There are many different characteristics of introverts and extroverts. These characteristics have varying degrees of compatibility with Mob Programming. I don’t believe that any of these characteristics make Mob Programming as an introvert impossible, but some are more challenging than others.
Alone time is important: As introvert, I draw energy from introspection and thinking. Of course, this is contrary to what Mob Programming is all about. If we re-consider the definition of Mob Programming, “the whole team works on the same thing, at the same time, in the same place, on the same computer [Zuill].” Looking at the definition alone it is apparent how this could be an introvert’s worst nightmare. The great thing about my experience with Mob Programming is that working together is always optional. At any time if I feel the need to step away and recharge, I know that I can do that without consequence. Sometimes all it takes is a quick walk around the building. I’m also able to get my alone time by coming in early or programming over lunch.
I decided to test this further by keeping a log of my group time vs. personal time. It confirmed what I suspected: during the weekdays my core hours are spent in a group environment, while the mornings and lunch are usually spent as my personal time, and evenings being reserved for family time. There are deviations from that for team lunches and meet-ups in the evenings. I did notice that during the few times when there was excessive group conflict over a proposed solution or technical direction, those moments were particularly draining for me. These are the occasions where I found myself going for short walks. I’m not certain if this is the introvert in me or the harmonizer.
Large groups are draining: Large groups seem to function as a corollary to alone time. Most of my Mob Programming experience has been with a group of about five to seven people. When working with five people that I know well, the experience is very comfortable for me. When working with five strangers it is too many. Seven people whether I know them or not starts to cross into my “uncomfort” zone.
Our team encourages visits from outside observers. This usually involves some type of knowledge exchange and can be a single visitor or a whole team, we have had teams of up to six people visit our mob. A single visitor is not usually a problem for me. But those situations where we have a whole team visit us prove to be very draining for me. We once had a week where we had a steady onslaught of visitors for four out of the five weekdays and by the end of the week I was completely over-stimulated.
Time to recover and recharge: When I become over-stimulated, I recover best by going to what Professor Brian Little refers to as “restorative niches” [Lambert]. A restorative niche is a place or action that allows you to return to your true self. My restorative niche usually involves briefly leaving an environment I find over-stimulating or exhausting. In a work environment, it isn’t always feasible to physically move. In these situations, I can find a restorative niche by sitting in the back of our workspace or doing work related research on my mobile computing device. I’ll try to find something to do that requires minimal social interaction like completing expense reports or other maintenance type tasks that don’t require a mob. If all that fails, I sometimes have to resort to the nuclear option; I just shut down my communication channels. This isn’t always appropriate in a work environment either and sometimes feels a bit immature to me, leaving me with a feeling that I should just be tough and suck it up. My nuclear option isn’t something of which I’m proud and it is definitely an area for improvement for me.
Prefer one on one: Introverts prefer one on one conversations over group activities [Helgoe]. I would agree that when it comes to learning in a work environment, I do prefer pairing over Mob Programming. Furthermore, pairing with someone of an equal skill level for learning is challenging and fun for me, because we are learning together and working to figure out something and solve a problem that is new. Strong style pairing is also great for learning in a mentor protégé relationship as well. Mob Programming is also great for learning, but sometimes with varying levels of skill, there maybe be gaps for the learner. Stopping our Mob to ask a question is always encouraged and embraced. I still feel some pressure to not interrupt the flow, especially if we are on a roll. Slowing down one person to learn something doesn’t seem as intrusive as slowing down a full Mob of four or more people. Working one on one feels more natural to me, but when I think about it as it relates to work related tasks, I feel like the differences between Pairing and Mobbing are negligible, but for learning I definitely have a leaning toward Pairing over Mobbing.
Slow disclosure: Introverts take their time opening up to people, preferring what poet Stephen Dunn refers to as “slow disclosure” [Chung]. It takes me awhile to get to know people and get settled in. I spent 7th-12th grade at the same school and probably didn’t really start feeling comfortable until 11th grade. Of course, high school is a weird time anyway, coupled with the fact that I’m an introvert; it didn’t make it any easier. Five years! That’s a long time. Of course, I’ve improved, since then, but it still takes me awhile to get comfortable and open up. I am naturally drawn to the familiar, the teammates I have known the longest. Getting comfortable has been a gradual process, but I’ve slowly been finding myself more content with the size of our team and warming up to the newer members of the team.
Territorial: Introverts are territorial [Lambert2009]. This presented challenges for me as an introvert, because we work in a common area, the boundaries between personal spaces often get blurred. I would often come into work and find things piled on my desk that weren’t mine. I’m sure this happened to other members of the team, but I found it particularly annoying. I took it as a declaration from the rest of the team that my space wasn’t important and was a repository for the discarding of unwanted items.
One issue related to personal space that was addressed early in our Mob Programming lifespan was related to seating. Once you found a chair that was comfortable and adjusted for your personal taste; that was “your chair.” It was labeled or given some special marking to indicate the specific owner. This works well, because it makes it apparent to whom each chair belongs. There is no competition for the good chairs and there is very little re-adjusting of chairs because someone else had sat in your chair and adjusted the settings.
As new members have joined the team, this concept has been introduced to them and everyone appears to have adapted. One area that has room for improvement is physical space. Everyone has individual space, but that space is frequently violated as I mentioned earlier. Additionally, team members have specific areas, in which they tend to congregate or park, these spaces are not defined or specified for specific people, but there are some unwritten rules, that if someone has their usual space it is sort of their space.
As we have added new members this has not been communicated and existing team members who once had specific areas where they parked have now had to relocate due to new members inadvertently taking those spaces. We recently moved to a new building where each employee has a locker, but there is no designated desk space for specific people. We have five mobbing stations and fifteen public workstations that are available for individual use or pairing. The new space has considerably more room for the team to spread out and there seems to be less contention over formally or informally defined personal spaces.
Prefer solo work to group work: While, I do get satisfaction working alone, I find it much more rewarding working with the group, which may not be typical for an introvert. I believe that it works for introverts because they thrive on the familiar. A smaller group of people with whom I have established strong relationships would be my first choice for a team. A large group of people I don’t know would be my last choice. I sometimes try to imagine what a party would be like if there were 30 people that were my closest friends that I knew very well. I don’t think I would enjoy it as much as an engagement with a smaller number of people. I would probably feel uncomfortable, maybe even a little guilty, with the fact that I wouldn’t have enough time to have solid conversations with all the attendees. As long as I have some familiarity with the team members and the team size isn’t overwhelming, group work still appeals to my introvert sensibilities.
Don’t enjoy being the center of attention: Introverts do not enjoy nor draw energy from being the center of attention. As a Mob Programmer, at some point, you will either be driving at the keyboard or navigating the driver at the keyboard; both roles having a share of the center of attention. Navigating takes a greater share of the center of attention, and the role I find most intimidating as an introvert.
Navigating is more than just being comfortable in front of a group though. It’s about being comfortable and knowledgeable on the topic being discussed or navigated. Introverts are typically not the best at thinking on their feet. Navigating is almost all about thinking on your feet, especially if the subject matter and direction is completely new. Being able to competently articulate direction and concepts to a group of people is much more taxing than being in front of a keyboard following someone else’s direction.
Of course, the more people in the Mob, the more intimidating the task of navigating is for me. I have attempted to improve on this by putting myself in more center of attention situations. I’ve started attending Toastmasters meetings to get better at public speaking. I’ve also tried to be more outgoing and engaging at conferences and meet-ups. I have also been trying to facilitate sessions at conferences when possible.
Think carefully before speaking: Introverts think before they speak, sometimes they think a really long time and sometimes they decide not to speak at all. I have difficulty thinking on my feet or under pressure; I would rather go through something in my mind a few times. I am one of those people who think of a snappy comeback five minutes after the conversation is over, or sometimes even five days. In a Mob Programming culture this can be problematic. Competence is often graded on verbal actions. A silent introvert is sometimes incorrectly perceived as being disengaged, when, in actuality, they are heavily engaged inside their own mind, soaking up what has been said and analyzing it [Lange]. Sometimes, while mobbing, I am engaged and thinking about what’s going on, but waiting for a turn to speak. Sometimes, that turn to speak never happens. Someone else may end up verbalizing the same thought I had, or the moment to speak passes. A pause to think can also be seen as an opportunity to interrupt, especially by an overzealous extrovert.
One of the most frustrating things for me as an introvert is being interrupted. Occasionally, I will pause to collect my thoughts before I am finished talking, and this is often mistaken for the completion of my statement. I have learned that sometimes when I am interrupted, I just have to keep talking or increase my volume to let my teammates know that I’m still expressing a thought. This isn’t limited to just Mob Programming situations, but can happen in any environment. My teammates have told me that the look of disappointment on my face is a non-verbal cue that they have picked up on and has made them more aware of when they interrupt. This is also a testament to team environments. The more closely you work with a group of people, the better you get know your teammates, and the easier it is to pick up on the subtle nuances of personality and personal likes and dislikes. Being aware of what’s going on with your teammates makes it easier to work together.
Become absorbed in thoughts and ideas: Becoming absorbed in my own thoughts and ideas can be challenging as an introvert in a Mob Programming environment. I’ll see or hear something as the team is working and I’ll latch on to it. I’ll get lost in my own thoughts only to realize that 15 minutes have gone by and I have temporarily lost focus on the task at hand. I know introverts get comfort and recharge best in their own thoughts, while extroverts get that from more social interaction [Burruss]. While some might be able to stay engaged with a side conversation, especially with other people to help guide the conversation, I think it might be more difficult for an introvert that may be more comfortable in their own mind. Anyone can get distracted while Mob Programming, extroverts prefer to do it out loud with another person, and introverts prefer to do it in their mind alone.
Choose where to sit carefully: Introverts have been known to pick out seats close to the exit, so they can bail out when they’ve had too much or need a reprieve. Also, introverts prefer to sit on the outskirts or edge of a group [Myles]. This isn’t too much of an issue in our mob. Each member of the mob has his or her own chair and has some type of indicator to let everyone know who the owner is. If you move, you take your chair with you and for the most part can pick where you want to sit or stand. We do occasionally have update meetings in our workspace that bring in a large number of people. In those situations it can be a bit cramped and I will try to find my way to a spot on the perimeter.
Small talk can feel intrusive: I am not big on small talk, so when someone asks me how my day was, I usually just suspect they are an extrovert setting me up so they can segue into telling me about how their day was. This is something that is not limited to Mob Programming environments. In reality, this isn’t much of an issue during Mob Programming, since we are usually focused on a task at hand.
Sensitive to negative energy: I am sensitive to negative energy [Keighin]. Like any workplace or any relationship, people do occasionally have disagreements. If these disagreements become too long winded, I usually become disinterested very quickly. When it comes to disagreements over solutions, I would rather just move forward than have a long discussion about how we should move forward. In these situations, I usually just step away for a few minutes, maybe go for a quick walk, and by the time I return a course of action has been decided and we’re moving forward again. Because our team operates with the guidelines of treating each other with kindness, consideration, and respect, a disagreement here and there is relatively uneventful and stepping away when you need a break is acceptable and encouraged.