Tools, Skills and Excuses

If Lewis wasn't such an outstanding Java lecturer, I'd want to hire him as a handyman. He enjoys DIY tasks, and does them with the same precision as he does everything else. (If you've attended one of his courses, you'll know what I mean. I draw a vague shape on the whiteboard and ask my class to pretend it's a square. Lewis draws a square.)

Apart from his natural enthusiasm for making things work, Lewis has two other qualities that make him an amazing handyman. The first is his attention to detail — because yes, the devil IS in the details. The second is his experience with his tools.

Now I am also a stickler for detail, but my handy(wo)man skills are woeful. And part of that is because I so seldom use a hammer or a screwdriver or a drill. So when I do, the holes I drill are skew and I hit my fingers with the hammer.

There is an important lesson in this.

The Lesson

You will do a better job if you can use your tools better.

We know that's true. It doesn't matter what the job is. Until someone shines the spotlight on our use of our tools, and then we have plenty of excuses.

Let me prove it.

How much time do you spend typing on the keyboard? Do you write code, write specifications, write reports, capture data? (Not to mention the never-ending emails.) For most of us, the computer - and therefore the keyboard - is our most-used tool. If you are a developer, it is more than just a tool - it is the raison d'etre of your job.

And yet, despite the amount of time you spend using the keyboard, can you actually touch type?

I can touch type fast and accurately. And I promise it has made my work faster, easier and more accurate. I can focus on what I am writing and thinking, and not on the effort of finding the right keys. But I have the peculiar advantage of having attended a high school where all Standard 7 students had to attend typing classes. I don't know why, but I have been grateful for that unplanned foresight for many years.

You can learn to touch type using an online typing tutor. Spend 15-30 minutes a day diligently, and you'll be touch typing in about 2 weeks. Keep at it, and your speed and accuracy will soon double. That's not really a huge commitment of time. So why haven't you learned?

The Excuse

I know what your excuse is, because I've used it myself. We all use it. Time.

For years, Renier advised me to learn Vim. For those not in the know, Vim is the ultimate text editor. (It is included as VI on most Unix, Linux and OSX systems.) But learning Vim is not a quick transition. So I always had an excuse. And my excuse was always that I didn't have the time. I wanted to do something right now, and I didn't have time to struggle doing it in Vim.

Eventually, I took the time to learn Vim. Less than half an hour a day. And I forced myself to use it as my only text editor. And now? Now I can't live without it. I use it for everything. I will even type long emails in it first and then just copy and paste into my email program. I have barely scratched the surface of what Vim can do, but it has already increased my productivity.

The Second Lesson

And that's the second lesson. Sometimes we have to suck up our excuses, and just do it. Because that's the key to improving productivity: commitment to learning the right skills.

And, by the way, that second lesson applies to attending courses. Sometimes you just have to commit the time. Five days sounds like a lot of time, but think of all the time you've already wasted looking for answers on Stack Overflow and trying to make them work.

2 thoughts on “Tools, Skills and Excuses”

  1. Ludwig Willner

    So true especially about the typing. When I did my first computer programming course in ’92 or ’93, we did not do any practical programming. We did all theory in the morning session up to lunch and after lunch we spent the time learning to type. The goal was that after two weeks we had to be able to type close to 40 words per minute. The reasoning was exactly what you said, to work faster and more efficiently. Not a day goes by now that I am thankfull learning that.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I really wish university and college courses would require typing skills. I’ve watched people hunt-and-peck on course, and it dismays me. It’s like trying to get from point A to point B pushing the car instead of driving it!

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