Kata Practice

One of my contributions to the 97 Things Every Programmer Should Know is all about deliberate practice. Pretty much the only form of software practice I've ever seen are the various Katas developers sometimes work on in coding dojos. The Bowling Game Kata for example. However, while Katas are definitely a form of practice the ones I've seen people perform have not been very deliberate; I never get the sense much deliberation is going on.

Quoting Peter Norvig again:

The key [to developing expertise] is deliberative practice: not just doing it again and again but challenging yourself with a task that is just beyond your current ability, trying it, analyzing your performance while and after doing it, and correcting any mistakes.

I'm not convinced that the Katas I've seen developers participate in have been beyond their current abilities. I get the strong feeling the participants are there mostly to have fun. Be that as it may I'm absolutely certain that I've never seen any evidence of conscious analyzing of performance during the kata, and certainly no repetition of whole kata again. I mention this because I think these coding exercises have been mislabeled. I think they are much closer to being Randori than Kata.

Wikipedia says Randori is "a term used in Japanese martial arts to describe free-style practice or sparring, sometimes with multiple attackers". That's what I see in coding dojos.

In contrast Wikipedia says that Kata is "a Japanese word describing detailed pre-arranged choreographed patterns of movements practiced either solo or in pairs". That certainly matches my experience of performing Karate Kata - of repeating the exact same Kata over and over again - of moving slowly and, excuse me if I'm labouring the point, deliberately. You might argue that in the Bowling Game Kata the choice of Kata is pre-arranged. That's true but it's not the point. That's focusing on the static rather than the dynamic. The point of a Kata is its pre-arranged movements.

I think if I saw a true Kata syle practice I'd recognise it because of...

  • its short duration
  • a restriction on freedom of movement
  • a marked slowing down of normal development speed
  • a definite period assigned to reflection afterwards
  • a cycle of repeating the exact same Kata again and again

For example a true Kata style practice might be only 10 minutes long, take place in a environment/ide that refused to give you edit rights to the code files until you'd written a failing test, that delayed the results of each run-the-tests event for 10 seconds or so. I'm planning to incorporate some of these ideas in the next run of the Average Time To Green Game.