Thursday, 15 June 2017

Mob programming for managers

I could give you many, many reasons as to why mob programming is a great way of working. I've practiced it full time for two years now, at two different companies, and I really see no reason to go back to working alone. Together with my two colleagues Håkan Alexander and John Magnusson, I've been speaking about the subject at more than a dozen companies in Stockholm and at a couple of conferences. In short, we're into it. Big time.

At my current assignment, SEB, one of the biggest banks in Sweden, we've been mob programming since I came into the project. In fact, most of the issues I encounter regarding poor quality and late deliveries, I strongly feel can be helped by mob programming.

Of course, working this way, sitting 4 or more developers around one computer, can trigger a few questions. Is it really efficient? How much does every line of code cost? One person is active and the other ones are just sitting around looking at their phones? Will management allow it?

Views on mob programming

To be honest, when we're out speaking about mob programming, managers are almost always positive. We speak about better quality, faster deliveries, better throughput, less time spent on fixing bugs.

Developers are more skeptic, especially the senior ones. Some feel that their work is too complex and they need to solve problems undisturbed and alone.

Junior developers are often very positive though. The things they could learn sitting together with the senior developers, instead of struggling alone through legacy systems where technology as well as domain is unchartered territory for them!

It's not that strange though, that managers encourage it and developers resist. For managers, this won't mean anything for their day to day job. It's always easy to encourage someone else to change their ways. For developers, on the other hand, this will deeply affect their everyday work.

SEB leader day plans

One day, our lovely agile coach Anna Borgerot came by at SEB and asked me if I wanted to help arrange the SEB IT Leader Day. 120 leaders within the IT organization from Sweden and Lithuania would meet up in Stockholm for a whole day with the theme of Learning. They had come up with the idea of letting the leaders do some coding, inspired by the Hour of Code-movement.

Anna loved the way we were mob programming (she said it warmed her heart to see us :) ) and thought that would be a great way to inspire everyone at the event to actually sit in front of the computer and do some coding, even though they might never have done it before.

So naturally, I said yes. Such a great opportunity to spread the mob programming gospel and to actually observe how people react when faced with a new team, a new way of working and a task way outside of their comfort zone. My view is that this is the natural way of solving problems for us, but once we head out into the work life, we're supposed to be efficient and go it alone. And - surprise - one mind does not think as well as four.

The coding task

To begin with, we realised it could not be just me managing the two hour slot of introducing mob programming, coding and reflecting. Three more developers from SEB were asked to help: Andreas Frigge, Andreas Berggren and Magnus Crafoord. We thought about what the actual coding exercise should be and ended up with Minecraft Designer found at Minecraft Designer is a block based application consisting of 12 steps of different tasks, with short movies in between explaining the coding concepts.

We all tried it and decided it would be something that would work for everyone, coding experience or not. The recognition of coding Minecraft was nice as well, something they might do at home with their kids later.

We also gave them the actual task, when they were done with the 12 mandatory steps we wanted them to build their own game, using what they had learned. There were some requirements, but quite vague. So we gave them a fixed deadline of one hour, a new way of working that they hadn't chosen themselves, and vague requirements. Totally realistic, in other words!

Dress rehearsal

In order to see if our idea for the two hours given to us would work out, we did a dress rehearsal two weeks in advance. Anna found 12 willing test pilots that could help us. This was incredibly helpful! We learned that my mob programming introduction had to be more geared towards the upcoming coding task, that we had to steer the dividing into teams better, that the written instructions about setting up the timer and the actual coding had to be much clearer and the screens, keyboards and mouse at each station had to be checked. When running through it with real non coding people, we ended up making small changes to almost everything.

We also noticed something else. They were laughing, pointing, discussing and creating stuff. Everyone participated. We started to feel quite good about the upcoming big day.

The leader day event

When the IT leader day finally arrived, we had the following schedule:
  • Intro to mob programming, 15 minutes.
  • Divide into teams, 4 at each table, 10 minutes. We took care ensuring they didn't work with the people they normally work with.
  • Setup the mob timer and programming environment, 10 minutes. Everyone had their own computers and we had 30 tables with screen, keyboard and mouse. We also asked them to use cool hacker names in the timer, which turned out to be a fun task that got the energy going in the room.
  • The coding task, 60 minutes.
  • Reflection in the team, 10 minutes. We had prepared a sheet of questions to help them.
  • Joint reflection, pass the mic, 10 minutes.

Reflections from my side during the actual event were these: everyone coded. They followed the timer that was set at 7 minutes. They laughed. They were active. They were loudly discussing the problems, solving all the tasks together. As I was walking the room, it was obvious how natural and powerful this way of working was.

At the joint reflection afterwards, one of the participants expressed that he was surprised that they had actually managed to solve this task and it was all due to working together. Another said that she actually felt she participated more when being a navigator than when being a driver. Great reflections, and so true!

More about the event can be found here, at SEB:s website.

Comments afterwards

Getting the written opinions on the mob programming session a couple of days after the event was truly awesome:
  • Mob programming is DA SHIT!
  • Mob programming – WOW!
  • Interesting interaction!
  • Fun to do some programming that also got you to think of ways of working.
  • Good to focus on development and IT-competence.
  • Inspirational to hear about the mob programming method.
  • Great with mob programming (outside my comfort zone which is good for me to be!)
  • The introduction to Mob programming was the best – loved the simplicity and clarity.
  • MOB - great way of working - will try that in my department.
  • Loved the mob programming!
  • Fun/useful to try mob programming.
  • An extremely powerful way of solving problems!
Can't be anything else than happy about those comments. The week after I also started to get bookings in my Outlook calendar from managers wanting me to speak about mob programming at their departments. So yay, great success!

Will SEB start mob programming everywhere now?

Mob programming is something that I personally am very passionate about. But one thing to watch out for of course is this: no one wants to be told how to do their work. The way a team works must come from within the team. Inspiration is great, trying different things is great, but it has to be a team decision.

Showing IT leaders that mob programming is a good way of working mainly achieves this: it might remove any future obstacle of managers thinking it's a waste of money and time. It might give teams the opportunity and possibility to try it out. It might help managers embrace that not all has to be done according to the standard process and beliefs. Hopefully in the end, some teams will get inspired to try it and see the benefits!

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Build an info station using Adafruit Feather

Everyone needs an info station. Press a button to quickly get the information you want! This project uses a Feather Huzzah with Wifi, an arcade button and an OLED i2C display.

What does it do?

  • On startup, the info station connects to your WiFi.
  • It displays a message: 'please press button'.
  • When pressed, the API of your choice is called, the response is parsed and displayed.
  • After a given duration, the display goes back to showing the message: 'please press button'.

In my case, I have a bus stop outside my building. When I press the button, it fetches the real time data showing when the next buses are due. The info updates once a minute for 5 minutes, then goes back into sleep mode. The reason I don't show the data all the time is that the API can only be called a limited number of times every month.

Step 1 - Prettify the button

The arcade button I bought looks nice, but I felt it would look even nicer if it had a LED light inside. But since a LED would be hard to fit in there, I decided to go with a LED sequin instead. I usually use these for wearables, but the sequin is very easy to work with; one end connects to voltage and the other to ground. So just start with soldering two wires onto the sequin. Make sure you use different colors on the wiring so you later know which is plus and minus.


To test the wiring, just connect your Feather to a computer using a micro USB cable and hold the ends of the sequin wires to the pins for 3V(+) and GND(-). The sequin should light up.

Use a small screwdriver to pry open the button by pressing the clips on both sides. Glue the LED sequin to the inside of the actuator so it will shine through the white plastic. Carefully put the button together again, pulling the wires out through the side slits without damaging the solder joints or wires. Test the sequin again using the Feather. A lovely shiny button! Who could possibly resist pressing it?

Step 2 - Solder pin headers into the Feather pads

In all Arduino and Raspberry Pi projects, one thing to remember is to always test the components before soldering. The easiest way to do that is by using a breadboard. If the pins are just pads, like on the Feather, I usually solder pin headers into them so I can plug everything into a breadboard and try out connections and code.

The Feather either comes with pre-soldered headers, or with a set of headers that you can solder yourself. There's no need to solder all of the pins. The ones used for this project are 3V, GND, GPIO2, GPIO4 and GPIO5. When you solder the headers, plug the long end of the pins in the header strip into the breadboard, place the Feather over the pins and solder the short end of the pin that's poking up through the pad. Now you can connect jumper wires and test out your connections to other components.

Step 3 - Test the Feather

To use the Feather Huzzah, we need to install the ESP8266 Board Package in the Arduino IDE. Under Preferences >> Additional Boards Manager Urls, add the url Next, use the Boards manager to install the ESP8266 package.

Restart the IDE and you should now be able to select the board Adafruit HUZZAH ESP2866 in the Boards manager.

Select the correct USB serial port under Ports and connect the Feather using a micro USB cable. Open a new sketch and insert the following code:
  void setup() {
    pinMode(0, OUTPUT);

  void loop() {
    digitalWrite(0, HIGH);
    digitalWrite(0, LOW);
The sketch will blink the built in red LED on GPIO0 every 500 ms. Save the sketch and press Upload to upload it to your Feather. If you have trouble connecting to the Feather it can be due to a faulty USB cable, it has to be able to transfer data, or issues with discovering the correct serial port. I have one USB cable that I know work well, and many that just won't connect my boards. If your LED blinks on your first attempt, congratulations! :)

Step 4 - Connect and test the button

To connect and try out the button, solder wires onto the gold plated connectors of the button. Use shrinking tube to cover the joints.

Peel and tin 5mm at the other end of the wires so you can push the wires into the breadboard. Connect one wire from the button to ground on the Feather and the other to GPIO2.

In the Arduino IDE, find the example Button under Examples >> 02.Digital. The example lights up a LED when a button is pressed. Most boards have a built in LED you can use. On the Feather, the built in red LED is on GPIO0. So change the sketch to use 0 for the LED pin, upload the sketch to the Feather and make sure your button works and the Feather can detect the state changes when you press the button.

Step 5 - Connect and test the display

The display I chose is an i2c OLED display with pre-soldered headers and 4 pins, very easy to work with. SPI displays are generally a bit faster but need more pins. Some microcontrollers are more suited for SPI, some displays need a bit of tampering to use i2c. But both work fine, it's just a matter of changing the wiring and number of pins.

Plug the display into the breadboard next to the Feather using the headers. Using male to male jumper wires, connect VCC to 3V, GND to GND, SCL to GPIO5 and SDA to GPIO4.

To communicate with the OLED display we need to install the library Adafruit SSD1306. Go to the Github repo and download a zip-file of the repo. Unpack it, rename it Adafruit_SSD1306 and place the folder in your Arduino/libraries/-folder. If this is the first library, you might have to create the folder libraries. Then do the same with the Adafruit GFX Library. This folder should be named Adafruit_GFX and placed in the same libraries-folder as SSD1306.

Restart the IDE and open File>>Examples. You should now have access to the Adafruit SSD1306-examples.

Pick the example corresponding to your display. In my case, the 128x64 i2c. Since my display does not have a RESET-connector, I change the pin for OLED_RESET to the default, which is -1. I also change the initiation of the display to the correct i2c-address, 0x3C. To find out the i2c-address, you can use the i2c-scanner from Arduino Playground.
  #define OLED_RESET -1
  display.begin(SSD1306_SWITCHCAPVCC, 0x3C);  
Now upload the sketch to your Feather. Hopefully you have a working connection between the two components, and a working display.

Step 6 - The code

Now when all things are working and connecting to each other, it's time to try it out with the actual code. My example can be found at In order to get that exact code to work, you need to register with to get an API-key, and add your wifi SSID and password. You also need to add the Arduino Json-library to Arduino IDE. But I'm sure the buses at my stop are really irrelevant to you, so do whatever you want here. There are lots of fun API's to play around with. :)

I chose to do the JSON-parsing on my Feather. In retrospect, I should have built a Node API on a Raspberry Pi that called the external API and fetched the nicely parsed data from there instead.

Whatever you choose to do, make sure your application works as expected before you start to solder and encase the components.

Step 7 - Putting it all together

Think carefully before you start to put all the components together. It's a good idea to solder one component at the time and check after every step that it still works as expected. Nothing worse than soldering everything at the same time and then discover it's not working and be completely lost as to where it's gone wrong. Trust me, I've been there...

Since the button snaps into a hole from the top down, it needs to be mounted before the wires are attached to the Feather. I used a simple small cardboard with a top lid and mounted the button first. Then I soldered the button wires to GND and GPIO2, and the LED sequin wires to GND and 3V. Button done, yay!

I almost always keep the headers when I'm soldering components together, since I think it's easier to get right than soldering wires directly into the pads. I solder the wires onto the pins and then use shrinking tube to cover both joints and pins. Heating shrinking tube with a hair dryer works perfectly!

For the display, solder VCC to 3V, GND to GND, SCL to GPIO5 and SDA to GPIO4. As you notice, GND and 3V on the Feather are connected to multiple components. You might want to twin those wires together and tin them into one before soldering them onto the Feather pin.

That's basically it! Mount your info station on the wall where you need access to your quick info and enjoy the seconds you save by not having to get exactly the same information on your phone. :)