Report - The Kata in the Hat


On the 2nd of March 2011 Emmanuel Gaillot and Jonathan Perret performed their session 'The Kata in the Hat'. The meeting was hosted by Xebia at their Hilversum office. After a nice dinner of Scalopine, Lasagne and Frutti di Mare, and some rearranging of the furnutire, the 35-odd audience members gathered around Emmanual and Jonathan.

Emmanuel and Jonathan regularly present at agile conferences and helped to create the Coding Dojo in Paris, the first of it's kind. They are still regulars in these weekly gatherings, reports of these meetings are on their wiki (in French mostly).

A code kata was first thought of by Dave Thomas, one of the Pragmatic Programmers, who developed a series of exercises to be used as katas.  In short, a kata is an exercise where you can practice and play with code without risking any serious consequences. There are no deadlines, no people bugging you with feature requirements or wishes, no pressure or worries about maintainability.

After performing numerous katas Emmanual and Jonathan decided to try and stretch this idea further and see what would happen if they did get disturbed by all kinds of arbitrairy rules. The idea of The Kata in the Hat is that they start coding to create a game of some sort, and use rules given to them by the audience. The audience writes down rules on pieces of papers and these all go in the hat. Every five minutes one of these rules is plucked out of the hat and programming continues, but now adhering to the new rule whilst also still applying previously drawn rules.

Some of the rules drawn on this evening were about restrictions in naming ('use hungarian notation' , 'only use the letters pjs for variable names'), which brought a few groans from the audience. Another fun rule was to write all functions backwards, starting with the last line and working your way up. Here's where their years of XP programming came shining through: the simplest thing that could work would be to write all code in one line! When asked to use only capitals they started using Paris in their naming. The most impressive burst of code must have been their implementation of the bubblesort algorithm, written backwards, all within 5 minutes.

On the session description Emmanuel and Jonathan expressed their intent as follows:

The big idea we want to get across is that programming can be beautiful, and that through creativity and beauty and poetry programmers have much more power than they think.

I think that on that basis we can agree the evening was a resounding succes. It was an artful, funny and creative performance from these dedicated programmers.On a previous edition they managed to make 1+1=3 true in two different languages, which goes to show that in software you can pretty much achieve anything if you put your mind to it.

In the end there was time for some questions, where Emmanuel and Jonathan shared some of their experiences in setting up the Coding Dojo in Paris. They explained how they got the idea 6 or 7 years ago to create a space for programmers to practice their coding skills without having to worry about messing up production code or approaching deadlines. It's like Fight Club: if you come, you have to code. Emmanuel explained how participants have to bare themselves (we suspect he meant this figuratively, but with these French guys who knows), and how in the process it can be a tremendously powerfull learning experience.

One of the comments in feedback for a previous run of this session on XPDays Benelux 2010 summed this session up pretty nicely: "This session is to programming what "waiting for godot" is for the theatre, funny and magic'.

Magic it was, funny, inspiring and thought provoking. If you've missed it: there is another chance to go and see it on the Mini XP Days 2011 on April 1st in Mechelen, Belgium. Highly recommended!

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