If Sisyphus had only had a partner

While working on another blog entry (still in progress) about Brooks’s Law, I got to thinking about pair programming and how it’s possible that two people working together, sitting at one computer, can be more productive than the same two people working on their own and combining their work. I certainly believe they can, based on my own experiences with pair programming. But after immersing myself in Brooksian notions of how communication costs quickly eat up all available productivity it seems a bit of a paradox. To the extent that writing software is like carrying rocks up a hill — and doesn’t it often feel that way? — here’s an explanation.

Suppose you have a hundred heavy rocks that you need to carry up a hill. They’re not so heavy that you can’t do it but they’re heavy enough that moderately often you’ll lose your grip and the rock will roll back to the bottom of the hill. Let’s say on each attempt to carry a rock up the hill there’s a 70% chance you’ll lose your grip. Assume that when you don’t drop the rock it takes five minutes to carry it up the hill and a minute to walk back down. First question: how long will it take you to get all the rocks to the top of the hill? Obviously in practice it depends on how often that 70% chance of the dropping the rock actually bites you, but we can figure out an expected value. If the drops are randomly distributed — sometimes near the bottom of the hill and sometimes near the top — you’ll lose an average of three minutes per drop. But once you drop a rock you have to start all over again with it and there’s a chance you’ll drop it again. Thus the amount of time you should expect to spend on each rock is six minutes plus the sum of this infinite series:

Add that seven minutes to the six minutes to get it to the top of the hill without dropping and we get an average of thirteen minutes per rock, or 1,300 minutes for all one hundred rocks.

Now suppose you had a partner. Assuming there’s room for two people to carry rocks at the same time, one way to reduce the time it takes to get all the rocks to the top of the hill would be to simply each carry fifty rocks — the 1,300 minutes would be cut in half, to 650 minutes. But there’s another possibility — since the rocks are just a bit too heavy for one person to manage 100% reliably perhaps the two of you working together would be strong enough to never drop a rock. In that case, you could carry all hundred rocks up without dropping any and the whole job would take only 600 minutes, even better than splitting the work.

Of course if the chance of one person dropping a rock was lower, then working separately might be a better bet. In fact we can figure out exactly what probability makes it better to work separately or together by solving this inequality for p:

The numerator of the left hand side represents the expected time it’ll take for one person to get one rock to the top if it takes x minutes with no drops. We divide by two to account for the fact that there are two people working at it. The right hand side represents the time taken with both folks working together and never dropping a rock. After some algebra the xs all go away and it turns out that when the probability of dropping a rock is greater than ⅔ it’s better to pair up than to work separately.

Now, a ⅔ chance may seem fairly high but it’s worth thinking about where that probability comes from. Let’s consider how a ⅔ chance of dropping the rock over five minutes relates to the chance that we’ll drop it in any single minute. To back out the per-minute chance of dropping, given the total probability of dropping and the number of minutes, we start by recognizing that the probability of dropping is equivalent to one minus the probability of not dropping. And to not drop for five minutes we need to not drop for one minute, five times in a row. More generally, to not drop for m minutes, we need to not drop for one minute, m times in a row. If h is the probability of holding (i.e. not dropping) for one minute, and the probability of holding in any one minute is independent of any other minute (i.e. dropping is more or less random and not the result of fatigue), then the combined probability of m minutes is hm. Thus if D is the probability that we’ll drop a rock any time in m, then we can figure out h, the probability that we can hold a rock for a minute, and from there, trivially, d, the probability that we’ll drop it in any one minute, for a given D and number of minutes m as shown here:

Plugging our ⅔ chance and 5 minutes into this formula we find that that a ⅔ chance of dropping over five minutes is equivalent to about a 20% chance of dropping in any single minute. If we want to find out the probability that we’ll drop a rock over a m minute trip, given d, we can use this formula:

Or perhaps more to the point we can solve this inequality:

to determine the relationship between d and m that determines when the total probability of dropping is greater than the ⅔ chance that makes it worthwhile to pair up rather than working separately:

With this formula we can see that if it only took us three minutes to climb the hill, we could live with up to a 31% chance of dropping per minute before pairing would make sense. But if it took us 20 minutes, then we’d do well to pair up even if every minute we had a 95% chance of keeping our grip.

So is developing software like carrying rocks? I’d argue that in many ways it is. Programming requires keeping a bunch of things in mind and if you lose your mental grip on any of them for a moment you either have to backtrack to re-figure out how things fit together or, worse yet, you proceed with a faulty understanding and introduce a bug which later requires a lot of time to track down and fix. In fact programming is in some ways worse than carrying rocks because the cost of a momentary slip of concentration can be much more than simply the equivalent of a rock rolling back to where you started. A bug that you create a few hours into a programming session may take many hours or even days to track down and fix. Luckily pairing can help there too — while one partner is focusing their mind on the next thing the other partner’s mind may linger for a moment and have a “Wait a sec’” moment that catches a bug before it gets too far away, the equivalent of catching a dropped rock before it rolls all the way back down the hill. Or when bugs do get in, a pair can often find them faster than a single programmer, much the way two people would be able to find a dropped rock if it didn’t just roll back to the bottom of the hill but bounced off in some random direction into thick weeds.


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