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.


  1. Andy - I love this! I honestly had a different reaction at the title prior to reading the article. This is golden information for all pair teams to share.


  2. Great post on a delicate matter. Had what at first appeared to be s similar situation and learned an important lesson from it: discretion.

    During one of those overly long drawn-out meetings that had eight of us in a relatively small conference room, I noticed an unpleasant odor from one of my team. Thinking that the guy just needed some coaching on personal hygiene, I called a break. During the break I pulled the guy aside and diplomatically mentioned what I was detecting. He blanched, immediately started apologizing, and was genuinely thankful for my having brought it to his attention.

    Turns out he has Chrohn's disease, had recently had a Proctocolectomy, and as a result had to wear an external bag to eliminate waste. He was embarrassed that he'd failed to notice what everyone else in the room had been unable to miss and was diligent from that point forward to be more attentive to hygiene, especially if he knew he might be in an extended meeting situation.

    I'd known the guy for months and had no idea. It was certainly an education for me; I'd never even heard of Chrohn's disease before that day. I also realized upon reflection that had I not been discreet the matter could have gone down a whole other way: into HR and a mess of trouble. I still know the guy and he's one of the best developers I've had the pleasure to work with.

    So I guess my point is this: be compassionate and and sensitive to the needs of all parties. Deal honestly and respectfully with what may turn out to be a medical condition that the person just needs help adjusting to.

  3. Thanks for sharing, CuriousAgilist. Kudos for handling that delicate situation well.

  4. Face facts: We are gas producers. To many stick in the muds! Live & enjoy. Be loud be proud!

  5. Some things you can fairly easily add to your diet to reduce gas:

    red wine
    brandy in warm water
    ginger root in warm water
    Squeeze half of a fresh lemon into a glass of room-temperature water a half-hour before meals.
    spices: turmeric, peppermint, ginger, sage, coriander, chamomile, rosemary, basil, cloves, cardamom, dill
    vitamin C: oranges, Red, yellow and orange peppers, tomatoes, kiwi, papaya and mango.

    Alpha-galactosidase (Bean-o), an over-the-counter digestive aid, contains the sugar-digesting enzyme that the body lacks to digest the sugar in beans and many vegetables. Beano has no effect on gas caused by lactose or fiber.

    Try antacids.

    Try Lactase tablets or drops can help people with lactose intolerance digest milk and milk products to reduce gas. Lactase tablets are taken just before eating foods that contain lactose.

  6. There are many healthy foods that cause gas. I'm not going to propose cutting any of those out. But here are some things that many people could cut without cutting nutrition. I'm no authority, but I've tried to collect these from reputable sources:

    Milk and dairy products
    Colas and fruit drinks sweetened with fructose
    Starchy foods like potatoes and pasta
    fruit drinks (ex apple juice)
    dark beer
    Foods sweetened with artificial sweeteners, such as soda, gum, and hard candy

    Also note that Simethicone (Gas-X, Mylanta Gas) does not eliminate the gas itself. Just the side effects.