always work?

The answer is no. While developers do a lot of independent coding at their workstations, it's also common for development teams (especially Agile development teams) to work together through collaborative coding.

In a nutshell, collaborative coding is an approach to software development where pairs or teams of programmers work together on a project by coding each other's ideas or editing each other's code.

In this article, we'll go through the types of collaborative coding setups, why developers use collaborative coding, and some popular collaborative coding platforms and environments.

Collaborative coding setups

As we explained, collaborative coding involves multiple developers working together on a project. This can happen in a few different ways. Let's explore some of the most common:

Pair programming

Pair programming involves two developers working at a single workstation. One developer serves as the driver, and the other as the navigator.

The driver uses the workstation and writes code while the navigator reviews the code in real-time. Every so often, the two developers will switch roles, so each has a chance to guide the project's direction and translate solutions into real code.

In general, the navigator's job is to define the strategic direction of the code and propose what it should do. The driver, on the other hand, is in charge of the "tactical" aspects and focuses on writing code and making sure it does what it's supposed to do and follows company guidelines for variable naming, commenting, and so on.

A pair programming project can consist of two developers with similar skills and experience, or it might bring together a senior developer who mentors a junior developer during the project.

Mob programming

The idea behind mob programming is similar to pair programming, except it involves more than two people. At any given time, one driver developer is at the workstation while the other navigator programmers guide the driver to write the code.

While mob programming sounds a bit chaotic, the truth is that it's an excellent way to bring a development team together to create a better software product. That is, if the mob programming team follows a few rules.

First, they need to follow the driver-navigator principle. For a developer's idea to make it to the computer, it must go through the hands of another developer. That means that navigators need to communicate their ideas clearly enough for the driver to be able to turn them into code.

At the same time, drivers are encouraged to ask clarifying questions, including the logic behind a particular idea. But, at no point should the driver start writing code that doesn't follow the direction of the navigators.

Second, mob programming works better when everyone has the chance to navigate. That's why successful mob programming projects rotate through drivers, often using a strict timer system.

Finally, all communications between team members must be respectful and considerate. Sure, there will be disagreements. In fact, a big advantage of mob programming is that team disagreements can be settled openly and honestly.

Still, everyone on the mob programming team must remember that everyone has something valid to contribute, and it's vital to stay on the same side.

Code sharing

Unlike pair programming and mob programming, code sharing involves the traditional setup of each developer working on their own machines to write their own code. But, with a code-sharing setup, members of the development team have the opportunity to review, revise, debug, and add to each other's code.

As you can imagine, code sharing can only work when there's a solid version control system in place to avoid duplicate work and ensure that everyone is working from the latest code scripts. There are a few specialized platforms designed for code-sharing developers to work either in real-time or asynchronously.

Why collaborative coding works

When faced with a major development project, many teams might think the best approach is to divide and conquer. After all, doesn't it make more sense to have everyone work on different parts of the project and put it all together in the end?

Not always. While collaborative coding might seem to slow things down, there are quite a few benefits that make it a worthwhile approach.

Better communication

When everyone works on their own code for a development project, poor communication can lead to failure. On the other hand, with collaborative coding, great communication is a requirement.

During a collaborative programming project, everyone hears what everyone else is saying. And because anyone's ideas must be coded by someone else, everyone needs to clearly explain how they want to approach the project.

Collaborative coding also makes the team communicate their disagreements openly and settle them before the project can move on. The result is a final product that everyone on the team understands and supports.

Faster debugging

When everyone is looking at the same code at the same time, it's much easier and faster to catch errors. Whether it's a misplaced comma or a misspelled variable, catching mistakes as they're made saves the whole team time and frustration later on when there's much more code to sift through.

Anyone can pick up the project

People take sick days. People go on vacation or get reassigned to other projects. Collaborative coding ensures that everyone on the team understands the entire development project. That way, if someone unexpectedly can't work on the project, the rest of the team will know exactly where to start up again and how the project is going.

Collaborative coding environments and platforms

At first, collaborative coding was done in person. But now, modern collaborative coding platforms and environments have allowed development teams to connect remotely and securely with each other from anywhere in the world. They include:

Get the skills you need to start your first collaborative coding project

Collaborative coding is a great way to quickly gain programming experience by working with senior programmers and understanding how they approach problems. But how can you get started?

First, you'll need to master a couple of programming languages. Then, you'll want to put your skills to use by building a couple of projects, and once you're confident in your skills, take on a group project.

Try reaching out to other learners on our forums — you might find a more experienced developer who can offer valuable insights.


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Michael Klein

Michael Klein is a freelancer with a love for statistics, data visualization, and his cat. When he’s not writing for Codecademy, he enjoys geostatistics with R and playing with agent-based models.

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What Is Collaborative Coding?
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