Paired Mathematics

October 21, 2014


This evening my daughter was sitting at the kitchen table, pencil in hand, confronting a full page of math homework. It was one of those dreadfull rote exercises where one has to solve variations on the same problem over and over again until either the exercises are complete or the child expires from boredom. I remember those math exercises, usually associated with the dictum to “Show your work” – meaning that every exercise would take what seemed like hours to complete. I’m breaking out in a cold sweat just thinking about it.

Nobody I know really likes these sorts of homework assignments. I guess they are a rite of passage in grade school. Seeing the dread in her eyes, I sat down and proceeded to just start talking her through it. It was all the usual stuff. I’d ask questions, and talk about different ways of solving the problem. I’d check her results and ask more questions. And I’d challenge her to do silly things (Write your numbers as tiny as you can. Smaller. smaller!). I’d stop and ask her how she did it, because Dad doesn’t know the new math (I really don’t – today they use all sorts of fun strategies that I never learned as a kid). And of course there was a high five at the end.

And then it occurred to me that we were pair programming!

Well, pair problem solving anyway. She was driving – doing the work. I was navigating, validating her work and thinking about how to tackle the next challenge. We had a dialog going on where we questioned each other. It turns out we both tend to make the same kinds of silly mistakes: like father, like daughter. I just see those mistakes better because I’m navigating, and I’m more experienced.

It seems a very similar pattern to what we do when we are pair programming. Someone is working on the problem, the other is verifying, asking questions, looking ahead. And both are very focused. It’s very intense – requiring full concentration. But, depending on who it is, it can be playful too.

That sounds like a nice way to work. Better than individually grinding away. Of course programming and math problems from grade school are very different things. But it made me wonder, is a place where we all pair a more pleasant place?

Experimenting with Cadence

August 15, 2013


Recently I’ve taken up running again. Don’t worry, this isn’t some story of how glorious it has made me feel. Running sucks. I’ve been doing it for months now, and I’ve yet to have that stupid runner’s high that everybody talks about. I just feel moderately like crap when I’m done. At least that was the case until today.

Finally I managed to have a good day! I felt great. So what was different about today? Well, the pace was a little different. I altered my stride just a little bit. Held back a little. Focused more on each step. It felt like I was taking more frequent, smaller steps to go the same distance. Don’t get me wrong: I probably look like a fat man who is angry at the ground when I run. I’m nobody’s expert on running.

Regardless, it got me thinking about cadence (hey, I was bored and hyperventilating). It seemed like changing my stride, altering my cadence, might have a profound effect on my experience of running. Of course this should come as a surprise to absolutely no one. The sports world is full of great examples of the power of finding the right cadence. Apparently in cycling (another sport I know nothing about) Lance Armstrong’s magic pedaling cadence was responsible for some of his amazing performances in the mountains. Well, OK…it was that and a boat load of drugs. Maybe I’m doing it wrong…

But back to cadence: we all grow accustomed to doing things at a certain pace that is comfortable for us. Whether it is running, walking, working, writing, or chasing the kids, we all have a certain pace that we tend to move at. How could we change our pace in a fashion that might allow us to experience the work or the exercise differently. In the case of exercise, speeding up and slowing down is usually not all that hard to do. The cadence we use and the mechanisms we use to control it are fairly obvious: we shorten our stride, we don’t push quite as hard. Unfortunately, in the world of work the notion of cadence is a bit more subtle.

Take programming for example. One way to measure cadence is working sessions. Some people will use practices like the pomodoro technique to break up their work day into 25 minute blocks of working time with 5 minute breaks. Another example is the “pairing session” where you work together with someone else at pair programming for a fixed period of time (say 60 minute blocks). Now it might be good enough to just settle on a time that seems comfortable and run with it. However, I think there is an opportunity to experiment with cadence here. Let’s look at the pomodoro: why is a 25 minute working session the best length for you? Why couldn’t it be 20 minutes – or 30? How would you know which works best? By trying it out of course! If  you want to find the cadence that works best for you, you need to experiment with it and see how it feels.

At this point it’s probably worth mentioning that you aren’t likely to experience a runner’s high from programming (otherwise there would probably be a lot more people doing it). However, you might just find that you can sustain the work for longer overall durations by finding the working period that is tuned to what feels best to you. That would be a win wouldn’t it?

So don’t be afraid to play with your cadence. You just might find that you are able to find a mode of working that works better for you.

Paired Presentations

May 15, 2011

Often when people talk about public speaking, they are typically referring to an individual speaker. You don’t see much advice for people who present in pairs. When it works out, it is a beautiful thing where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. When it fails, usually one speaker or the other takes the brunt of the damage. Here are some things that I recommend doing to insure a paired speaking engagement is successful:

  1. Keep it simple and let each speaker own a portion of the presentation on his or her own. This avoids a situation where one person does all the talking and the other just chimes in from time to time. I feel that both speakers need to be perceived by the audience as experts in their own right. It doesn’t even have to be a large section of the presentation that you own – just some section that is all yours. I feel like this works well with people who are new to presenting – I can include them for whatever period they feel most comfortable. The anti-pattern here is where a second speaker in a pair only chimes in from time to time. This leaves them only offering the occasional comment. This can leave a perception of that second person as interrupting the first speaker.
  2. Rehearse together – I know it’s hard to do, but you will both find weak areas in each other’s material. When I’m working on speaking material, I tend to get these ideas that I think are totally brilliant. We’re talking about genius stuff here. I can’t tell you how often I have shared this brilliant material with my partner only to discover that it falls completely flat. It must be an echo chamber in my skull (it is empty anyhow). Better to have a lame idea shot down by my partner than some poor unsuspecting audience. Often, the idea just needs refinement.
  3. The 3 secrets to a good presentation with a partner? Support. Support. Support. Focus on the other person in your presentation. If they rock, then you both are very likely going to look brilliant. If they suck, you haven’t got a chance. Be there to encourage them when the practice doesn’t go well. Be there to provide ideas and alternatives. Be patient when they are struggling and time is running short. Make them feel welcome and like a key contributor.
  4. Have a victory celebration afterward! It’s not often that I get to share a presentation with someone. Two people qualify as a party in my book, so go for it! Celebrate the accomplishment! It’s a big deal when two people can collaborate together successfully to provide a rich experience for an audience. Not many people can do it well.

I’m sure there is a lot of good advice for people who are co-presenting and I’d love to hear it. These are just a few things that I’ve learned by trial and error (a lot of the latter).