March 10, 2010

Pair Programming Stinks

What smells in your environment and what you can do about it.

Someone on your team has a keen sense of smell. Let’s call him Martin. Martin is annoyed by the smell of popcorn, can't stand scented deodorant and loathes air fresheners. Febreeze is sheer torture. He buys unscented laundry detergent. Only certain dryer sheets will do. Perfume gives him a headache. Baby powder makes his eyes itch, as does some hand soap. He is allergic to newsprint. Wintergreen to him is air pollution. Juicy Fruit and smelly feet make him nauseous. He can’t concentrate in the presence of these distractions.

Someone on your team smells. Let’s call him Andy, or maybe we’ll call her Andi. It’s his shoes. It’s her perfume. A little cologne. He smokes. She smells like the coffee shop she stopped by before work. His jacket smells like the bar he went to for lunch or the curry they have at home. The poor girl has halitosis and periodontal disease. Andy will wear the same shirt a few times between washings. Andy’s got gas.

Of course he can't smell this. He is used to it by now. He has, after all, been living with the smell for twenty years. It started gradually, innocently enough. It stnunk up on him. No one has ever told her to lay off the perfume. No one has told him about his smell. If he is aware, he doesn’t know how to fix it.

Few people have all of Andi’s smells or Martin’s sensitivity, but their conditions do exist in many forms and to varying degrees. It likely affects someone on your team. In a pair programming environment, these things hinder effectiveness. This isn’t just an unfortunate personal problem for Andy or Martin. It's part of your team; it’s now your problem. We who are leaders must address this issue. The benefits of pair programming are worth the effort.

Here are some tips you can share with your whole team:

  • Many smells are caused by genuine medical conditions that require a doctor’s or dentist’s attention. Make an appointment.


  • Use and share breath mints, but this should not be the 1st and only thing done for your breath. Sugarless gum can be effective since it stimulates saliva production more so than mints, and saliva combats bad breath. But remember that not everyone likes wintergreen and Juicy Fruit. Stick with cinnamon and mint.
  • Chewing on a sprig of mint works as does a simple drop of lemon juice.
  • Drink more water.
  • Don’t be embarrassed to brush your teeth at work. Be a trend setter. Also brush your tongue.
  • Flossing every day is mandatory for those on a pair programming team. Brushing your teeth is important, but the smell is coming from the rotting gunk that only floss will remove.
  • Many companies provide a mouth wash dispenser in the restrooms. If yours doesn’t, you could ask them to or provide your own. However, the ADA says that most mouth washes do not have a lasting effect and recommends the other solutions as more effective.


  • Wear different shoes, ones that breathe better. Try shoes that you can slip off for a few minutes every hour to air out before the smell starts. But consider this carefully because removing your shoes could make matters worse.
  • Air out your shoes over a vent each night -- be creative. Rotate your shoes. Don't wear any one pair of shoes more than twice per week.
  • Change your socks during the day. Take a fresh pair with you each day or leave a few fresh pairs at work. But don’t leave the used ones lying around.
  • Buy new socks. Try wool socks. Throw away the nylon socks. Try a thicker pair of socks. Start wearing socks if you normally don't.
  • Stop wearing socks if you normally do. That is, try flip flops or sandals to avoid the whole sock/shoe airing out problem.
  • Use an odor absorbing insole.
  • Wash your feet with antibacterial soap every morning. Completely dry your feet after showering, particularly between your toes. Use a hair dryer. This has the added benefit of preventing athlete’s foot.
  • Use foot powder on your feet. Use foot powder in your shoes. For those who have never used it, it might not have occurred to you that you can sprinkle some powder in your shoe, shake it around, put your toes in the shoe, sprinkle powder on your toes, put your foot in the shoe, and wiggle it around before putting on your socks. That really gets a good coating on everything. But note that this could backfire. You could end up smelling too much like foot powder. You want just enough to tackle one odor without introducing another. Try different brands. The sprays weren’t effective for me.


  • Wear deodorant, but preferably unscented.
  • Wear a clean t-shirt under your golf shirt every day. Under ideal conditions you may be able to wear a pair of pants a couple times between washings, but make sure you keep count.
  • Gas. Yeah. I’m just going to refer you to the National Institutes of Health.

Before you dismiss this as stuff everyone already knows, remember that we programmers are a peculiar lot. I’m not so proud to think that I don’t need to be reminded of these things.


Set a good example. Let it be known that you are trying to turn over a new leaf. Get it out in the open.

Decide whether you can address this collectively. If there are many scent wearing individuals, consider an email to the organization asking everyone to refrain from wearing cologne and scented hand lotion. “Please keep smells as neutral as possible to help those with allergies.” It would help to switch to hypoallergenic hand soap in the wash room at the same time.

Otherwise, confront the issue with Andi one-on-one. Be direct and speak in a kind and helpful way. Most people are glad to know. The conversation may be uncomfortable for both of you, but just as he will thank you for pointing out food stuck in his teeth or something stuck to her dress, he will eventually appreciate your sincere desire to help.

Of course, the repugnance might not be a person at all, but an old chair or the carpet. I’ve seen a small leak in the restroom impact the offices on the other side of the wall. I’ve seen messy eaters leave spilt food on the carpet. Get down on your knees and smell. Wait until everyone is out of the office if you must; get someone from facilities to do it if you can. But if you are a leader in the organization, the environment is your responsibility.


Someone on your team has a keen sense of smell. Someone on your team smells. If you aren't the first person, think about it. You may be the second.