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Pair programming remotely: tools and tips that make it better

Pairing is a great way to boost productivity and help crack a particularly complex problem.

At Made Tech we try to spend 50% of our development time pairing with colleagues. We have dedicated pairing workstations, which consist of two screens mirrored: one for the driver (the person who writes code) and the other for the navigator (the person who reviews the code being written).

If you'd like to know more about pairing, we have written the following articles and books:

Pair programming on-site is an awesome experience, but there are a number of challenges when one or more of you are working remotely.

The problem

For those of us who work remotely our current solution for code pairing is to use screen sharing via Slack or Google Meet.

Both of these options have some disadvantages when it comes to productivity:

  • If video quality degrades, you end up with a screen that is a mess of random pixels.- If the audio quality degrades, the flow of constant feedback (from the navigator) is interrupted, so is productivity. Tip: get headsets to reduce the amount of background noise.
  • If you're swapping roles, you either stay on the shared screen and use your pairing partner's editor or reverse screen sharing.

The solution

Use real-time collaborative editing tools.

Instead of relaying the entire screen (as used by screen sharing), these tools only send editor/keystroke telemetry, avoiding higher bandwidth required audio and visual.

We also had additional requirements which were:

  • The tool must work on our varied collection of editors: Sublime Text, (Neo)vim, Emacs, Atom, ItelliJ IDEA (pycharm et al) and Visual Studio Code. There should be a shared terminal to provide access to specialised testing, debugging or deployment workflows.

The shortlist

We evaluated the following solutions in the market: Floobits, Teletype and Visual Studio Live Share.

Because of one of our requirements was to use native editors we immediately discounted any cloud-based solutions such as Cloud 9 IDE, CodeAnywhere and CodeEnvy who provide an integrated web based editor.

Floobits

Floobits is a paid service, although there is a trial version. This is the only tool, that is reliant on code repositories being imported into a workspace before collaboration can begin. The editor extensions/plugins allow you to do this from within your editor.

On initial inspection Floobits appears to cover most of our requirements. They support a lot of editors (Atom, Sublime Text, Intellij, Neovim and Emacs) and provide shared terminals.

How it works (how to start collaborating)

  • Signup
  • Install the extension
  • Import your project into a workspace (this can be done in the editor)
  • Share the name of your workspace with your collaborator

Pros

  • Baked in video chat – you could use this over a separate channel via Slack or Google Meet.

Cons

  • No support for Visual Studio Code.Workspaces could potentially leak code if you forget to set as private.
  • The synchronisation story between local and remote is not clear. Picking the wrong option can result in data loss.
  • The shared terminal feels janky, why prevent remote users from sending the Enter key, but them allow to type in the terminal?

Teletype

Teletype was created by the same GitHub team behind Atom.

How it works

  • Install the extension
  • Generate a github oauth token
  • In the command palette enter: Teletype: Share Portal
  • Share the portal URL

Pros

  • Free

Cons

  • Atom only
  • No shared terminal

Visual Studio Live Share

Microsoft have entered this space, allowing users of Visual Studio Code and Professional editions to collaborate.

How it works

  • Install the extensionSignin using Microsoft Live or Github
  • Share the project you're currently in
  • Send pairing partner the sharing URL

Pros

  • Free, but a paid tier is being evaluated for the future which would have more advanced features.
  • Shared debugging – though not a requirement it was nice to be able to remotely inspect the contents of the code while it was running.
  • Shared servers – think ngrok, but baked in
  • Independent exploration – the navigator could look at other parts of the code base in anticipation of new or old problems without disrupting the driver.

Cons

  • Only supports Visual Studio Code and Professional editions

Summary

There's no clear winner, but Floobits has the advantage of supporting so many editors and terminal support. The user experience of the Visual Studio Live Share was exceptional and just worked.

This is still a relatively new field, and improvements as well as new players will appear in the market. So we'll be revisiting this space periodically.

It would be great if this market adopted an open standards protocol, in a similar fashion to how language support in code editors and IDEs has been simplifed with the advent of Language Support Protocol.

This new protocol would be responsible for sending editor and shared terminal telemetry. The market leaders could provide their own features on the server implementation, but clients would be reduced to a single extension/plugin.

About the Author
Mark Sta Ana
Reliability Engineer at Made Tech
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We are hiring Software Engineers, Delivery Managers and Technical Principals. Find out more about a career at Made Tech.

About Made Tech

Our mission is to improve software delivery in every organisation. We work with our customers to deliver modern applications and help them move to a faster, leaner, and more agile software delivery model.