Three Questions to Ask Your New Pair (and Yourself!)

At Atomic, we pair pragmatically. During an eight-hour work day, we may have an hour or two of other appointments or schedule mismatch, plus two hours for lunch, breaks, time spent cranking out menial tasks on our own, etc. We’ll call it around five hours of pairing on an average day. That’s a lot of time to be dealing with each other!

Working that closely with just one other person on hard problems all day long can get really draining, really fast. As with any good relationship, we’re going to need to put some work into this to make it fun, healthy, and productive for both halves of the pair.

I like to start things off on the right foot by asking new pairs a few important questions.

What Do You Want Your Work Schedule to Look Like?

This one’s a matter of practicality. What time does your pair like to start working? When do they feel the most focused? How often do they want to take breaks? You don’t need to match in all of these ways; you just need to plan for them.

If my pair wants to come in at 9:00 but I want to come in at 8:00 and take a long lunch, that doesn’t mean either of us needs to shift our schedules or be uncomfortable. It means we should end each day with a plan for how I’m going to kick things off the next morning. Then I can take advantage of the alone time to start brainstorming for a new feature, or maybe to handle email.

Failing to have this conversation and calibrate your respective schedules is a quick road to exhaustion and even resentment. It once took (a very crabby) me until 2:00 pm to realize that my pair wasn’t just mercilessly pushing us along, willfully keeping me from my food—he didn’t ever actually intend on taking a lunch that day and wasn’t thinking about the time. Had I thought to ask, or speak up about my own schedule preferences, I could have taken a quick break and saved us both a couple hours of lackluster, hangry pairing.

What Information Channels Work Best for You?

Does your pair do best with verbal information? Written? Drawings, diagrams? Knowing how each of you processes information best will help you have more productive discussions as a pair. For example, I work with someone who tends to want to talk things out, but I quickly lose track of verbal ideas and need to visualize the problem space. Since we had this conversation, he knows that if I’m getting confused, it’s probably a good time to take things to the whiteboard.

Similarly, I’ve had teammates who really prefer that we sketch things out in a fresh text buffer vs. at the whiteboard. A bonus to learning to communicate over both people’s best channels is that it forces both of you to look at your ideas from different angles. This is a great way to spot weaknesses and strengthen ideas!

When and How Do You Like to Receive Feedback?

This is especially important if there’s an experience gap in the pair, or if you’ve never worked together before. It first occurred to me outside of work, during a post-training conversation with one of my fellow acrobats.

Our teacher, Jenn, had been giving her a lot of corrective feedback that day:

“It seemed like Jenn was really rough on you today. Are you feeling all right?”
“Oh, she’s always like that.”
“Really? She’s never like that with me–why would she be so mean to you?”
“Mean? No, I really like the way she teaches me. I need it to improve.”

This conversation left me wondering if Jenn just thought I wasn’t tough enough to handle negative feedback, so I asked her about it the following week. Jenn told me that she treats the two of us differently because we each do better with different types of feedback:

“I don’t give you corrections as often because I know that you’re trying to figure things out on your own first, and you’re going to ask me a question about what you’re doing wrong as soon as you’re ready to. If I try to correct you sooner than that, you’ll get distracted and discouraged. Your classmate does better when someone else points out her mistakes, because it helps her figure out what things to work on so she can go and drill them.”

This example demonstrates two of the big differences in feedback delivery strategies: the when and the how. Is reminding you of keyboard shortcuts on the fly going to help you remember to use them, or is it just going to annoy the hell out of you in the moment? Would it be better to have a focused reflection on your text-editing skills at lunch, or would such a conversation be difficult for you to apply to your practical workflow? Having this meta-feedback conversation can protect you from a great deal of bad feelings and missed learning opportunities.

Other Ideas

Here are a few other questions you might want to discuss:

  • What do you feel your biggest strengths are going to be for this project?
  • Is there anything you’re afraid of on this project?
  • What kind of work do you love to do?
  • What do you find boring and draining?
  • Do you have any pet peeves?

The idea here is to get an idea of how the other person works, and integrate it thoughtfully into your own workflow. It’s not always going to be a perfect match, but a little forethought goes a long way!

Bonus Question: How Do You Emote?

It’s really important for each of you to understand each other’s modes of expression. Is a raised voice just how you show excitement, or should I be worried? Do you hate to be interrupted? Do you need to be interrupted? If you go quiet for a while, is that you carefully mulling things over? Being mad? Confused? Everyone’s different in the way they express themselves, and one person’s succinct reply is another’s curt retort.

This one’s generally better framed if you share your own approach, or just try to observe thoughtfully. I don’t know a good way to ask it explicitly without being intrusive.

One way I’ve found to better understand my teammates’ emotions is to ask them retrospective questions, e.g., “How were you feeling when <thing X> happened?” I try to make a point to clear up possible misinterpretations of my own expressions, too: “I hope I didn’t come off short when you asked me that question earlier—I was absorbed in something else at the time and a little distracted.”

Emotional understanding or a lack thereof can be one of the biggest make-or-break factors in a working relationship. Make sure you’re on the same page!